Executive Functioning

We’ve heard and read a lot about the brain’s executive function capabilities throughout the years.  Research has been exploring and defining executive function for decades now.  Perspectives magazine – the quarterly publication from The International Dyslexia Association – dedicated this year’s spring edition to a discussion of executive function.  Based on that information, we’ll do our best to provide a good picture for what executive function is and what it does.

There are, according to these authors, three core executive functions from which others are built.  They are Inhibitory Control, Working Memory, and Cognitive Flexibility.

Inhibitory Control is “the ability to control one’s attention, behavior, thoughts, and emotions in order to override a strong external lure or internal predisposition and instead, do what is more appropriate or needed.”  (Sounds like it’s relevant to ADD or ADHD, doesn’t it?)

Working Memory is defined as “the ability to hold information in mind and work with it.  It is critical for making sense of something that unfolds over time as it requires holding what happened earlier and relating it to what is happening now.”

Cognitive Flexibility is described as “the ability to change perspectives, either spatially or interpersonally; to change how we think about something (think “outside the box”); to adjust to changed demands or priorities, take advantage of sudden unexpected opportunities, overcome sudden unexpected problems; and to admit you were wrong when you get new information.”

These are the primary functions involved in our thought processes.  When we need to learn something new, solve a problem, or make a decision, they spring into action.  An interesting theory presented by these authors is that language is key to efficient thinking.  The brain “verbalizes” its thoughts as they are examined.  We first have to tell ourselves to tune out all distractions both external and internal (Inhibitory Control).  Then we have to sort through our stored information and past experience, integrate it with the new material coming in (Working Memory), and change our understanding accordingly (Cognitive Flexibility).  The brain can then provide us with the language we need in order to let other people in on our new way of thinking.

People who act or speak impulsively, make poor decisions, or fail to learn from their mistakes, haven’t let the brain’s executive functions work their magic on the thoughts involved in order to refine them appropriately.  Maybe these people choose to disable or bypass the executive functions, but we don’t think it is that intentional.  We think, from our experience here in the clinic, that one or more of these executive functions is underdeveloped or not efficiently accessed and is therefore not able to support efficient thinking and learning.

One approach we know to be effective in strengthening executive functioning is imagery training for language comprehension.  Some of our students, for example, have a wealth of stored information and experience, but for some reason their brains do not go in search of it to help assimilate the new information coming in.  As we work with these students, we stimulate the brain to do the necessary searches and find the useful information already on file.  After a while, we notice that the brain starts to automatically initiate this process – like it should have been doing in the first place – and new information is efficiently incorporated into the existing data file.  Some students struggle with new information because it’s hard for them to be flexible in their understanding.  We often hear responses like “That’s not true!” and “You can’t picture that!” when a new idea is presented.  These comments become less and less frequent as the student’s brain develops the ability to think from a new perspective.  The student begins to ask questions and display some curiosity about novel ideas and information.  What’s more, students who respond well to this treatment process think better wherever they are – at home, at school, with friends, at soccer practice – not just in the clinic.  That, to us, is the icing on the cake.

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