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WHAT IS EXECUTIVE FUNCTION?
Executive Function is a term that comes up more and more in the world of psychological research and education support. A recent article in the journal Neuropsychology tries to provide some clarification on this increasingly popular yet often ill-defined phrase. Authors Paul T. Cirino, Yusra Ahmed, Jeremy Miciak, W. Pat Taylor, and Elyssa H. Gerst from the University of Houston and Marcia A. Barnes from the University of Texas at Austin set out to clarify what Executive Function (EF) means from the sometimes diverse perspectives of neuropsychology, developmental psychology, and educational psychology. They are trying to determine if Executive Function means the same thing from all these perspectives or to what degree there is any overlap in meaning.
The authors begin with the broad understanding of Executive Function as the process that helps us manage goal directed behaviour. In other words, it’s the process that allows us to navigate and manage our lives to accomplish the things we need to do. This broad and important process affects everything from studying for an exam to managing our workload so we can spend time with family. The specific purpose of the article is to discuss how the many different components of executive function are related to each other.
The authors outline three approaches that are generally taken when studying EF; the first studies damage to the brain that affects EF, the second studies the cognitive functions (planning, remembering) that help us accomplish our goals, and the third focuses on problem solving and reflecting on solutions. The article limits its study to the last two, leaving aside issues of the effect brain injuries have on EF.
The article draws on the study of 846 elementary students in grades 3 to 5, ages 8 to 11 in the United States. Elementary students were chosen because, while it is expected that the basics of math and reading are accomplished by this level, it is a developmentally sensitive age for the skills associated with executive function such as planning, task initiation, and general independence. 8 components of executive function are listed, they include “(1) working memory; (2) inhibition; (3) shifting; (4) planning; (5) generative fluency; (6) self-regulated learning; (7) metacognition; and (8) behavioral regulation” (Cirino et. al. 2018).
These 8 components represent an attempt to be inclusive of the different aspects that are sometimes contained under the heading “executive function”. Other notable accounts, for example Miyake et al. (2000), describe only three: inhibition, shifting, and updating (working memory). As we shall see, some of these 8 can be reduced to, or are strongly correlated with, these three.
Let’s take a moment to describe each of these components:
1) Working memory refers, generally, to the ability to hold information in mind while taking in the current situation and, in this study, was assessed using tasks that required “(a) recall with manipulation, (b) simultaneous processing and storage, or (c) ongoing maintenance/updating of information in active memory” (Cirino et al. 2018). A simple example of working memory in action would be cooking from a recipe but wanting to make a double batch. You need to recall the amount of an ingredient needed and then double it for the current batch. You are keeping information in mind but also working on it (manipulating it) for the current situation.
2) Inhibition represents our ability to resist an initial impulse or reaction in order to provide a more considered response. This can be thought of as our ability to suppress our ‘knee-jerk’ reaction. A popular way of assessing this is called the Stroop test, in it people are shown the names of colours in differently coloured fonts and asked to say the word rather than the colour of the font. In the example “BLUE”, we resist, or inhibit, the impulse to say the font colour (black) and instead say the word (blue).
3) The component of executive function known as shifting refers to our ability to mentally change tasks that have different rules or guidelines. For example, if you were asked to sort fruit according to weight and then asked to begin sorting according colour instead, this would require the kind of mental ‘shift’ that is described by this term.
4) Planning in this context means much the same as its everyday use: to anticipate and account for the steps required to accomplish a goal.
5) Generative Fluency, often called verbal fluency, is the ability to recall words speedily from a certain group or category. For example: name as many capitals as you can, as fast as you can.
6) The way that we navigate and direct our own learning is called Self-Regulated Learning (SLR). This includes, not only how we go about learning something (the plan we make) but also how we navigate obstacles and difficulties along the way.
7) Metacognition, generally, refers to our ability to think about our thinking. In the context of executive function this means reflecting on and evaluating the conclusions and processes of our thoughts.
8) When we manage our behaviour, specifically in terms of our emotional reaction, attention, and focus, this is called behaviour regulation. It is similar to self-regulated learning but applies to a broader range of our activities.
It is generally accepted that these 8 components, or some combination or variation of them, constitute executive function. When the disciplines of psychology and education talk about EF, they are talking about some or all of these 8 items. The purpose of the article by Cirino et al. is to try to determine the relationship between these components and executive function. Do all 8 have something underlying that is common to all of them or have we collected a set of distinct features under the single heading of executive function?
The conclusion of the study is that the truth seems to be a mix of the two options. “The present study is unable to conclude that indicators of EF are interchangeable and each contributes similarly to a unitary factor; it is also unable to conclude that hypothesized factors are separable and nonoverlapping” (Cirino et al. 2018) There are certain components that seem to be distinct from each other, notably self-regulated learning and metacognition.
What this means is that success or deficiency in these areas is not directly correlated to success or deficiency in the other components studied. However, the authors urge that it is beneficial to have a broad perspective of executive function and that there was found to be strong overlap amongst, or correlation between, components such as shifting, working memory, planning, and generative fluency (Cirino et al. 2018).
While this study does not provide a definitive description of executive function, it does provide important insight into the components of executive function and the interrelation of those components with each other and the concept of executive function itself. As the authors themselves indicate, it will be left to future experimental studies to work out the role that this information will play in the strategies and techniques we develop to support those with executive function deficits.
Cirino, P., Ahmed, Y., Miciak, J., Taylor, W., Gerst, E., & Barnes, M. (2018). A framework for executive function in the late elementary years. Neuropsychology, 32(2), 176-189. doi: 10.1037/neu0000427
Miyake, A., Friedman, N., Emerson, M., Witzki, A., Howerter, A., & Wager, T. (2000). The Unity and Diversity of Executive Functions and Their Contributions to Complex “Frontal Lobe” Tasks: A Latent Variable Analysis. Cognitive Psychology, 41(1), 49-100. doi: 10.1006/cogp.1999.0734
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Dr. Michael Bruder (Philosophy)