BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 11, 2020
The executive functions are higher-level cognitive functions that contribute to our responses to flows of information.
We act, bouncing between conflicting impulses, confusing experiences, and incomplete knowledge. Yet, we move forward, eventually arriving at our intended destinations. Cognitive and emotional processes appear chaotic but function quite well. I am fascinated by the ability to manage internal conflict, utilizing (higher) cognitive functions to engage, direct and coordinate (lower) cognitive processes. These executive functions shuffle through memories, retrieve appropriate knowledge, and motivate responses in service of goals. Emotions are not the golden guide to wellness, but neither is logical reasoning. We thrive, experiencing ultimate wellness when we effectively coordinate many internal processes to act and think in ways that will likely create wellness.
Some early theories suggest a homunculus like agent living inside our head, directing the multiple sources of information; a central controller, sitting in the corner executive office of our brain, making the decisions. René Descartes suggested this homunculus was the spirit directing action, theorizing the spirit interacted with the body possibly through the pineal gland. While a convenient explanation, and still widely supported by religious thought (at least the spirit part), the Cartesian theory only moves the homunculus to an untouchable world, beyond examination. Science may never solve the problem of consciousness and the function of willful intention, however, the topic excites my curiosity.
We thrive, experiencing ultimate wellness when we effectively coordinate many internal processes to act and think in ways that will likely create wellness.
We experience conflicting impulses. We all have them. We are inclined to act one way, but logically know we should do something different. We want to stay in bed but get up for that morning meeting. We want a piece of cake but refrain. These conflicts are common and examinable. However, organisms are complex. Biological impulses come from multitudinous and diverse sources, Impulses emerge from biological cravings, cultural norms, and personal experience. Only the most salient urgings break the surface of consciousness.
Most biological events occur beneath the surface, unseen processes integrate observations of external events with internal knowledge and beliefs, prioritizing competing reactions. Only a few events rise to sufficient significance to puncture consciousness, while most gently fade into nothingness.
Executive functions are higher-level cognitive skills that inhibit, control, and coordinate motivations, thoughts and behaviors.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains in his best selling book The Evolving Self that the mind “is an integrated system that includes, in the broadest possible terms, synaptic networks devoted to cognitive, emotional, and motivational functions” (2018, location 4835). Most organisms act instinctively but the human brain has become so complex with too much information from too many sources, each clamoring for attention. “Without a centralized director, the competing sensory inputs would jostle one another in a senseless chaos. But as soon as we begin to use this executive capability that has emerged in recent evolutionary history, it, too, becomes one of the items of information in consciousness” (Location 3900). The executive functions are organizing tools, part of a complex cognitive toolbox.
What are some of the Executive Functions?
Executive functions perform three primary processes:
On September 13, 1848, a freak accident occurred in Vermont. Psychology students rarely make it through their first year before reading the wondrous tragedy of Phineas Gage. While directing a blasting crew for the railroad, an explosion hurled a thirteen pound, three and half foot metal pole through the left side of Gage’s head, destroying a portion of his brain. Amazingly, Phineas Gage survived.
Within two months of the blasting accident, Phineas was pronounced cured. However, his doctor noticed severe personality changes. He was now “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity which was not previously his custom, manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned…. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man” (Damasio, 2005, Location 401). Later reports suggest that Gage significantly improved and was able to function productively before his death in 1860.
Gage’s damage was primarily to his left prefrontal cortex. Naturally, the significant behavioral changes in Gage led scientists to believe his lost functions were previously controlled by the missing portion of Gage’s brain. The deductive reasoning is partially correct but overlooked network style organization of human functioning. While neuroscientists can pin-point brain activity with modern technology, they acknowledge the role of vast networks, not identifiable cells dedicated to specific functions. The executive functions are performed by a network, traversing many regions in the brain and body.
Damasio proposed that, “the critical networks on which feelings rely include not only the traditionally acknowledged collection of brain structures known as the limbic system but also some of the brain’s prefrontal cortices, and, most importantly, the brain sectors that map and integrate signals from the body” (Location 247).
Joseph LeDoux explains that the “prefrontal cortex is a convergence zone” (2003, Location 3353). In the prefrontal cortices various specialized systems alert of environmental and internal changes, enabling an organism to integrate various information, and convert the information into purposeful action. The prefrontal cortex is significantly involved in performing executive functions.
“The executive brain surveys and reclassifies the environment and then reorients itself, by recalling appropriate contextual knowledge from long term memory” (Donald, 2001, p. 192). This process of “recalling appropriate contextual knowledge” brings the framework to the table of working memory to organize the abundance of information from external observations and internal body signals (emotions).
LeDoux says the working memory isn’t simply organized around the here and now. “It also depends on what we know and what kinds of experiences we’ve had in the past. In other words, it depends on long-term memory” (2003, location 3278). Once the information is retrieved, conscious attention can direct traffic.
This tidy explanation of cognitive processing becomes incredibly dirty in practice, subject to disorganizing intruders that muddy healthy responses—emotions can overwhelm, memories are biased, knowledge is misguided, and perception are distorted. To add to the contaminating components, executive functions exhaust body resources and become ineffective. Our mental capacity to consciously process is limited. LeDoux reminds that “the executive represents a powerful mental capacity but is not all-powerful” (Location 3315). When over-stressed, the executive functions fall apart. We say and do stupid things.
Past trauma impacts the weight of the emotion, bringing more significance to the emotional contributions. Diane Fosha wrote, “When the affect is not adaptive, the self is not in executive control; anxiety pervades. . . and the expression of the affect is not the result of desire for deep self-expression but rather the result of defenses overwhelmed...” (2000, location 2330). The diverse ways our mind dysfunctions is frightening.
The bottom line is we must stand guard, conserving limited resources, monitoring for malfunctions, and actively recovering from extended demands. We do this by planning ahead to limit cognitive loads. Lisa David advises that by limiting exposures to challenging environments, we “make life easier for the ‘executive brain’” (2016, location 1991). We must develop effective coping skills to limit emotional pressures. By soothing emotions before the commandeer intentions, we can prevent disaster mitigation later.
Daniel Siegel suggests intentional focusing of attention, comparing attention to a “flashlight.” He explains, “we can choose which part of our experience to illuminate and bring into cognizance” (2020, location 1149). Basically, we use the executive function of attention to protect continued access to executive functions without unnecessary depletion. Donald adds that “the ultimate triumph of consciousness is control of consciousness itself… harness the executive functions of the brain.” (2001, p. 315).
A primary path to reducing executive function overload is by removing the need for executive control over a function, making a process automatic—a skill and a habit. Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, conceptualizes cognitive processes with two systems. He explains that system one is impulsive and intuitive; and system two is capable of reasoning and it is cautious. Kahneman’s system two utilizes the executive functions (2013, location 809). Kahneman believes a crucial function of system two is adoption of “task sets” to program memory to override habitual responses. Once memory is reprogramed, a new habitual response is formed and reliance on executive functions for this particular task set is no longer necessary.
A common research tool to measure attentional control is the dimensional-change-card-sorting exercise. Researchers utilize a deck of card with two dimensions—typically shapes and colors. The shapes and colors are randomly matched. For example, a triangle may be green on one card and blue on another. Test subjects are asked to sort the cards by a single dimension—shapes—separating the triangles from the circles, and the circles from the squares. This task is fairly simple, even preschool age children learn the sorting rules and accurately perform the task. With familiarity, the task becomes easier. The sorting no longer has a heavy demand on cognitive functions, and sorting time decreases.
Subjects then are asked to switch sorting rules, changing to the other dimension—sort by colors instead of shapes. The sorting speed stalls to adopt a new “task set” to override the habitual response to separate by shape. Young children, even though they are continually reminded of the new rule, keep reverting to the first dimension of sorting.
Decisions in life are also a process of sorting. Instead of cards, we sort events. We observe events, and judge using a learned set of rules, determining whether an event is beneficial or detrimental. Often ‘system one’ provides the rule and we respond automatically. By relying on system one processing, we spare the costly energy and time of the thorough examination with system two (executive function processes). These shortcuts can be useful but also pathological, depending on the appropriateness of the set of rules utilized.
Most consequential actions have complex dimensions for sorting. Simple organizing by shape or color is inadequate. We must pull multiple rules into working memory and examine a problem from a variety of angles. We can’t succumb to a lazy mind, live by simple dirty rules, only giving heed to unsound arguments that support a limited view.
Kahneman argues that “Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed” (Location 767).
Sabine Doebel wrote in the latest issue of Perspectives of Psychological Science that “executive function is fundamental to human cognition and achievement—we use it when we need to exercise control over thoughts and behaviors, especially when we are trying to do something that competes with our habits, impulses and desires” (2020, p.1)
Doebel’s presents an alternate perspective to historical theories of executive functions that is worthy of examination. Doebel argues that executive functions are not a part of a designated network dedicated to executive functions. He suggests that the functions emerge during task specific development in service of specific goals. Plenty of research supports Doebel’s theory. “There are empirical and conceptual reasons to doubt that executive function can be reduced to a few component processes that support other developmental phenomena or self-regulation” (p. 3).
We see this in real life. We know people that succeed in business but fail at home. The executive functions they employ to achieve difficult goals in the office fail to translate into minor relationship achievements in marriage. Doebel’s argument is that goals in different domains are not achieved through a single executive function existing in the brain.
Basically, we can’t teach a child to sort two dimension cards, refining their ability to switch sorting rules and believe the skill will improve executive functions while on the playground.
Perhaps transfer of skills from one domain to another would require an additional step for integration. Instead of an automatic transfer, we need an intentional transfer, by shining Siegel’s “attentional flashlight” on certain skills belonging to a different skill set to integrate with a new domain. By recalling effective dimensions of sorting to the table of working memory with new problems, we may discover our strengths jumping boundaries and blessing multiple areas of life, supporting psychological wellbeing.
The system one habit we would like to develop through Kahneman’s system two processing is “how to think,” not “what to think.” If we know how to think, examine, and challenge automatic impulses, we may discover executive functioning crossing boundaries from one domain to another. Through openness to examination, we develop a wealth of knowledge that contributes to success across the board.
Perhaps, if Walter Mishel’s children in his famous marshmallow experiment were taught how to shine their attentional flashlight on the toys at the other end of the room, they would have never prematurely consumed the single marshmallow while waiting. If they were taught how to utilize the same concept for other life experiences, the children that failed to wait and eventually struggled in other life choices would have done much better. Instead of seen as a lacking of willpower, perhaps, the children lacked skills to recognize the goal and direct attention away from the temptation that would interfere with long term goals.
Certainly, Doebel’s theory of executive functions is just another way to sort the cards of the ever expanding problem of consciousness. But his views make sense, offering an alternate solution when reliance on willpower fails to conquer harmful habitual action. We may discover that thriving is not something that just other people do, but something that we do and enjoy. We may not have an all powerful executive sitting in the corner office, directing our affairs, but can learn to perform well in a variety of domains that contribute to overall wellbeing.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2018) The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Reprint edition
Damasio, A. (2005) Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.
David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery; First Edition.
Doebel, S. (2020). Rethinking Executive Function and its Development. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1
Donald, M (2001) A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. W W Norton & Co Inc; 1st edition.
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books.
Kahneman, D. (2013) Thinking, Fast and Slow. FSG Adult; 1st edition
LeDoux, J. (2003). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Penguin Books
Siegel, D. J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition