In a funny sort of way, you will have already used a form of executive function to search for and click on this post.
And, now that you are reading through it, you will be using another form of executive function to retain your attention, allowing your brain to minimize any background noise that might have caused a distraction.
But what are executive functions, exactly? And why are they so important?
What are Executive Functions?
As defined by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, executive functions refer to ‘a set of mental processes that allow us to plan time, remember instructions, focus attention and handle multiple tasks successfully’. Through these abilities, we are then able to filter out any distractions, prioritize tasks, control our impulses and set achievable objectives within our lives.
Whether it be concentrating at school, planning a holiday, organizing a meetup with friends and family, creating a workplace campaign, or building a set of IKEA furniture, executive functions give us the ability to handle many areas of life by allowing us to get things done.
In a similar way to a conductor in an orchestra, executive functions effectively manage the brain’s wide range of internal processes, organizing each ‘musician’ – or cognitive ability – so they know when to kick in, who to kick in with, by how much or how little, and when to stop.
Without having this level of executive control, our brains simply wouldn’t be able to work smoothly or function in the right way, leaving us with a lack of self-control and an inability to properly manage our behavior.
The Role of Executive Function
Executive functions play a vital role in our ability to function normally. So, when they fail to work correctly, this can have a drastic knock-on effect on our ability to concentrate, manage multiple workloads, tune out irrelevant information, control our impulses and remember things effectively.
Not only that but, when these executive functions fail to work in tandem, higher-order executive functions can also be impacted, affecting our ability to problem solve, reason and plan (Miller & Wallis, 2009).
It is for this reason that executive function issues are commonly associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dementia – two neurological conditions characterized by symptoms like attentional inability and a lack of control over emotional reactions.
Executive Dysfunction Issues
When executive functions are negatively affected in any sort of way – whether it be through addiction, lack of sleep, stress or illness – there will often be a wide array of consequences.
These will typically differ from person to person but, in general, often include:
Feelings of anxiety are common when executive functions are disrupted.
Stress, for example, is believed to disrupt working memory and cognitive flexibility (Shields et al, 2016), altering our ability to stay organized, plan out our time and work productively. Because of this inability to focus, feelings of panic and anxiety can soon start to creep in, elevating our stress levels even further and creating a bit of a catch-22.
Executive functions control our ability to manage time effectively, planning our days out to prioritize which tasks need to be done and when. Therefore, in cases where this is affected, many people will often be late and will find it difficult to know which tasks they need to do first.
Likewise, due to the role of executive functions in maintaining our working memory, losing belongings such as phones, wallets or keys is also a particularly common trait.
Executive function deficits can also significantly impact somebody’s ability to focus on and get tasks done, especially during times when they need to multitask.
This is thought to be due to having a lack of self-control and an inability to prioritize workloads, leaving us more likely to procrastinate or have trouble controlling our impulsive behavior.
How to Improve Executive Functions
Executive function deficiencies may be incredibly common but, fortunately, there are a number of ways to address them.
One of them is through cognitive rehabilitation therapy, which aims to improve cognitive functioning in brain injury or cognitive impairment to restore normal functioning, or compensate for cognitive deficits.
In addition, creating checklists and making schedules, for example, can be highly valuable when struggling with time management, making it easier to manage workloads in a more visual format.
Similarly, writing down dates, deadlines, names and phone numbers can reinforce working memory, helping ensure any important information isn’t missed or unintentionally forgotten about.
On the flip side, managing stress levels in the right way can also significantly boost executive function.
Whether it be through practicing mindfulness techniques, spending more time outdoors, seeing friends or family, or simply allowing more time between activities, all forms of stress relief will ultimately help keep the brain’s internal cogs ticking over.
So, in answer to the question ‘what are executive functions?’, these are the mental processes that shape our day-to-day and make us who we are.
Without them, our lives would be significantly disrupted, not only affecting our ability to work effectively but maintain relationships as well.
Therefore, it’s important to do what you can to keep your executive functions healthy over the long run. Otherwise, you could end up replacing your lost phone, wallet or keys a lot more often than you’d like!
Bailey, E. (2022). Improve Working Memory: Brain Training Tricks. Taken from: https://www.additudemag.com/improve-working-memory/.
Center on the Developing Child Harvard University. (2022). Executive Function & Self-Regulation. Taken from: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/.
Fourie, G. (2022). The benefits of quality time in the great outdoors to improve mental health. Taken from: https://www.whiterivermanor.com/news/benefits-of-quality-time-in-the-great-outdoors-to-improve-mental-health/.
Iverson, B. (2022). Executive Functions and Their Relationship to the Reading Process and Academic Performance. Taken from: https://neuronup.us/cognitive-stimulation-news/cognitive-functions/executive-functions/executive-functions-and-their-relationship-to-the-reading-process-and-academic-performance/.
Martinez De Toda, M. (2021). Executive functions: Can they be improved?. Taken from: https://neuronup.us/cognitive-stimulation-news/cognitive-functions/executive-functions/executive-functions-can-they-be-improved/.
Miller, E. & Wallis, J. (2009). Executive Function and Higher-Order Cognition: Definition and Neural Substrates. Encyclopedia of Neuroscience. 4, 99–104. DOI: 10.1016/B978-008045046-9.00418-6.
Neuron UP. (2022). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Taken from: https://neuronup.us/neurorehabilitation/neurodevelopmental-disorders/adhd/.
Shields, G., Sazma, M. & Yonelinas, A. (2016). The effects of acute stress on core executive functions: A meta-analysis and comparison with cortisol. Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews. 68, 651–668.