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What are Executive Functions?

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  • Written By: Sandi Johnson
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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Executive functions embody a concept used in modern psychology to describe how humans control cognitive processes. They include a variety of neurological brain processes responsible for analyzing incoming information to the brain and determining appropriate behavioral responses. For example, a child learns classroom rules from a teacher, and then learns to abide by said rules, inhibiting inappropriate behavior through repetitive reminders. Cognitive processes associated with executive functions help the child apply those same rules and learned responses when the class engages in novel situations outside the typical classroom setting.

In psychology, the term executive function appears interchangeably with terms such as supervisory attentional system and cognitive control. No matter the exact term used, the concept of executive functions remains only a theorized system, with little to no biologically identifiable components other than the brain and associated neurological processes. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and similar professionals use the concept of cognitive control to describe the relationship between sensory information processing and planning or executing responses.

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Psychologists theorize that humans learn set patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, known as schemas. An individual's schemas develop by gathering information from language, auditory stimuli, and tactile input. Executive functions allow individuals to apply known schemas to unique or new environments and situations. When making decisions or planning actions in a new environment, a person draws on prior experiences and learned responses. Such schemas, assuming the individual maintains normal cognitive abilities, help the individual determine possible threats or dangers, theorize outcomes, and choose appropriate actions.

The study of executive functions and cognitive processes, known collectively as cognitive neuropsychology, continues to search for biological markers, clues, and effective treatments for various deficits in cognitive control. Researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, study the neurological architecture of the brain in search of connections between both language and visual processing with various cognitive systems. Harvard primarily participates in studies involving language disorders, but other researchers pursue study areas such as auditory processing or memory.

Individuals with disorders known to interfere with cognitive abilities, such as nonverbal learning disorder or autism spectrum disorders, often exhibit decreased capacities in terms of executive functions. Children and adults with such disorders typically have difficulty in areas of self control, as well as motor control challenges involving balance and self-stimulating behaviors. These patients often struggle to choose appropriate responses in both familiar and novel environments, with a noted lack of or slow to develop schemas. Such patients also commonly exhibit delayed development of language processing and abstract thinking.

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