What is Executive Functioning?
"Executive functioning" is becoming a popular topic of discussion within psychology, and you may have seen others talk about it in other areas. Improving executive functioning is sometimes discussed as a way to increase productivity, but it's not always clear what exactly executive functioning is. In fact, there are ongoing debates within psychology about how to think about executive functioning. Here, I want to give a summary of how executive functioning is currently understood.
(This information is coming from my personal research as part of my dissertation. If anyone is interested in more specific information or citations, just let me know and I'll be happy to share).
Function or Functions?
When thinking about executive functioning (EF), the first controversy can be found pretty quickly: is executive functioning one thing, or is it a description of various skills? There have been a lot of points made in favor of both sides. But, as is true with most things in psychology, the truth seems to be a mix of both.
The confusion comes from the types of skills that combine to make executive functioning (which I detail below). When looking at the list of skills, your first instinct may be to think "well, they're all separate items on the list, so shouldn't they be considered different skills?" To some extent, this is true. However, what we see is that the skills are all closely linked to one another. If there are difficulties with one, the others often suffer along with it to some extent, which prompts some to think there is an overarching "executive functioning" that is linking the skills together.
As I said above, the truth is likely a mix of the two. Recent research is beginning to show that the skills are all linked, but they also have some aspects that are unique to them as well. In a way, it's very similar to how we think of IQ.
The Role of Executive Functioning
The next question to address is the purpose of executive functioning. By understanding the purpose, it helps us to figure out which skills are likely to be a part of EF. In general, there seems to be agreement that EF is a "higher level" process in the brain. That is, the brain takes in a lot of information at once and does some basic processing (e.g., figuring out what word is being read, making sense of what is being looked at). But when we have all of this information, it's all separate at first.
Enter EF, which takes all of the basic information the brain has prepared and does some further processing with it. By combining everything together, decisions can be made about what is most important and what we should focus on. Different information can be pulled from memory if it is relevant. EF represents this second layer of processing that occurs in our brains, and it is a crucial part of us successfully navigating our day-to-day lives.
So, now that we know how EF skills relate to one another and what they are used for, let's go over what specific skills are a part of EF. (There is some disagreement about this list, and some people use different names for the same skills, but these are the skills that tend to show up most often in the research).
Executive Functioning Skills
Working memory is a little tricky when it comes to understanding EF. For some, working memory essentially is EF, but most seem to agree now that it is one component of EF.
When we talk about working memory, we are talking about a short-term memory. Information comes in, it's stored in the mind for a short time, and then it gets back out. But what distinguishes working memory from normal short-term memory is that the information is manipulated in some way. For example, mental math is a form of working memory; numbers are brought up in the mind, a calculation is done, and the answer is provided. Working memory is also a component and closely linked to some of the other EF skills, as we will see.
Inhibition is basically the opposite of impulsiveness. While someone who is impulsive will act on the first action that comes to mind, inhibition is the act of stopping ourselves from completing that initial action. When thinking about inhibition, we are often thinking about automatic responses. For example, think about stoplights; red means stop and green means go. Now, what if we switched that? If you were to play a game where red means go and green means stop, inhibition would be the act of stopping your automatic reaction (e.g., moving forward when you see green) and instead replacing it with another action (in this case, stopping when you see green).
Switching is often talked about alongside inhibition, because it relies on inhibition greatly. When we talk about switching, we're referring to the ability to change the focus of attention in some way. To demonstrate, let's return to the stoplight example. Think about two stoplights next to each other, only one of which will be on at a time. If it's the one on the left, you do what you normally would (i.e., green is go and red is stop), but if it's the one on the right you reverse the rule (i.e., green is stop and red is go). The lights turn on one at a time, but in a random order, so you need to constantly switch between the two sets of rules.
The reason inhibition is so important here is that switching requires inhibiting our initial reaction. Using the same example, if we see green and think "go," we need to stop ourselves for a moment to think "but is it the one on the right or the one on the left?" Only after stopping that initial reaction and doing some extra thinking can we be confident we're doing the right thing. In addition, working memory is needed because the rules need to be held in memory and switched around as appropriate.
Are you starting to see how these are all linking together?
Attention is pretty straightforward, as it is often talked about and is commonly understood. However, when discussing EF we are often concerned with selective attention. That is, the ability to focus attention on only what is relevant and to ignore what is distracting. For example, focusing on a conversation with someone in front of you while in a loud room filled with other people talking. As you can imagine, this also requires some inhibition, switching, and so forth.
The skill of planning generally captures the process of identifying patterns based on past knowledge, applying that to the future, and coming up with changes that can increase the odds of getting the desired future outcome. For example, if a person realizes that their car tends to slide a lot more when there is snow on the road, they could use that knowledge to plan ahead for a coming winter by getting new winter tires before it begins to snow. This requires working memory, because information in the mind needs to be altered to "test" different possibilities mentally. It also requires attention and organization, which is the next skill.
Organizing is another fairly straightforward EF skill. Essentially, organizing represents the skill of taking information and drawing meaningful connections from it. For example, assume you're given a deck of cards and were asked to sort it in some way. You could sort by suit, color, number/letter, odd/even, and so forth. Organizing is the skill of finding those different options (which requires some switching), determining the most beneficial one (which also requires planning), and following through with the choice.
How EF Difficulties are Treated
When there are difficulties related to EF, treatment can be tricky. As I mentioned above, when one part of the system is brought down, other parts tend to suffer as well. As a result, it can be difficult to figure out where exactly the difficulty is and where attention needs to be focused. Because it can be hard to target specific skills, and because all of the skills can generally use some improvement when there are EF challenges, treatment often involves improving EF skills more broadly. This can be done through EF coaching, where EF skills are taught similar to how therapy can teach effective coping skills.
EF coaching may not work well for everyone, and it depends on the specific difficulties. For example, if there is a challenge at a lower level (such as understanding language), then EF coaching will be of limited help. If someone has concerns about their EF, they should consult with a professional to learn more about their options and what is likely to work best for them.
EF is made up of a series of different skills, which have been detailed above. Some researchers have suggested other skills that can be considered a part of EF, but it becomes difficult to tell what is it's own skill and what is a combination of the other skills (e.g., is organizing unique, or a combination of planning and switching?). For those interested in EF, there is a lot of good literature about different ways to think about EF and how it is important. As I make progress on my dissertation, I will also be contributing to that literature.
Do you have questions about EF? Are there any skills that you think are a part of EF that I didn't mention? Let me know in the comments!