Review and Summary: On Task

On Task Book Cover

Making a cup of coffee might seem like a simple thing to do, but in reality, it’s a much more complex task. Our incredible brain comes to the rescue, helping us figure out the most efficient way to make coffee and save time in the morning. David Badre, a professor of cognitive and psychological science, goes into this fascinating topic in his book, On Task, explaining how our brain carries out actions. As you flip through the pages, you’ll find yourself immersed in the world of cognitive control, how our brain guides our duties, and why it sometimes falters. Badre doesn’t shy away from the intricacies, even exploring the evolution of cognition and the origins of cognitive control. The language might be technical and overwhelming at times, but it’s a perfect read for those with a deep understanding of the subject.


What lies in the gap between knowledge and action?

There is a significant gap between knowledge and action the brain must bridge to achieve our goals. Cognitive control processes are required to put it all together—to plan, select, sequence, and monitor actions with knowledge in mind. Furthermore, cognitive control is its own class of mental function, distinct from knowledge and action that is required to bridge this gap.

Basic ingredients oh human cognitive control system:

  1. We are capable of conceiving of future situations and goals we have never experienced or considered before, within either our own lifetime of the lifetimes of our ancestors.
  2. Our control systems can plot out the complex actions necessary to achieve that future.

Other species for the most part have to discover an action through trial and error or wait on evolution to give them the solution.

Why aren’t human devastated by these changes (re: simple changes in experiment), as the AI is?

  • Our ability to think about tasks in terms of their constituent parts, like the different branches in the task hierarchies. We think, plan, and reason about tasks compositionally → we are able to modify parts of tasks in response to changes without affecting what we know about the rest of the task. We can adjust to a new paddle position without losing what we know a bout ball physics or the objective of the game.
  • Compositionally also lets us take useful subparts of old tasks with us to new tasks as the need arises without having to relearn the whole task → called transfer.


  • the real one bears little resemblance to the amnesia familiar from such blockbuster movies.
  • The real amnesics lose memories of the past, specifically the recent memories that are vulnerable to loss, not their old ones. It is unable to form new episodic memory. As soon as a memory is no longer held in the immediacy of consciousness, it may be loss entirely.

Why would we evolve to have a memory system so vulnerable to distortion?

Our memory system do not evolve to accurately reconstruct the past. Rather, the hippocampus, VMPFC, and other components of the memory system in the brain evolved for schema building. Schemas are useful not just for reconstructing likely past; they are also crucial for forming ideas about possible futures. Our explicit memories are there to inform our futures, to draw on events of the past to model a plausible futures, to draw on events of the past to model a plausible future. This ability to model the future is the adaptive feature that drive the evolution of our memory systems, rather than the ability to accurately recall our personal pasts. False memories are the price we pay for having a generative memory system.

Author: David Badre

Publication date: 10 November 2020

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Number of pages: 335 pages


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