What ARE Executive Functions?

 by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Part 2 in a Series (click HERE for Part 1))

What the heck ARE Executive Functions ANYWAY?

Well, that all depends on who you ask!

While there is certainly a consensus that executive systems are involved in handling situations outside the domains of most of the processes of the body (whether ‘automatic’ or something under our conscious control) – and while there is very little disagreement that executive processes are not controlled by the same processes that produce our emotional reactions –

the exact nature of executive control
is difficult to pin down and articulate.

Until science discovers more about the neuro-chemical, bio-electric  processes underlying brain function, all anybody can really do is attempt to describe them based on how and where they work – or don’t!

Try to describe the elements that combine to allow an orchestra to create beautiful music . . .

 . . . see the problem?

You can’t really say much about it until you know what kind of music the orchestra is trying to make beautiful.

AND . . .

as challenging as it would be to come up with a list of ALL of the kinds of music any orchestra might play . . . it’s not a whole lot easier to agree even upon a set of categories into which all the factors could be be sorted.

So it is with the executive functions . . . which will never stop science from TRYING to categorize! 

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Working around what’s not working

For years, most of what we knew about the brain came from studying brain damage, most commonly the result of accidents or strokes. We didn’t have the technology to peek into the brain of a living, breathing, human being, but we could put two and two together when functional abilities changed due to something we could date and see.

For example:
 Your CPA is your childhood friend Jimmy.  Slightly over a year ago he barely survived a terrible accident, hitting his head so hard it produced damage to his forehead, still visible today.

He now seems to lose focus in the middle of conversations that used to fascinate him for hours at a time. His private secretary reports that she has had to take charge of more and more since that accident because, among many other things, Jimmy can’t add figures in his head anymore.  Having to use a calculator is so frustrating for him that he loses his temper the minute he even thinks about looking at a balance sheet.

Until the accident, Jimmy didn’t have a temper to lose.  Even as a kid, he was the most even tempered person anybody knew.  (Hmmmmmm,  short term memory problems and changes in concentration and mood after damage to the Prefrontal Cortex!)

Brain Injuries teach science about Executive Functions

Medical science began to notice similarities in functional changes following other types of brain injuries resulting from near drownings (oxygen deprivation), in drug abusers, after exposure to neurotoxins and so on.

Bit by bit, they learned more and more about how the brain does what it does.

At the same time, science developed advanced ways of  scanning and tracking changes.

Still, even though we have more sophisticated tools now, and the pace of our learning has picked up considerably, we still can’t say with certainty what’s going on where and what causes what.

But we do believe that we know this: other than executive dysfunction that results from brain damage, executive functioning impairments seem to be “hard-wired” — that is to say that they seem to be the result of inherited problems with the neuro-chemistry affecting the brain’s management system (“brain wiring” for short!)

Compensation and Retraining

The first step to “fixing” kludgy brain wiring is pinpointing what it IS that’s not working effectively — and we’re right back to our original concern:  how to identify and describe what’s involved, beginning with what’s going on when everything is hunky-dory.

So let’s begin by taking a look at some categories that others have used to attempt to toss functional elements into “containers,” hoping to help with identification, examination, and control.

Oh Noooooo!

I know, lists can sometimes seem like boring things to read through – and I’m just about to give you three of them in a row! – but hey, we’ve gotta’ start somewhere.

Read them aloud for focus, if you must, but READ them.

You can’t expect to “adjust” your experience until you understand what needs time,  attention, and tweaking, right?

In future articles I’ll “unpack” some of these lists and give you some examples that might help make The Executive Functions seem more relative to your very own life.

I promise you that they ARE related, and that understanding how they apply will make ALL of the information you read on the web make a whole lot more sense.

It will also help you put the cretins who try to tell you that ADD doesn’t exist or isn’t a problem FIRMLY in their place  – respectfully, and with a smattering of impressive big words!!!  So bear with me, and keep reading.

(By the way, run your cursor over the text to see the links jump out –
hold before clicking for a bit of description, and click to read the article in a new window/tab)

Executive Functioning: Five Domains of Action

D.A. Norman and T. Shallice, outlined FIVE arenas or types of situations where inadequate executive functioning would make optimal performance all but impossible:

  1. Planning or decision-making domains
  2. Circumstances where troubleshooting or error correction is essential or important
  3. Novel sequences of actions (or where responses are not well-rehearsed)
  4. Domains of technical challenge, or those involving danger
  5. Areas necessitating inhibition of a strong habitual response — or the ability to resist temptation
    See Attention to action: Willed and automatic control of behavior  (1980, reprinted in in 2000 in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Reader, edited by M. Gazzaniga)

NOTE: In each of the lists below, the words in bold are the categories defined by the authors. The explanations that follow are my take on their topics — my own summaries of domains they have articulated in their work.

Six Clusters of Executive Functions

In Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults Yale’s Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D. expands on the SIX Clusters of Executive Functions he proposed in 2001, central impairments in what he refers to as “ADD Syndrome”:

1. Activation – organizing tasks and materials, prioritizing and getting started on tasks, estimating time

2. Focus – which, to me, means the dynamics of attending:

a) focusing on the intended object,
b) sustaining the focus, and
c) shifting focus at will

3. Effort – particularly sustaining effort – along with regulating processing speed and alertness (which, by the way, includes the regulation of the sleep/wake process in Brown’s method of sorting)

4. Emotion: Emotional modulation, especially frustration management

5. Memory – utilizing working memory and accessing recall on demand

6. Action – monitoring and regulating your actions (including problems with hyperactivity or impulsivity, as well as monitoring the environment for appropriateness of any particular action)

Eight Pillars of Executive Functions

In No Mind Left Behind, Adam J. Cox, Ph.Dorganizes the executive functions into EIGHT categories, which he refers to as The Eight Pillars of what he calls “Factor X”:

1. Initiation – sufficient cognitive organization ability to be able to begin tasks without nudging (prompting from another) – a different take on activation.

2. Flexibilityability to shift focus and pace appropriately in response to your environment and particular surroundings

3. Attention – the ability to manage focus intentionally: blocking out distractions, resuming tasks after interruptions, sustaining focus long enough to bring activities to conclusion or finish tasks.

4. Organization – the ability to manage objects in the physical realm in a manner that supports your life and your goals for your life

5. Planning – the ability to manage energy within time’s boundaries, projected into the future

6. Working memory – the ability to retain information long enough to commit it to long-term memory

7. Self-awareness – the ability to understand and embrace the concept of how behaviors determine what people think about you in a variety of environments, along with the ability to self-monitor

8. Managing emotions – the ability to regulate emotional expression in proportion to the events that initiated them

Although each of the above systems of categorizing are different, it is easy to see that they are each doing a pretty good  job of describing the same processes: The Executive Functions!  

It’s also easy to note that ADDers struggle with practically every darned one of them — as do others on what I refer to as The Attentional Spectrum.”

Dr. Russell Barkley looks at Five Primary Arenas:

Your ability to:

  1. Inhibit your behavior
  2. Use visual imagery
  3. Talk to yourself (internally)
  4. Control your emotions
  5. Plan and problem solve

But rather than making you READ another list of explanations, click below to hear him TELL you about it.

Click ABOVE to watch a short VIDEO where noted ADD expert, Dr. Russell Barkley, briefly summarizes the Executive Functions, looking through what I refer to as The ADD Lens™ 


Stay tuned — future articles in the Executive Functioning series will take a look at the implications of Executive Functioning Disorders on the way to helping you figure out how to drive the very brain you have.

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IN ANY CASE, stay tuned. There’s a lot to know, a lot here already,
and a lot more to come.
Get it now, while it’s still free for the taking.

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(in case you missed them above)

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

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