Executive functions: mental abilities of the human brain

Executive functions: mental abilities of the human brain

Executive functions are complex cognitive processes. These are the mental activities that we do to interact with our environment, work, create, prioritize certain activities over others, control time or even self-motivate. It's like an automatic process sequence that we execute daily without really realizing it.

This may seem difficult to understand at first glance. We often hear that the brain works like a computer. That he uses almost the same mechanisms.We must however specify that it is much better.Executive functions are these incredibly sophisticated abilities through which we regulate our behavior and achieve our goals.Something that significantly exceeds any type of technology.

"It's in the brain that everything happens."
-Oscar Wilde-

Let's take an example. We go to bed with a book.As we look for the chapter where we stopped the night before, we are thinking about what we will do tomorrow. We set ourselves a goal, we decide what is best to differ and prioritize. So that we are excited by the objectives proposed for the next day. We then focus on reading thinking that in an hour we will turn off the light to sleep.

This simple scene shows how our brain performs countless processes in a small fraction of time. Few seconds.We treat, prioritize, plan, supervise and focus on certain goals.

Executive functions and the frontal lobe

The human being is not born with all the executive functions ready for use.It is curious to know, for example, that many of these processes become fully functional by the age of 25.Why ?These cognitive abilities are mainly located in prefrontal structures. They are also the last ones to develop.

The first neurologist who spoke about these functions as well as the executive system was Alexander Luria. It should be noted that these processes are a very recent phenomenon from a phylogenetic point of view. They assume the newest thing in our evolution as a species. It is also associated with two very specific milestones: language acquisition and frontal lobe augmentation.These facts were revolutionary at the time.

Our social groups are sophisticated. Culture, the control of the environment and a whole series of advances that come to constitute what we are now, have thus appeared. An essential aspect must however be specified. Although it is in our genetic code that these processes are refined as we get older (they usually appear between 8 and 12 months with the development of language in the baby),the complete acquisition of executive functions depends on several aspects.

The type of interaction we receive after the age of 2, as well as its quality, is fundamental.Stressful experiences or insecure attachment make it difficult to develop properly.

  • Elkhonon Goldberg is certainly one of the people who best understand the executive brain.He explains it in his book "How to invest in your brain how the executive functions reside in the frontal lobe. The latter corresponds to the field of our culture and our social interactions.
  • For example, a child will not develop or use these refined cognitive processes effectively unless he / she has a significant relationship with his / her parents or experience in education.
  • It is also important to note thatexecutive functions can sometimes be compromised by disorders such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity, dyscalculia, schizophrenia or any brain damage.

The good news is that these cognitive functions can be trained.Each of us can refine the adaptation of executive functions as long as there are no serious neurological problems.

What kind of executive functions do we have?

Animals also have their executive functions. They are more rudimentary and elementary. The animals present their needs, a perceptual system that guides them in their behavior and a physical and motor system oriented to satisfy these needs, their instincts.

"The prefrontal cortex is one of the newest phylogenetically and the last to mature in ontogeny, and that's where our most beautiful functions lie, the ones we should all train ourselves in everyday."
-K. Goldberg-

Things are a bit more sophisticated in humans. We are not only moving to meet the needs.Beyond instincts, we are characterized by goals, obligations, social bonds and our cultural and social scenario.Our environment is so complex that we need a brain that can adapt to this kaleidoscope of internal and external stimuli. This is where the executive functions come into play.

These are:

  • Planning:generate a sequence of ideas to achieve a goal.
  • Reasoning: the human compares information, discards, chooses, analyzes, generates heuristics …
  • Control and manage times. He knows how to calculate the time he has to devote to each task. He knows when he gets too much or when he has to spend more hours on something.
  • Organize, structure information so that it has a meaning and a purpose.
  • The inhibition. It is the ability to repress and control our instincts or impulses so that our behavior is appropriate.

  • Focusing and maintaining attention.
  • Supervision and follow-up of our tasks, objectives or wishes.
  • Work memory. Storing information for access at any time is one of the most important executive functions.
  • Flexibility.Ability to change direction, to be open to other ideas and to learn from them.

To conclude. The executive brain is undeniably the greatest gift that our evolution as a species has offered us. There is, however, a nuance that we can not ignore. Executive functions lose functionality as we get older. It is therefore important to highlight what we often discuss with ourselves …

Do not spend a day without learning something new.Let's cultivate curiosity, critical thinking or quality interaction with our friends or family.All of these are nutrients for our brain. Energy for these cognitive processes to resist time.

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