Executive Function Pt 1: What Is It?
As always, busy life and my own executive function issues prevent same-day article and video publication. First, watch the video. It comes complete with my standard fidgeting with my fingers and rambling as I wander off my outline and back on again. Let me know what you think in the comments here or on YouTube.
Executive Function: Definition and Explanation
Executive function has a lot of definitions. The best one I’ve found came from an article in Annual Review of Psychology written by Adele Diamond (click on the link to read the entire article in PDF form). It reads:
“Executive functions (EFs; also called executive control or cognitive control) refer to a
family of top-down mental processes needed when you have to concentrate and pay
attention, when going on automatic or relying on instinct or intuition would be ill-advised,
insufficient, or impossible (Burgess & Simons 2005, Espy 2004, Miller & Cohen 2001).”
Let me put that in plain English for you. Executive functions are a group of brain functions that:
- “oversee” your automatic brain functions
- help you pay attention and organize information
- need to be consciously “in control” of your brain to get something done that can’t be done “automatically”.
Categories of Executive Function:
Depending on the source, there are anywhere between six and a dozen categories of executive function. I identified eight that I think need to be identified separately to help people. You’ll probably notice that in the video the issue of executive function disorder comes before this. In writing, I decided it made more sense to put this first.
I translated much (but not all) of the article from the academic article by Diamond referenced above into plain English. Some of these are “primary” functions, and others are “secondary” functions that rely on the primary functions to work. Each deserves its own category when talking about how executive function issues affect lives.
Working memory is the executive function that allows you to hold information “in your head” long enough to work with it. This might be the steps in a task such as how to clean a kitchen It could also be being able to figure out where to find the items in your grocery list at your favorite store.
If something is in your working memory you need to be able to adjust it, change it, or otherwise manipulate it, not just remember it. So, remembering the items on your grocery list might be short-term memory, while being able to figure out where to find those items in an unfamiliar grocery store would be working memory.
Also called “cognitive flexibility”, flexible thinking has several sub-categories. These include:
- being able to see things from another point of view, both in the sense of imagining what a room looks like from a different angle, and from the sense of imagining how something looks like from another person’s perspective.
- figuring out different ways to solve problems when our first choice isn’t working well (or at all).
- adjusting to changes in routine or expectations (for instance, getting up earlier or later, getting a new boss who has new priorities, etc.)
- admitting to mistakes
- taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. For instance, realizing that the person you have a crush on just showed up at your favorite coffee house, and saying “hi”.
Impulse control is part of what Diamond calls “inhibitory control” along with emotional control (and some aspects of task initiation). At its simplest, it means wanting to do one thing, but putting it off or deciding not to do it in order to do something else that is more important in some sense. Someone who is on a diet and decides not to grab a bagel from the break room at work is showing impulse control.
Another part of impulse control is the ability to consciously reject things that aren’t important to what you’re trying to do. Some examples include background noise, unwanted memories and thoughts, and deciding not to be drawn into arguments that take time away from what you’re trying to do. I’m pretty bad at that last one, by the way.
When you self-monitor you notice things that let you know how you’re feeling and things that let you know how others are reacting to you. So, if you realize you’re being cranky because you’re stressed, that’s self-monitoring. It is also self-monitoring to be aware that people are reacting well, or badly, to something you just said or did.
Emotional control allows you to experience and recognize emotions while choosing to do the things you need to do. Someone who is anxious about learning something new but is able to put their anxiety “on hold” while they attend the class or read the article is showing emotional control.
Task Initiation and Self-Motivation
Task Initiation and self-motivation are two closely related executive functions. I chose to distinguish them from prioritization and planning but lump together here. Task initiation is a fancy term for “starting a task”. You may have a very important paper to write or phone call to make, and it may take significant effort to “get your brain in order” to start.
Related to this is self-motivation. This involves the concept of “intrinsic” rewards, which means rewards that come from things inside you, like enjoying finishing a job, or liking the feeling of doing something “good”. For instance, someone who makes their bed every morning because it makes them “feel good” is self-motivated.
By contrast, “extrinsic” rewards are rewards that come from outside yourself. A person who makes their bed because it makes someone who lives with them be nicer to them is not necessarily self-motivated, even if they are motivated.
“Organization”, as I mean it here, refers to maintaining the physical space you control in a way that you can find the things you need to find, keep them safe and well maintained, and in such a way that they make doing the things that are important to do easier for you. This can mean very different things for different people.
An artist’s studio is going to be organized in a very different way than a kitchen of someone who enjoys making dinners from scratch. That space, in turn, will be different from a space which is designed to be safe and enriching for children.
The keys are:
- can you find what you need?
- Are people and items both safe and not being damaged by conditions in the space and
- Does your work go the way you want it to?
Planning, Prioritization, and Task Management
These three closely allied ideas work together to make sure people use their time well. You use your executive function abilities to decide what you’re going to do, when, and which task comes before another. Using abilities such as inhibitory control, flexible thinking, and working memory, we choose one task to do first, and then another, and make changes as needed.
When working on a project with other people, it’s likely that your first step (priority) will be to meet with the group to get agreement on what the goal of the group project is and who will do what. Then you might plan out your piece of that project, meet with the group again to “check in”, and adjust what you’re doing to meet the needs of the group and the project.
(It occurs to me that I didn’t expand the eight concepts nearly enough in my videos, so I will probably revisit them later, perhaps one or two at a time)
Executive Function Disorder
Executive function disorder is a symptom, not a disease. If your executive functioning isn’t working properly, probably something is interfering with it. EF issues can affect one or all eight of the categories above, a little bit or a lot. They can be constant or every now and then. Here is a partial list of issues that can affect executive function and cause problems for you:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- autism spectrum disorder
- other learning disorders
- injury to the pre-frontal cortex
- some cancer treatments
- mood disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorders
- other anxiety disorders
- psychotic disorders
- chronic pain
- normal aging
- sleep deprivation
- physical illness/lack of physical fitness
As you can see, the ability to use executive functions is extremely fragile and can be affected by biological issues, psychological issues, and physical issues. In the next video/audio/article, I’ll go over ways to improve your executive function.
More on Executive Function
A quick introduction to the idea of executive function can be found in “Tackling the Thing”. You can find part two of this series, Executive Function: Hacks and Workarounds, by clicking the link. It will, in turn, lead you to the next in the series, Executive Function Pt. 3: Forming Habits. In addition, I began addressing excutive functioning and parenting in Executive Function, Parenting, and Your Kid’s Messy Room. To view all of the Executive Function videos as a playlist, go to Youtube (please like the videos, comment, and follow my channel to keep current). To listen to all of the Executive Function audio as a playlist, go to SoundCloud (again, please like the podcasts, comment, and follow my channel to keep current.
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