Can somebody please explain executive function and what it does?

Discussion in 'General Parenting' started by MidwestMom, May 26, 2011.

  1. SomewhereOutThere

    SomewhereOutThere Well-Known Member

    Thank you very much.

    Love you all :)

  2. crazymama30

    crazymama30 Active Member

  3. ML

    ML Guest

    It's what our aspie and adhd kids are sorely lacking.
  4. seriously

    seriously New Member

    Here is a more recent recap of executive functioning that does a good job giving examples of how deficits in executive function affect our ability to perform various tasks.

    I would say that executive function is the ability of our brain to choose which pieces of information belong to a puzzle, then puts all the pieces of the puzzle together and uses that "big" picture to make decisions. This ability is theorized to exist or be controlled by the frontal lobes - the most recently developed (in terms of evolution) part of our brain.

    Executive function allows us to

    • sort the information coming in (the teacher's notes on the chalk board go with the lecture but the smell of food from the cafeteria does not)
    • assemble the information into a complete picture (the teacher is talking about how to do addition and the notes on the board are examples) and
    • decide how important it is to be able to remember the information or use the skill again in comparison to all the other things our brain needs to be able to consciously recall at will (addition is what I use when I need to know how much money I have and that's important so addition is important and I need to remember this skill).

    This can happen on the fly (deciding right now which parts of a lecture or story to pay attention to or are important and need to be remembered based on the sum of our previous experiences and knowledge) - or in a more reflective state (thinking ahead to what the family schedule is over the next few days and deciding to go to the store today and what to buy because you foresee that there's no time to do it later in the week).

    In ADHD deficits in executive function are theorized to occur because your brain has trouble suppressing some kinds of input (often external stimuli) in favor of other input (often internal processing of information).

    For example, a child with ADHD who sits near the window may have trouble concentrating on the teacher's lecture because his brain is biased in favor of attending to external stimuli that could signal danger. This interferes with his brain's ability to attend to external stimuli that are highly unlikely to signal danger. His brain literally can't choose to attend to the teacher's lecture because it is focused on the noises coming through the window (the birds singing, the lawn being mowed) that could be signs that danger is approaching.

    One theory about why this happens has to do with the evolution of the brain. The "older" parts of the brain react to our environment in a more primitive way. The sounds, smells and sights we perceive that signal potential danger or reward such as food are powerful and automatic. Keeping us alive is the priority. You can't pay attention to a lecture if you smell smoke. You have to stop and figure out where the smoke is coming from because smelling smoke triggers your "old" brain to scream for you to pay attention to this potential threat.

    So that part of our brain is competing for our attention with the part of our brain that is trying to learn how to read.

    The ability to selectively attend to information based on importance to our long term well being is "fragile" in that it is more easily disrupted in some people.

    Most people are able to ignore the fact that they hear a large, noisy machine outside (the lawn mower) because they are able to classify that input as non-threatening and therefore less important than the lecture.

    Other people simply cannot do this because they can't override the part of their brain that thinks this noise signals the approach of something threatening.

    Other things that can disrupt executive function include -

    strong negative emotions
    lack of sleep
    too much information coming in all at once
  5. InsaneCdn

    InsaneCdn Well-Known Member

    To explain this stuff to the non-specialist, I use this comparison...

    Executive functions are to the brain what the driver is to the car. When the driver is in top shape, he can adjust for minor problems in the car (a burned out headlight, an awkward crack in the windshield), follow a regular maintenance plan (self-care - sleep, food, check-ups, etc.), AND know when there's a more major problem that needs immediate assistance.

    When the executive functions are impaired... its just like an impaired driver! The car runs just fine, thank you - good brakes, clear windshield, motor runs great, tranny was just serviced... but the driver is over .08 (the legal limit here)... and that means TROUBLE.

    Too slow to hit the brakes, too hard on the gas, doesn't leave enough room for cornering, weaving all over the road...

    You know the routine - and you get the picture!
  6. SomewhereOutThere

    SomewhereOutThere Well-Known Member

    Thank you very much :)
  7. Marguerite

    Marguerite Active Member

    Thanks from me, too. I shared the car analogy with difficult child 3's teacher yesterday, when he rang. Very timely!

  8. HaoZi

    HaoZi Guest

    Dang it, where's the printer paper when I need it? I need a hard copy of this.
  9. seriously

    seriously New Member

    Interesting analogy with the driver/car.

    The frontal lobe is the last part of the brain to develop and is usually still making connections between different parts of the brain into the mid-20's.

    The idea of "executive function" is kind of like the idea of "the mind". We know we have a "mind" that exists in some way separately from the component parts of our brain and nervous system. But where does it exist? Is it in a particular place in the brain? How does it work exactly? We know we have one based on the evidence but defining what it is and is not, how it works, etc. is really hard to do - like holding a cloud in your hand.

    We know the abilities/skills/talents we now call executive function exist. People who have really good executive functioning are more likely to be successful in life than those who do not. But when you start trying to define exactly what it is and is not, when it's working and when it's not, how to fix it when it's not working - it can be a lot harder to do than you would think.

    The concept of executive function doesn't take into account individual differences between people very well in my opinion. Identifying good vs. defective executive functioning is culture-dependent: the evidence for good executive functioning in our culture may not look the same as it does in an aboriginal one for example. More effective executive function also seems to rely on greater self-awareness or ability to recognize when our executive functioning could be better, figure out what to do differently and then make attempts to improve our functioning. A conscious feedback loop exists that allows us to learn from our mistakes and I think that also belongs under the umbrella of executive functioning.
  10. Marguerite

    Marguerite Active Member

    I really wish you guys knew Aussie movies! An iconic Aussie film, "The Castle", has a number of cliche lines. One of them, whenever someone gave Dad a special present or someone won a trophy, Dad would say (as the highest accolade), "This is going straight to the pool room!"

    Well, I think this thread should be going straight to the pool room!

    aka the archives...

  11. TerryJ2

    TerryJ2 Well-Known Member

    Yes, I agree!
    I deliberately didn't answer at first because I knew that others would have such good reponses, and it is something I have understood but for a long time, have had difficulty explaining. Thank you!
  12. SomewhereOutThere

    SomewhereOutThere Well-Known Member

    I'm trying to figure out if Jumper has executive function problems. She is certainly disorganized. But she's so sensible.

    I got some REALLY good answers here. I know Sonic has executive function issues.
  13. InsaneCdn

    InsaneCdn Well-Known Member

    ADD + school struggles + disorganized = executive function issues: just not the same ones!

    Executive functions: inhibit, shift, emotional control, initiate, plan/organize, monitor, completion, working memory, etc... given that "plan/organize" is one of the functions... yes, she has executive function issues.
  14. Allan-Matlem

    Allan-Matlem Active Member


    Executive functions is similar to meta-cognition , ' thinking about thinking '

    These skills can be taught directly but it is better to teach these skills indirectly using collaborative problem solving , so that these skills along many others are being taught in the context of real problems and concerns of the kid

    I hope this helps