What are executive functions?

Executive functions are brain processes that are mainly contained in your frontal lobes (just behind your forehead). They make it possible to turn your ideas and goals into actions. Those can be things you do or things you say.
Have a listen to Dr. Adele Diamond, Canada Research Chair Professor in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Diamond has studied executive functions for over 30 years and is the leading expert in developmental cognitive neurosciences.

 

So how do executive functions work?

Have a look at the maze below. If I want to complete it, what do I need to do?
I have to get myself organized – what do I need? – a pencil and, thinking ahead, an eraser would likely be a good idea.
I need to control my impulses that make me want to add a sun to the sky and some bigger flowers.
I make a plan to start by drawing with my finger first, moving to the right to see where it leads me. I have to keep my plan and my goal in my working memory as I move along.
Oops, I keep running into dead ends. Self-monitoring made me realize I need to stop and adjust my plan. I need to be flexible enough to stop what I’m doing and try a new approach.

Those acts used five key executive functions:

  1. Flexibility (cognitive flexibility) – being able to change what I’m doing if things aren’t working out
  2. Inhibitory control – keeping myself from doing the same old thing over and over again or from leaping at the first thing I notice or give up if I run into problems
  3. Memory (working memory) – keeping my plans and ideas in my memory while I work away
  4. Monitoring (self-monitoring) – checking to make sure I’m following my plan and that it’s working out okay
  5. Planning (planning and organization) – being able to change what I’m doing if things aren’t working out

That’s F.I.M.M.P. for acronym lovers.

Connecting self-regulation & executive functions

Self-regulation is the ability to consciously control your executive functions. That is, I remind myself to develop a plan and organize what I’m doing before starting. I tell myself to stay on task, keeping important things in my memory bank, and not get distracted. I also keep checking to see how I’m doing and change my plan if things aren’t working out.
Self-regulation is taking control of your executive functions and making them work for you – not just leaving things to chance.

By developing self-regulation skills:

  • your behavior, thoughts and emotions don’t rule you
  • you become more self-directed, planful, adaptable – not having to have another person hanging over you all the time
  • you understand the relationship between effort & achievement; that is, what it takes for you to gain what you want or reach important goals