executive function | exq

Many people hear the term Executive Function, but most of us don’t really understand what it is and how it works. One of the easiest ways to describe the important set of mental processes called Executive Function is to think about the GPS we are all familiar with in our car or on our cell phone.

My husband and I got into the car and we entered the address of a local restaurant into our navigational system. We fondly call the female GPS voice “Cathy.” Cathy quickly mapped out the route and also gave us three choices:

  1. Short route (most efficient one)
  2. Quick route (most pragmatic one), and
  3. Alternative route (all things considered – such as construction, traffic, etc.)

All three routes were nicely color-coded with an option to choose whichever we pleased. Considering it was a Saturday evening, we chose the shortest one and off we went.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is just like the GPS in a car with the voice of “Cathy”: a mental navigational system. This prefrontal cortex has the ability to plug in not just the destination, but the intention into the mental GPS. Immediately, it comes up with a plan or a route for navigation. However, unlike the display in the car GPS, the mental GPS stores these so-called routes in working memory. Holding on to these choices gives us a chance to compare, evaluate, and deduce. Then, the same “decision-making brain” evaluates the viability of each plan by ruling out those that don’t meet the criteria of selection.

The Executive Process in planning involves:

Cognitive ProcessParallel to Auto GPS
DestinationComing up with a goal (intention to be fulfilled in the future with a plan of action)Getting into the car by knowing which restaurant to go to
PlanningComing up with a series of sequential tasks that are time sensitiveShowing three routes
ExecutionFollowing every step of the plan through the passage of time. Changing the plan based on the roadblocksGPS voice instructs the driver regarding right and left turns to get to the destination-if the driver turns somewhere else the GPS quickly maps out another route
Metacognition Evaluating the effectiveness of the plan and the execution for future referenceDoes not exist

Now imagine a malfunctioning mental GPS – one can call that Executive Dysfunction – where several things can go wrong. The mental GPS of a person with Executive Dysfunction can fail to come up with a destination or a goal. It is like not knowing whether you want to eat Italian or Chinese, not knowing what area you are currently staying in, and not knowing which are the top Zagat recommended restaurants.

If your car was an old model with no built-in GPS at least you have an option of purchasing a TomTom or using your phone and sticking it on the dashboard. But if your mental GPS is out-of-order then there is no such option. One needs to engage in cognitive exercises and work hard to navigate through life by finding routes, discovering shortcuts, and even rethinking the original destination. That is why cognitive training can be essential and effective.

For more information, and to learn more about the value and importance of Executive Function, please visit www.ExQInfiniteKnowHow.com.