Executive functions are a set of high-level cognitive processes that allow us to accomplish complex tasks and activities or to solve problems.
Executive functions also allow us to automate certain tasks. This automation allows our brain to focus its attention on the more complicated elements without making efforts for the simpler ones.
These skills are considered by experts to be the biological foundation of learning.
What is an executive function?
Executive functions are the mental mechanisms that allow us to control our thoughts, actions and emotions.
They allow us to function, to be able to carry out in the world what our intelligence commands. Indeed, when we have a good memory, a good control of ourselves and a good flexibility, we can act successfully.
When we have to solve a task or a problem, we use our executive functions. Our brain is able to take all the information from the environment and all the information we already have. Then, it elaborates this information to find the best strategy and, finally, to implement the chosen strategy.
In addition, we can do automatic activities. This allows our brain to use its attentional resources on other elements. For example, learning to ride a bike may take time, but once you learn it, it is something you do without thinking about it. While riding a bike you don’t focus on how to move your legs or keep your balance, but only on the environment and the road.
Executive function disorders
Executive dysfunction occurs when the filtering of environmental stimuli is difficult or impossible. These disorders can be linked to pathologies or to a head trauma.
The quality of life of a person with executive dysfunction is greatly impacted by these difficulties. The disorders can affect the cognitive functions or the behavior of the person who may have difficulty adapting to new situations.
Symptoms may include an inability to plan a strategy or organize steps to follow. Another difficulty is related to memory, which can manifest itself with a forgetfulness of the steps to follow or an inability to elaborate information in the immediate future. Finally, we can see that the person will have a mental inflexibility, so he or she will have difficulties in changing his or her reasoning, in looking for other solutions or in correcting himself or herself.
At the behavioral level, the disorder manifests itself with motor agitation and verbal or motor impulsiveness.
Exercises to improve executive functions
There are several activities to train cognitive functions. You can play puzzle games or logic games (crossword, sudoku…). These activities allow you to look for strategies, plan actions in a logical order or adapt to feedback.
Card games are very useful since you need to remember information immediately, such as which cards have already been drawn during the game.