Brain Improvement Programme: Cognitive Control

What is cognitive control?

A simple definition: “Selectively processing information from the environment and using the information to do all kinds of problem solving.”  I think this definition undervalues how important cognitive control is to brain function.  Professor John Jonides of psychology and neuroscience at University of Michigan summarised that ‘cognitive control’ underlies all mental ability that includes intelligence (emotional and intellectual), many behaviours and emotions.  Therefore, if you have little cognitive control you are prone to developing mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, because you let your thoughts control your emotions & behaviours, believing them as your identity. This is the basis of the recent explosion in the ‘Happiness Effect’ where learning to control your thoughts as positive leads to feeling happier. Therefore, learning cognitive control can help you on all levels of functionality.


How it works:

Using depression as an example in this blog, depression is when someone is consumed with negative thoughts.  The person does not have cognitive control over these negative thoughts. It is learning how to control the negative thoughts, and the first step is identifying them as: (a) a thought, and (b) that the thought is negative, (c) then turn the negative thought into a positive thought, and (d) accept that negative thoughts are human nature but are not the person’s identity so that you can let go of the negative thought without berating yourself that you had a negative thought. Retraining the brain out of depression takes time and the discipline of cognitive control.


Cognitive control can also be recognising a time limit to think and/or feel something before you accept, let go and move on from thinking about it.  They say that a thought if dwelled on for long enough becomes a belief and if a belief is dwelled on for long enough becomes emotion and engrained; you let that thought to become a part of who you are – so be careful what you think! The first step for cognitive control is learning how to focus attention and avoiding distractions.  Mindfulness exercises train the brain to focus attention and step back from thoughts, to just see them as what they are – thoughts!



  1. Think of one thing that happened in your day (big or small) that you immediately responded to naturally in a negative way.
  2. What thought came into your head when you reacted?
  3. Do you believe that thought as true and/or fact?
  4. How did that thought make you feel?
  5. What other thought could you have had to that event? Hint – make it neutral or positive!
  6. Next time something like today happens, stop & acknowledge your thought then remind yourself of the neutral or positive thought. Allow that neutral or positive thought as much time as the negative thought before you move on.

A helpful article about challenging negative thoughts can be found on Greatest