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For many years in my lab, we have been studying attentional set, which can be described as attentional grouping based on a Gestalt principle of similarity. Animals first learn that certain features of multidimensional stimuli are relevant for finding reward and others are not. When they have to ‘shift attentional set’ to a previously irrelevant element, learning is less rapid.

The ability to shift attentional set has been called an ‘executive’ function and it is impaired in many psychiatric and neurological diseases, particularly those affecting the frontal lobes. Furthermore, treatments to improve executive deficits have remained elusive. This is why it is important to understand the nature of the impairments and their neural basis.

In this talk, I will present evidence, from rats and patients with schizophrenia, that supports the surprising conclusion that cognitive flexibility is not an executive function of the frontal lobes.