The Executive in our brain

Executive Functions are a very important concept in theoretical psychology that can help us understand our common behaviour and some challenges we encounter in everyday life, especially when it comes to attention and planning.

Research psychology thinks that like in the corporate world, our brain contains an executive control system (or systems) in charge of complex operations, such as solving problems, creating new plans and strategies, and modifying responses in light of new information.

In brief, this system acts whenever automatic psychological processes and a learned set of behaviours are not enough to achieve specific goals. This happens all the time when we need to try to concentrate and pay attention.

Scholars agree that there are 3 main classes of executive functions:

  • Inhibition
  • Working Memory
  • Cognitive Flexibility

Inhibition helps us focus our attention on a specific target, excluding interference from distractors, both external (like background noises when we want to read an email ) and internal (thinking of yesterday’s dinner when listening to a speech).

This also includes self-control: avoid acting impulsively and resisting temptation (blurting out the first thing we have in mind or grabbing the first snack we see on the shelf)

Working memory is the ability to hold in mind relevant information and do mental work on it (not so different conceptually from a computer working memory). It is thanks to our working memory that we can make sense of what somebody is telling us: by putting together the first sentences with the next one we get the full meaning of what we are being told. The same applies to a written page. 

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to change perspective and see things from above instead of in front or even from another person’s point of view. When we think ‘out of the box’ we use our flexibility and sometimes problems may then appear as opportunities instead of obstacles.

Many factors can impair our executive functions, the most known is ADHD, a condition when executive functions are compromised at some level. Some physical conditions also affect executive functions. However, it is important to acknowledge that common life factors like stress, prolonged sadness, and anxiety also have an impact. Forgetfulness, lack of focus, distractibility, and impulsiveness are common situations we experience when under stress or overwhelmed by unpleasant feelings.

Executive Functions develop at different paces during growth and their development and strengthening continue till young adulthood.

Trained professionals can assess the strengths and weaknesses of our executive functions. Like other skills, most executive functions can be enhanced through training and therapy. CBT is very effective in this sense and many therapists and school specialists offer executive function interventions.

References

Ferguson, H.J., Brunsdon, V.E.A. and Bradford, E.E.F. (2021). The developmental trajectories of executive function from adolescence to old age. Scientific Reports, [online] 11(1), p.1382. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-80866-1.

Elliott, R. (2003). Executive functions and their disorders: Imaging in clinical neuroscience. British Medical Bulletin, [online] 65(1), pp.49–59. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/65.1.49.

Diamond A. Executive Functions. Annu Rev Psychol. 2013; 64: 135–168. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750.

De Assis Faria, C., Alves, H. and Charchat‐Fichman, H. (2015) ‘The most frequently used tests for assessing executive functions in aging,’ Dementia & Neuropsychologia, 9(2), pp. 149–155. https://doi.org/10.1590/1980-57642015dn92000009.

Written By:
Claudio Moroni
Psychologist
SACAC Counselling