Why you can’t and how you can – Part 1

PFC and EFDs

The PreFrontal Cortex and
Executive Functioning Disorders & Struggles

“The more you know about Executive Functions, their disorders,
and the mechanisms behind them,
the better you’ll be able to build – or rebuild – executive skills,
AS you work around them to manage challenges
and  overcome difficulties.”
~ Madelyn Griffith-Haynie

Cognitive Skills and Cognitive Challenges

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Part of the Executive Functioning Series

Executive functioning processes include working memory, focused attention and attentional control, along with cognitive and behavioral flexibility.

These areas are products of a great many brain-based skills we rarely realize our brain has taught itself to do – unless it hasn’t. 

For example:

In other words, the brain’s Executive Functions consist of a collection of mental abilities that help our brains organize information of many types in a manner that we can act on it.

Executive functioning challenges can produce a wide range of symptoms in wide variety of individuals – as well as in the same individual in various environments, at various times, or as they age.

  • Once sufficient motivation is identified, STRONG executive functioning skills enable us to pay attention, plan, organize, remember things, prioritize, get started on tasks, locate items we’ve misplaced (and ourselves within our world) relatively quickly and easily.
  • With WEAK executive functioning skills – without dedicated focus on developing strategies and work-arounds – handling even the simplest of tasks can become life stoppers.

Recalling a specific term, name or birthday, for example, could be as big a challenge as completing an assignment, finding something important you’ve misplaced or adhering to a schedule!

As I reminded you in the last EF article, Executive Functioning Disorders – not just kid stuff, more than a few scientists position the cognitive and attentional struggles experienced by those with ADD/ADHD/TBI etc. AS a condition of impaired Executive Functions (especially ADD experts who have spent their entire careers studying EFDs like ADD/ADHD).

One of my favorite sources is Dr. Thomas E. Brown from Yale, who has a particularly cogent explanation of EF challenges.  [SEE: A New Understanding of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD)]

image source: addwithease.com

For the most part, as I have said many times, the executive functions are mediated through a particular region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex [PFC].

WHICH MEANS THAT any individual with a disorder, stroke or other brain damage affecting the prefrontal cortex is highly likely to experience brain-based executive functioning challenges of one sort or another.  It also includes individuals with cognitive and learning challenges since birth.

That includes individuals OF ANY AGE with mood disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, TBI/ABI, and more than a few neurological conditions such as sensory integration disorders, Parkinson’s, dyslexia — in fact, almost all of what I refer to as the alphabet disorders.

Everything is fuzzy when the PFC is doing a sub-par job!

However, thanks to the miracle of neuroplasticity, appropriate intervention can be helpful at any age, allowing your brain to create new pathways it can access more quickly and easily. 

Things can change, even into adulthood – but only once you become aware of the reasons behind the need for change, take new actions, and develop the habit of using them long enough for new “roads” to be constructed between your ears.

Don’t forget that you can always scroll up the sidebar
for a reminder of how links work on this site, they’re subtle ==>


In our attempts to understand ourselves, our environment, and our challenges, we’ll often end up talking about the brain — “that three pound lump of jelly you can hold in the palm of your hand.”
~ V.S. Ramachandran

Even though science has learned to quantify a great many of the elements of the brain, most of us still search for metaphors and analogies as we attempt to describe our understanding and our experiences.

We’ll get to more of those in future articles where we talk more specifically about EF problems and solutions, but we need to begin with a basic understanding of how that three-pound blob of jelly operates.

Years of experience have taught me that you won’t do the work if you don’t understand the brain science behind it — since so many of the actions that will help you “rewire” are counter-intuitive (or seem too basic or silly).

A Quick Brain Primer for Context

The cortex, also referred to as the neocortex because it was the last part of the brain to evolve, is the thinly layered wrinkly part of the brain that forms the outer surface of mammalian brains.

Overly simplistic and not entirely accurate, the front portion of the cortex, towards the forehead, is often thought to be primarily devoted to action, while the back portions of the cortex are given regulation responsibility for perception.

The cortex is divided up into four main lobes:

  1. the occipital lobe which is in the back, processes visual information;
  2. the temporal lobes on the sides process sound, and seem to be particularly important to language and certain types of memory;
  3. the parietal lobes process tactile sensation and body positioning feedback;
  4. and the frontal lobes which, in general, are in charge of motor control, as well as the elements regulated by the front-most portion, the PFC (pre-frontal cortex)

For a more detailed description of these areas and what they do see:
Making the Connection: Brain-based Overview Part 2

Our large prefrontal cortex [PFC] makes us HUMAN

Our expanded and well-developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain immediately behind the forehead, occupies about 29% of our cortex. It is thought to be the part of the brain that makes us uniquely human (primarily through the logic of comparing the percentage of space allocated to our PFC to the 17% in chimpanzees, 7% in dogs and 3% in cats ~ Brodmann, 1909).

According to what science has discovered to date, the prefrontal cortex appears to be the most universally-connected part of the brain.

Perhaps most important to cognitive science and our sense of self, the prefrontal cortex is the brain region with the ability to form a “map” of the entire cortex through its connections to and from everywhere else.

The PFC has two-way connections to almost every modular functional unit of the brain, including the portions developed earlier (in common with many other “simpler” species of various types), as well as those developed much later (many in common with apes, chimpanzees and bonobos).

In addition to it’s connections to many other parts of the cortex, the PFC is  connected to the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the brain stem structures, which are important in the regulation of arousal and activation.

Connecting the dots – your Brain’s CEO

Since the prefrontal cortex appears to be the only place where the information from the internal environment (our memories of learned information) connects and merges with the evidence of our senses (information from the outside world), it indicates that the PFC has to be where these two sources are integrated.

  • Since the prefrontal cortex seems to be the most comprehensively-connected part of the brain, it is in a unique position to coordinate the brain functions.
  • Unfortunately, it also leaves us vulnerable to a sort-of cognitive gridlock when one of those connections is faulty in some manner -or- when the PFC itself is impaired or damaged.

Cognition – how we think, perceive and know

Cognition is the name we give to the mental actions or processes of acquiring understanding and functional awareness through thought, experience, and the input from our senses – the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension of the world in which we live.

Science is getting closer all the time to understanding neural mechanisms of action – which simply means how the brain does what it does.

At one time, back when I began to study neurology as I developed the world’s first ADD-specific coach training, the over-riding scientific belief was that the human brain was modular and localized.

In other words, the dominant belief was that
distinct areas in the brain were specialized
for different and discrete functions.

While there certainly are areas of the brain dedicated to specific functional abilities, the theory of modularity seems now to be giving way to the understanding that the connections are of primary importance, referred to as the cognitive theory of distributed processing.


This later view of cognition suggests that brain areas are highly interconnected, processing information in an integrated fashion — which would mean that cognition is distributed throughout the cortex in a graduated and continuous manner.

In the distributed processing model, different interactions within the brain would influence each other: activity in one area would influence or modulate connected areas.

According to its proponents, the distributed processing idea changes how we look at the brain, in terms of function as well as dysfunction.

We can no longer claim to understand
cognitive abilities or problems
by focusing only on activity in isolated areas.

Even the proponents of modularity position it as a matter of degree, admitting that it is most useful to think of the brain as modular to the extent that it warrants studying in regards to its functional specialization.[5]

Ultimately, these two theories, modularity and distributive processing, will most likely be proven to interact simultaneously and collaboratively, characterizing the functioning of the brain in tandem.

Cognitive Hierarchies

  1. Think of the first level, the primary sensory and motor projections, as more modular.  Many of the older areas of the brain seem to be first level operators.

  2. The next few levels, made up of various cortical areas that are primary participants in more complex information processing, can be thought of like mixed operations – localized to some extent, but dependent on the help of connections for us to DO much of anything with the information.
  3. The final level consists of areas of the cortex that appeared latest in evolution, and do not seem to have any specific modularity, relying most on their connections to do their work.


The importance of the functional implications of the interconnection of the areas of the brain is best understood in terms of brain damage – since it frequently leaves physical evidence that has a quantifiable “before and after.”

Depending on how many and which areas of the brain were damaged – and to what degree – individuals with seemingly similar physical damage can have similar but not identical deficits.

That impacts recovery protocols and recovery time. 

Two people with similar damage, both working diligently to recapture lost skills and abilities using identical methods, can have vastly differing results.  One might recover completely and relatively quickly while another continues to struggle for years.

Check out 84 ways Concussion/TBI can make your life really interesting
on the Broken Brain, Brilliant Mind blog —
Experience-Based Brain Injury (Concussion, TBI, ABI, Stroke) Survival Strategies and Tactics

To experience relief, you have to scratch where it itches.  Unless you can figure out what’s involved in creating the problem, how in the world can you expect to UNcreate it?

*thanks Patrick!

Expanding the Idea of  “Broken Brains”

As I discussed in a prior article, Lessons from the TBI Community:

I doubt that anyone who reads or watches television is unaware of the behavioral and cognitive changes that accompany dementias, strokes, and brain-injuries due to accidents of one sort or another.

Most sensible individuals readily accept that those changes are a direct result of brain damage, leaving areas of the brain incapable of performing their role in the neural relay race, or doing so inefficiently or incompletely.

WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE that that someone might be be born with parts of the brain that function inefficiently, or that brain development might not proceed in that so-called neurotypical fashion in ALL individuals, and that there might be similar behavioral and cognitive differences as a result?

Which brings us back to where this article began:

“The more you know about Executive Functions, their disorders,
and the mechanisms behind them,
the better you’ll be able to build – or rebuild – executive skills,
AS you work around them to manage challenges
and  overcome difficulties.”

As this article continues and I expand the Executive Functioning Series, we’ll be getting down to specifics, work-arounds, and habit creation that will help you discover how you can remap your brain.

*Broken Brain with Pipe courtesy of Patrick J. Lynch,
medical illustrator  Creative Commons on Wikipedia

Shared on the Senior Salon

REFERENCES – for more information:

The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind
The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older
~ both by Elkhonon Goldberg
Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life
Michael Merzenich
A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain
~ John J. Ratey
Neurobiology for Dummies  and Neuroscience for Dummies
~ both by Frank Amthor
Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are ~ Sebastian Seung
The Brain Science Podcast, BSP 17, 18, 19

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

As always, if you want notification of new articles in the Executive Functioning Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series (one-on-one couples or group), click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end (or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page). Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!).

You might also be interested in some of the following articles
available right now – on this site and elsewhere.

For additional article links in context: run your cursor over the article above
the dark grey links will turn dark red;
(subtle, so they don’t pull focus while you read,
but you can find them to click when you’re ready for them)

— and check out the links to other Related Content in each of the articles themselves —

Related Content on ADDandSoMuchMore.com

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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!"

30 Responses to Why you can’t and how you can – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Habit Formation BASICS | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Bernadette says:

    Madelyn, Thank you for such an easy to understand article about a very difficult to understand subject. I just finished reading Into the Gray Zone. It was horrifyingly fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Chocked with plenty of helpful information, Madelyn. Thanks! 🙂 Sharing…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So much wonderful information!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lisa Orchard says:

    Wow. Thanks for all the awesome information. I’m bookmarking this post so I can come back to it and absorb it. I’m sure I didn’t pick up all the info on the first read through. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The human brain is an amazing organ. Another interesting article Madelyn. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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  14. Amy says:

    Great explanation – thank you. It is helpful for me because my daughter has ADD which led to a lot of psychological distress as she got older, often clashing with her tendency to be a perfectionist.


    • Thanks so much for letting me know this is helpful, Amy. Check out The Challenges Inventory Linklist for a list of links to a great many articles with some specific help (scroll down for lists by Challenge).

      There are also a ton of links to more specific content available here within this article (greyish)- for those who want to undertake a Ph.D in intentional attending ::grin::

      Thanks again!


    • Second thoughts: tell your daughter that I refer to her “tendency to be a perfectionist” as having a “high OCD piece” to her ADD — below the Obsessive/Compulsive diagnostic line, but useful to explore to figure out work-arounds.

      THE GOOD NEWS is that, in my considerable experience, those with that kind of ADD tend to do very well in life – each piece modulates the other – as long as the individual is willing to do the work to understand what’s going on (and ride herd on the tendency toward Black and White thinking) to be able to keep a lid on his or her frustration.

      Hope this helps a bit.


  15. Reblogged this on Broken Brain – Brilliant Mind and commented:
    More about the prefrontal cortex and executive functioning difficulties. I may have reblogged this before, but if I did, it deserves another look.


  16. janetkwest says:

    There was a small piece on the recent Freakonomics podcast, Ten Years episode regarding how a generation of children were changed by teaching mothers in this small country to talk to their children, instead of just placing them on their backs and doing their field work as usual. It’s all these mothers had ever known. It’s amazing how just a bit of information, just like you are giving, can change people. Keep up the good work girl. 🙂


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