Executive functions are complex cognitive processes. They are the set of all those mental activities that we produce to relate to our environment
Executive functions are complex cognitive processes. They are the set of all those mental activities that we produce to relate to our environment; to work, to create, to prioritize some activities over others or even to find the right motivation.
It is a kind of automatic sequence of processes that we perform every day, without even realizing it.
At first glance, it might seem difficult to understand. We often hear that the brain works like a computer or that it uses almost the same mechanisms as a mechanical processor. Well, we can say that it works much better. The executive functions they are incredibly sophisticated skills by which we regulate our conduct and achieve goals.
Something that far surpasses any form of technology.
The great events of the world take place in the brain.
Let's take an example. Let's go to sleep with a book to read. As we look for the chapter we finished reading last night, we think about what we need to do tomorrow morning. We set ourselves goals, decide what is best to postpone and what to prioritize.
We think about the goals for the next day and then focus on our reading, planning to turn off the light within an hour to go to to sleep .
Thanks to this simple scene, we have explained to you how the brain manages to complete an infinite number of processes in just a fraction of time. Really in seconds. We participate, prioritize, plan, monitor and focus on certain goals.
Executive functions and the frontal lobe
The human being does not come into the world with all the executive functions ready for use. It may be curious, for example, to know that many of these processes acquire full functionality around the age of 25. The reason? These cognitive abilities are mainly localized in the prefrontal structures and are the last to develop.
The first neurologist to talk about these functions and the executive system was Alexander Luria . It should also be emphasized that these processes are a very recent element from a phylogenetic point of view.
They are considered the newest aspect in the context of our evolution as a species; this is associated, in turn, with two exact stages: the development of language and the development of the frontal lobes. These facts represented a total revolution.
From that moment on, our social groups began to define themselves better, culture, control of the surrounding environment and a whole series of advances that made us what we are now appeared.
However, it is important to point out an essential aspect. Although it is inscribed in our genetic code that these processes refine as we mature (they usually appear between 8 and 12 months, along with the baby's language development), the full acquisition of executive functions depends on several aspects.
What influences the development of executive functions?
From two years on, the type of interaction we receive and the quality of the latter become fundamental. Stressful experiences or an unstable bond make it difficult to adequately develop these functions.
- One of the leading executive brain experts is Elkhonon Goldberg. As he explains in his book ' The symphony of the brain ' , executive functions are located in the frontal lobe. In other words, the area of our culture and our social interactions.
- If a child does not enjoy a meaningful connection with his or her parents, or is not educated, it is unlikely that they will develop or effectively use these refined cognitive processes.
- On the other hand, it is important to emphasize that executive functions are visible in unstable situations due to disorders such as dyslexia, attention deficit with or without hyperactivity ; or again, in cases of dyscalculia, schizophrenia or any brain damage.
Now, the good news is that these cognitive functions can be stimulated. If there are no serious neurological problems, we can all fine-tune the gears of executive functions.
What executive functions do we have?
Animals also develop executive functions, although more rudimentary and elementary. They are guided by their needs, by a perceptual system that guides their behavior by a physical and motor system oriented to the satisfaction of these needs , of these instincts.
The prefrontal cortex is one of the most recent from a phylogenetic point of view and is the last to mature in ontogenesis. It is in it that our most refined functions reside; the ones we should train every day.
In the human being this aspect is a more sophisticated one. We do not act only to satisfy needs. Far beyond the instincts, we are defined by goals, duties, social relationships, culture and social network.
The environment we are part of is so complex that it requires a brain capable of adapting to this kaleidoscope of internal and external stimuli. This is where executive functions come into play.
These functions are as follows:
- Planning: generating a sequence of ideas to achieve a goal.
- Reasoning: compare, exclude, choose, analyze, generate heuristic procedures and so on.
- Control and manage timing: monitor the time to devote to each task; we know when we have exceeded that set time and when we should invest more hours in something.
- Organize, structure the information so that it has a meaning and a purpose.
- Inhibition: it is the ability to repress and control our instincts or drives to adapt our conduct.
- Concentration and maintenance of attention.
- Supervision and control of our tasks, goals or wishes.
- Working memory. Store information that can be accessed later; it is one of the most important executive functions.
- Flexibility. The ability to change our object of interest; to be open to other ideas and learn from them.
The executive brain is undoubtedly the greatest gift that our evolution has given us. However, there is a nuance that we cannot overlook: executive functions lose functionality as we age. Therefore, it is never out of place to remember what we hear many times: it is important not to let a single day pass without learning something new.
We don't let a single moment go by without cultivating curiosity, critical ability or a quality conversation with our own friends or familiari. All these aspects are food for our brain; energy for those cognitive processes that can withstand the passage of time.