Psychological Research PRPF

, Volume 73, Issue 4, pp 559–577 | Cite as

Thinking as the control of imagination: a conceptual framework for goal-directed systems

Original Article


This paper offers a conceptual framework which (re)integrates goal-directed control, motivational processes, and executive functions, and suggests a developmental pathway from situated action to higher level cognition. We first illustrate a basic computational (control-theoretic) model of goal-directed action that makes use of internal modeling. We then show that by adding the problem of selection among multiple action alternatives motivation enters the scene, and that the basic mechanisms of executive functions such as inhibition, the monitoring of progresses, and working memory, are required for this system to work. Further, we elaborate on the idea that the off-line re-enactment of anticipatory mechanisms used for action control gives rise to (embodied) mental simulations, and propose that thinking consists essentially in controlling mental simulations rather than directly controlling behavior and perceptions. We conclude by sketching an evolutionary perspective of this process, proposing that anticipation leveraged cognition, and by highlighting specific predictions of our model.


Anticipation Control theory Goal Intention Internal modeling Simulation 



This work was supported by the European Community, project HUMANOBS: Humanoids That Learn Socio-Communicative Skills Through Observation (FP7-231453). The authors would like to thank Michael Arbib, Anna Borghi, and Elisabeth Pacherie for useful comments and criticisms.


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© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Istituto di Linguistica Computazionale “Antonio Zampolli”, CNRPisaItaly
  2. 2.Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione, CNRRomeItaly

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