I hear this question a lot from families and individuals, and misinformation and misunderstanding blur the impact of a diagnosis of “Executive Function Disorder”, “Executive Dysfunction”, “Deficiency in Executive Functions”, or whatever term the doctor/clinician uses. Many people confuse Executive Functions with the now-common term of ADHD, which it’s not, although there is a lot of overlap of “symptoms”. New research and data appear almost daily, and it can overwhelm the most avid brain enthusiast, so I will strive to build a simple foundation and gradually use that to lure you into the wonderful world of neuroscience.
Everybody has Executive Functions, so what the heck are they? Basically, the Executive Functions are high level cognitive functions that allow us to accomplish our goals, as well as skills that help us decide what to pay attention to and what we choose to do. Huh?
Simply put, Executive Functions are thinking skills and behavioral skills. The thinking skills include: planning, organization, time-management, self-monitoring, and working memory. The behavioral skills include: task-initiation, response inhibition, shifting/flexibility, emotional control, and goal-directed persistence. In future posts, I will examine each of these skills, providing examples and interventions to strengthen the connections.
It’s important to remember that everybody grows at different rates. Some people’s legs grow at a faster rate; for others, it could be kidneys, arms, feet, etc. Same with the brain—some people simply take longer to “grow into their brain.” When the human brain develops, it grows from bottom to top, back to front. Research currently indicates that the frontal lobes, and specifically the prefrontal cortex, are among the last areas of the brain to develop—and this is the control center for Executive Functions, which tells all the other parts of the brain when and how to work in harmony…or not.
Frontal brain systems, such as the frontal cortex and prefrontal cortex, and connections with other areas of the brain (parietal, temporal, occipital lobes, for example) influence our Executive Functions. The frontal lobes manage information and behavior by: 1) deciding what is worth paying attention to; 2) providing continuity and coherence to behavior over time; 3) adjusting affective and interpersonal behaviors within environmental constraints; 4) monitoring, judging, and adjusting.
A quick analogy…The prefrontal lobe is sort of like a stage manager in a theater performance, cuing actors on the stage and moving scenes along if they drag or slowing down the pace when a scene goes too fast. The manager will not allow actors to leave the stage before the end of the show and constantly monitors the reaction from the audience, shaping future performances based on this feedback. If the manager lacks of system or leaves the theater, the show flops and closes down.
Now before you run out and have yourself, or your loved one, tested, remember that the brain can “rewire” itself based on thoughts and behaviors. Unless there is permanent damage to the frontal lobes or other lobes, or if there is disease affecting the body, your Executive Functions can be strengthened.
And if you live with a “crazy” teenager, the Executive Functions have only begun to develop. More on that next week!