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  • Loren Bahor, MSW, LCSWA

Executive Function: The Brain's CEO

The term “executive function” has become a bit of a buzzword in the fields of psychology and education, and understanding it can be a little confusing.

My goal with this blog is to make learning what it is and remembering what it is as simple as possible. Also, I find brain stuff to be mucho confusing, so I often request for people to explain brain stuff to me like I am 4 years old, and I find it helpful to make it easy for others, as well.

OKAY, SO! The easiest way to think about executive function is to compare it to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a company.

Think of someone with a magnificently decorated corner office in a high-rise building in NYC - overlooking central park. The person who gets paid the big bucks to make the important decisions - setting the vision and strategy for short and long term plans and overseeing the general operations and performance of the company. Your executive function is your CEO, and what it oversees is all of the big and little details that allow you to run your life.

For context, executive function starts in the part of the brain called the frontal lobe.

This part of your brain sits right smack in the front of the brain, behind your forehead (hence the office with the incredible view), and it acts as a director for various other parts of your brain, depending on what you need or are trying to do.

Executive function performs many of the same duties as a company’s CEO – it is the command center for our cognitive skills.

Cognitive skills are really really really important (I cannot express this enough) core, foundational skills that your brain uses every single day to accomplish just about everything you do. (Basically, all the things)!

Cognitive skills and executive function skills are the equivalent of you on the days when you put your hair up in a messy bun, and you get shit done! They are the total boss.

Examples of executive functions include:

· Working memory

· Problem solving

· Decision-making

· Planning & organizing (and not procrastinating!)

· Managing attention

· Language

· Motivation

· Judgment (the ability to assess what we should and shouldn’t do)

· Delaying Gratification (self-control or the ability to control what we should and shouldn’t do)

· Time Perception

· Adapting to changing situations

· Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you're doing)

· Regulating emotions (emotional self-control)

We rely on our executive functions for everything from taking a shower to making sure we get to work on time to making sure our taxes are sent in. For those with ADHD, a lot of these seemingly simple things can feel really, really hard – in fact, every day life can feel like an overwhelming struggle.

Research on ADHD has found that impairment of executive function is closely linked to ADHD and suggests that it just might be the main deficiencies in the disorder.

Also really important to remember that impairment in executive function has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence.

The trouble is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are of if you never do your homework, or if projects at work are consistently late.

Difficulties with executive function looks different for every person. If you have ADHD or think you might, it can be really helpful to learn which brain functions are strongest and which are weakest in order to target the ones you have most difficulty with.


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