Executive Function: Your Brain’s Control Center

Executive functions are mental processes that we rely on each and every day. To better understand this topic, we must look at three components: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Read on to find out more about your brain’s control center.

The full story

Executive functions are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. We can distinguish between three components: 1. Working memory, 2. Inhibitory control and 3. Cognitive flexibility. All 3 are interlinked and influence each other. 

Psychologist Deborah Phillips from Georgetown University, calls it the “air traffic control system” of our brain. Like an air traffic control system has to manage lots of airplanes departing and landing with perfect timing, we have to manage a lot of information and distractions simultaneously. Without good executive functions, disaster strikes. 

Let’s look at the three different components:

Working Memory


The Working memory is responsible for processing information. If well developed, it allows us to manage multiple chunks of information at the same time. Complex tasks can be solved and deep ideas understood. Without much of it, our intelligence is limited. 

Inhibitory control

Inhibitory control describes our capability to concentrate, regulates our emotions and controls our behaviour during stressful situations. It’s an essential skill if we want to change a childhood habit. Without it, we might have trouble controlling our behavior and can come across as ‘weird’. 

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt new tasks quickly and to change our perspective. If we have little of it, we can’t adapt, get stuck in old thoughts and have tunnel vision. We come across as stubborn and uncooperative. 

Ann and Jay

To demonstrate their roles, let’s compare two imaginary teenagers: Ann and Jay.

Ann is a working memory monster. She can keep lots of ideas in her mind at any given time and mentally buffers digits to calculate them in her head. Even if she gets interrupted or feels a change of emotions, she realizes, but is still able to continue what she had started.
Jay’s working memory is tiny. What Ann solves in her head, he has to write down. It’s hard for him to read complex sentences or follow a longer train of thought. He gets distracted easily and starts thinking about something else. 

At school, Ann is an Inhibitory Control Genius. She is fully in charge of her emotions and how they are expressed in her behavior. If a teacher loses his temper, she remains calm and friendly. It’s easy for her to focus for long periods of time. As a result, her work is good and the feedback on it is positive. Jay’s emotions instantly express themselves in his behavior, which he often fails to control. He can get distracted easily and hence he has difficulties finishing what he started. His work remains mediocre. This can lead to negative feedback and a lower self-esteem.

Ann’s cognitive flexibility is great. She can change her perspective and find ways around roadblocks. At school she adjusts from one subject to the other at the speed of light. 
Jay has difficulty solving problems because his thinking is inflexible. To change his perspective in response to constructive criticism takes a lot of his mental energy. Even simple tasks, like switching from talking to listening is hard for him. Others can find this annoying. 

How executive function develops

Executive function develops mainly during the first 5 years of our lives. A caring, playful and nourishing childhood is our best bet to increase them. Free play trains our inhibitory control and games practice our working memory. Playing an instrument trains our brain to process the notes, and to coordinate the right and the left hand simultaneously. If others are listening, we learn to control our emotions. Movement is great as well. In football each situation is new, ball possession requires quick decisions and builds cognitive flexibility. One study showed that kids that walked barefoot each day for just 16 minutes, improved their working memory. Because when they do, they need to keep many things in mind. 

With a lot of practise as kids, we become real executives of our own mind. This then allows us to excel in teams and help solve some of the world’s more complex problems. And since we are able to focus on them for a long period and don’t give up easily, success is just a matter of time. 

Those of you who have some executive function can now maximize your learning from this video. Just turn off Youtube, take out a pen and paper, and summarize the concept in your own simple language. If you fail this time, try again.

“Awesome video, gonna close this now and take out my pen and paper for the exercise. Keep up the good work.”

– TheOmniscient

Sources

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Classroom exercise

For more information on how to improve executive functions and build essential skills check out this guide from Harvard University. Some of their recommendations include creating a stress-free environment for your students as well as using familiar and accessible tools during class.

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