Think of anything you have done in the previous hour. Whether that was working, online shopping, feeding your pets, making dinner, or even reading this blog post. Although these things seem pretty simple, it requires a set of complex cognitive processes known as “executive function.”
The brain’s executive function is necessary to plan, organize, evaluate, and perform certain tasks, such as reading, working, making decisions, and much more. These behaviors are essential to effectively carry out activities that will help us achieve our goals. Today we will analyze the executive function and how it affects our daily lives.
Table of Contents
- Types of Executive Function
- Where in the Brain Does the Executive Function Occur?
- The Importance of the Executive Function
- Different models of Executive functioning
- How does this part of the brain develop over someone’s life?
- Symptoms of an Executive Function Deficit
- Causes of executive function deficits
- Can an executive function deficit be diagnosed?
- How do I improve my executive function?
- Final Thoughts
Types of Executive Function
According to an article published by Harvard, executive functions are related to our focus, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Let’s analyze these.
It involves complex mental processes of detection and resolution of cognitive functions. In other words, we can maintain focus on the task we’re completing for an extended period of time.
This ability allows us to adapt to environmental circumstances. It is the ability to change and come up with new plans or workflows as needed.
Cognitive Inhibition/Inhibitory Control:
Our mind’s ability to tune out irrelevant stimuli to the task we’re performing. Cognitive inhibition can be either whole or in part, intentionally or otherwise. In today’s world, there are many distractions, so the ability to ignore these is important for executive function.
It’s the capacity for the temporary storage of information and its processing, where specific information is available during a particular period. This is also referred to as short-term memory.
Other examples of the executive function include planning, reasoning, decision-making, time estimation, and the ability to multitask.
Where in the Brain Does the Executive Function Occur?
Although it’s still being debated, scientists believe the brain’s executive function is located in the prefrontal regions of the brain. These findings are suggested by neuroimaging and lesion studies used to identify the functions associated with regions of the prefrontal cortex and associated areas.
However, other areas of the brain also play a significant role in executive function. For example, brain regions such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, involved in processing information, is associated with verbal ability and planning, memory, organizational skills, reasoning, problem-solving, and abstract thinking.
Another region that intervenes in executive function is the anterior cingulate, which plays a key role in emotional drives and experience integration, associated with cognitive functions like decision-making.
Lastly, the orbitofrontal cortex plays a role in controlling impulses and monitoring behavior.
Nonetheless, the prefrontal cortex is the most advanced part of the human brain, making up almost the entire front part of the organ. This region allows us to regulate emotional and habit circuits. For instance, if you’re mad and the immediate reaction is to yell and fight, the prefrontal cortex will find better responses, like remaining calm.
The Importance of the Executive Function
From decision making to task completion, executive function plays a key role. This function is in charge of our learning capacity, ability to focus and pay attention, short and long-term memory, behavior, self-discipline, risk-assessment, and logical and rational thinking.
All the abilities above are fundamental when performing any activity, from work to our social lives. Therefore, it is crucial to make sure that our executive function is on point, as it will allow us to unlock our full potential. A recent study published by Frontiers in Psychology has discovered that some affected people tend to make worse decisions, leading to disadvantageous outcomes affecting the quality of life.
Different models of Executive functioning
There are different opinions out there on how the executive function works within humans. These “models” describe how the executive function works in day-to-day life; they differ from one another slightly. The interesting thing is that they’re all inter combined, thus, affecting each other constantly. Let’s view the most common models we know of:
Meta Cognitive Models:
These models encompass cognitive functions, such as the ability to evaluate one’s own thinking. The term “meta” stands for “on top of” or “beyond,” so it describes a person’s ability to experiment with self-awareness and self-control while performing an activity.
Miller & Cohen’s Model:
This model argues that the control and direction of our thoughts become the primary focus within the prefrontal cortex and our executive function. For example, if you are watching your child play at the park and they are wearing a blue shirt, your focus and attention would be narrowed to that color. Therefore, when an individual must perform a task, the “selective visual attention” given to said task increases neuron responsiveness to the blue color, so it guides our behavior.
This relates to self-regulatory capacities, such as self-discipline and behavioral inhibition. This model encompasses four behaviors, such as working memory, which allows individuals to base their behavior upon experience and entertain multiple bits of information at once. The last three factors are managing emotions, internal dialogue, and finally, problem-solving. Going through this four-step process and regulating the behavioral response is a skill that requires the combination of several high-level executive functions.
Other models address examples of how the executive function works, such as the Top-Down Inhibitory Control, Lezak’s Conceptual Model, Problem-Solving Model, and others.
How does this part of the brain develop over someone’s life?
Nothing in this life is ever constant, and cognitive function is no exception. The literature indicates four periods of maturity in life with intense peaks of executive function activation: childhood, preadolescence, adolescence, and adulthood. Let’s analyze them, as per Harvard’s recently published literature.
Childhood (0 – 8 Years):
From the age of 0 – 4, the development of the executive function is less intense due to the lower degree of activation of the associative areas of the brain. At this age, the ability to suppress dominant responses emerges. In other words, babies learn to control automatic behaviors to carry out planned actions in motor behaviors. And, although at four years of age, babies cannot yet inhibit all their responses, they can self-regulate some of their actions.
At 5 years of age, children’s regulatory function of language begins to develop further, and between ages 6 to 8, the most significant development of executive function occurs. Kids start to take control over their orality at this stage and influence their behavior to set goals and anticipate events. This cognitive capacity is linked to the regulatory function of language, planning, organization skills, and strategic and reasoning abilities.
Preadolescence (8 – 14 Years):
During this period, the inhibitory control performance on automated responses reaches its maximum potential. Later, between 12 and 14, executive functions such as cognitive flexibility, problem solving, and working memory continue to develop. And although this allows them to assess the consequences of their decisions, they still struggle anticipating the consequences, often making risky decisions.
Adolescence (15 – 18 Years):
Planning functions, problem solving, and self-regulation are consolidated. At this stage, people have achieved greater self-control, and teens can evaluate the outcomes of their decisions—likewise, autonomy and self-regulation rise. Still, during this stage, there’s a high prevalence of risky actions due to executive functions’ incomplete development, especially emotional control, moral behavior, and judgment.
Adulthood (18+ Years):
At this stage, we begin to develop our executive functions fully, and in our mid-twenties, we reach our full potential. All of the existing executive functions previously seen in this article mature and thrive into adulthood.
Symptoms of an Executive Function Deficit
Numerous issues may impair our executive functions. Executive dysfunction is a set of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional challenges due to various things. People with executive dysfunction have planning issues, poor organizational skills, lack problem-solving abilities, and struggle with time management.
Executive dysfunction can happen at any age due to a wide range of health problems. Let’s see why people may struggle with executive function.
According to Rebecca L. Marshall, Ph.D. It is no news that anxiety can affect our focus, thus impeding the performance of activities involved with cognition. Stress and anxiety can also cloud judgment, impacting our quality of life.
There are various reasons why people might be forgetful. As a result, a poor executive function results in difficulty remembering both short-term and long-term memories.
Poor time management:
As with any other executive function, time management involves coordinating responses, scheduling, and prioritizing. An executive function deficit inevitably leads to poor time management.
Issues with multitasking:
Performing multiple tasks at once becomes almost impossible if you have an executive function disorder.
Problems completing tasks:
Dopamine plays an indispensable role in reward, memory, attention, and mood, all of which control our executive function. If there are deficiencies in this reward chemical, it will affect our memory and concentration, and completing tasks becomes very difficult.
Executive functions include controlling impulses. If a person struggles with executive function, it is common for them to make rash decisions without thinking of the repercussions.
Causes of executive function deficits
These can either be genetic or due to a specific situation that did not allow the brain to fully develop.
Genes play a significant role in our predisposition to certain conditions, including those affecting our brains or psyche.
There are times when bringing a doctor into the conversation makes the most sense due to your specific situation.
Can an executive function deficit be diagnosed?
There’s no diagnosis for executive function disorder. However, if you suspect you may have it, we recommend you consult a physician, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or a neurologist. Any of those specialists can help you diagnose the root cause that may be causing you to struggle with your executive functions.
How do I improve my executive function?
Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, anyone can improve their executive functions. Like anything else related to health, our diet and habits, such as sleep and exercise, play a significant role in our executive functions. Likewise, there are several practices and activities that you can perform to strengthen specific neural networks involved in each function, like reading, exercising, and learning something entirely new.
Whether you suspect you may be struggling with your executive function or you want to improve a specific aspect of your life, such as improving cognition, focus, or discipline, there are steps you can take to better your situation. Reading articles like this and learning how your brain works is the first step towards better brain function and, ultimately, a better life.