Many people toss out the term “Executive Functions” as if they were talking about something as familiar as “cellphones” or “supermarkets”. We know what those things are when we hear the words. We can picture them in our minds, even as we know there might be variations between different brands or types. But we know what they are and don’t need an explanation. Yet, most people do not know what is meant by “Executive Functions” except to say “it’s about organization.” But that would be wrong. Let me explain.
Executive functions (EF) are critical frontal lobe processes that help us solve problems. Specifically, EF is the process by which we problem solve. Think about it (ah, you’re using your prefrontal cortex already!). You ran out of milk. In your household, your son is lactose intolerant, and your spouse prefers vegan options. So, you write down “almond milk”, among other items, on a list that you will take with you to the grocery store. Without “thinking” about it, you just solved a problem using EF processes. We are out of milk. This is what we buy based upon the dietary needs of individual family members. In order to remember this item and buy it when I go to the store, I write it on my list that I take to the store. I then put the list in my pocket so that I can access the list when I get to the store. I go to the store, buy the items on my list and bring them home. Your family appreciates that you are “organized”, but your brain did far more than just “organize” a trip to the grocery store. You are so smart!
This is a simple example, but the processes are complex. This exercise required certain knowledge, such as the fact that you know what a grocery store is. It required knowledge about your personal situation, namely that there is a preference for a particular type of milk in your household. It also required a repeated strategy that has become a habit so that you do not have to think through each time you run out of milk (or any food item) what you need to do in order to acquire what you need: make a list, include items you know you want or use, and go to the store with your list! In this fashion, your EF skills have been efficient (I can make a list super quick because I know what I like and what I need) and effective (I didn’t forget to buy milk because it’s on my list that I bring with me to reference when I get to the store). The ease of solving the problem at this level made it possible for you to store mental energy that you can expend on other more complex problems. Your favorite brand of almond milk is expensive. When you arrive at the store, you note that a competitor’s brand of almond milk is on sale. Do you buy it? You might remember previous conversations with your spouse who said they did or did not like that brand. You might note that although the competitor’s brand is on sale, the price per gallon is negligible, and therefore not really a “bargain”. In other words, you engage in the process of solving the problem, maybe using math or past experience (or both!) as potential strategies to arrive at a solution. Now, this is truly “smart”!
When we think about people who seem very organized in some or many facets of their lives, what we really admire is the seeming ease with which they problem solve. They are efficient and effective. They don’t seem to “waste time” with strategies that don’t work. But here’s the thing: EF is a process that develops over time, but our skill sets do not necessarily translate quickly across different types of tasks. Some people may be adept at a particular type of process yet struggle with others. For example, some people are really great at math but seem unable to write a thank you card. And vice versa. Does that mean their EFs are poorly developed? Not necessarily. We become habituated to certain tasks, so when we have to “shift gears” to do something new or something that we do not typically do, we might be slower or more disorganized (less efficient and/or effective) in our approach—at least initially. The person with well-developed EF, however, will adapt, and do so at a steady pace. Oh, I have to put down my math work and write a thank you note. So, to write the thank you note, these could/would be the appropriate steps. I can do this…
When trying to explain EF, I use the example of The Executive. The Executive of Big Company is tasked with keeping things running profitably and well. She/he is tasked to oversee the welfare of employees, the satisfaction of stockholders, and the loyalty of customers. The Executive may be surrounded by talented staff, she/he may have experience working in a variety of settings, he/she may have received training in a variety of methods pertinent to the job at hand, or she/he may just be “smart”. A well-developed Executive is a flexible thinker who may pull from a variety of resources or strategies, but the basic (EF) process is the same: retrieve that knowledge and experience you have, think effectively and efficiently by applying knowledge in a step-wise fashion, acquire and apply new information as needed, then arrive at a solution. When a problem arises, the well-developed Executive systematically and strategically comes up with, and executes, a plan. A poorly developed Executive may try many strategies without thinking first about the appropriateness or efficacy of any of them. A poorly developed Executive may cede control and tell staff to do the work without providing guidance for what needs to be done. A poorly developed Executive may run and hide, blaming others without taking responsibility.
As we age and add more “stuff” to our computer database (i.e., our brains), we have to find new ways to store and retrieve data. Our brains are pretty good at getting rid of things we don’t need or use, but how do we hold onto information that we might need down the road? With well-developed EF skills, we connect bits of data that might otherwise seem random. Without well-developed EF skills, information becomes discrete bits of data floating about with no anchor—this is the “stuff” our brains toss aside. With well-developed EF, we retrieve knowledge, reach out to new information as needed, apply appropriate steps or strategies, and do so as efficiently and effectively as possible. One of our strategies may be to read up on that information we have forgotten, but that, too, is a step-wise strategy. Our first attempt at solving a problem may be incorrect, but the steps we take should make “sense” so that we can figure out what we did wrong and correct the error. Without well-developed EF, we continue to make the same or new mistakes.
Think about it!