The 11 executive functions of the human brain
Think of whatever we have done, are doing or have to do. For example, I am writing this article. I attend the speaker of a conference or the teacher in class. I have to go out and buy before they close the store. They seem simple things to do, but each of these actions involves a series of high-level cognitive processes that allow me to carry them out.
These processes are called executive functions , thanks to which we are able to act with a specific purpose.
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Defining executive functions
Executive functions are understood as the set of cognitive skills and processes that allow us to adapt successfully to the environment and solve problems from the integration of the different information available , being able to carry out proactive behaviors thanks to them. In general, it can be considered that they are in charge of controlling and self-regulating mental activity and cognitive resources, participating in aspects such as motivation or morality as well as in the processing of information and the control of behavior.
It is a series of abilities that are not completely innate, but are acquired and developed throughout the life cycle and development of the individual. In fact some of them do not finish maturing until around twenty-five years of age , being this something linked to brain maturation. Likewise, executive functions tend to decline as they age, both in a normative manner and if neurological problems occur.
The brain region that has most linked to these functions is located in the frontal lobe. Specifically, it is a part of said lobe, the prefrontal cortex is the most relevant when managing this set of skills.
Damages in this region will cause serious difficulties in higher mental processes that allow the management of behavior, as can be observed in different disorders and traumatisms. In addition, the development of executive functions is largely related to the cerebral maturation of the prefrontal, which does not just occur until adulthood.
But this does not mean that executive functions are due solely to the prefrontal cortex. After all, the information that allows processes such as planning and reasoning are carried out comes largely from other brain areas. For example, structures such as the limbic system, the hippocampus, the basal ganglia or the cerebellum stand out.
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What kind of functions are included?
As we have said, by executive functions we understand a set of skills and processes of great utility for our survival and adaptation. But what are they? Some of the main and most important are the following.
Be able to use the different information and see the possible connections between them , as well as elaborate possible explanations.
This executive function is what allows us to draw up action plans . It allows generating a series of steps that will take us to a specific goal.
3. Goal setting
Linked to motivation, it is the ability that allows us to decide how to invest our energies and where to direct our behaviors.
4. Decision making
It's about the skill that allows us to determine which option to choose among the many that can be presented to us.
5. Start and end of tasks
Although it may seem strange, initiating the tasks at a specific time is an important cognitive activity. The same goes for the ability to determine when an action should be finalized.
It is the ability to combine and structure information in an efficient and useful way.
The ability to inhibit is another of the executive functions and one of the most relevant. It is the ability that allows us to regulate our actions by stopping the behavior. Makes us able to resist specific impulses , stop an action and prevent harmless information from interfering with our conduct.
It refers to the ability to maintain attention to the task and regulate what and how we are doing what we are doing.
9. Verbal and nonverbal work memory
It's about the ability to store the information so that the subject can operate with it later. Both verbally and nonverbally.
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This capacity allows to foresee in advance the results of an action and / or its consequences.
The ability to be flexible is what it allows us to change our way of acting or thinking about possible changes environmental issues or modify ongoing actions.
Some disorders in which they appear altered
Different disorders and injuries in the brain they can cause that the executive functions can not be carried out correctly, causing important adaptation problems.
Some of the disorders with involvement in this area can occur from childhood, as occurs with people with ADHD. These children present problems such as difficulties in starting a task, little capacity for inhibition and to develop and follow plans or problems to retain information in the working memory.
Other disorders in which this happens are dementias, in which the neurodegenerative process causes an affectation that makes it difficult to maintain the executive functions. Examples of this can be found in dementias such as that caused by Huntington's disease, or frontal dementias.
In any case, even without any kind of disorder executive functions usually begin to show some decline from the sixth decade of life , in a standardized way.