How do executive functions work?

The executive works with complex activities that allow us to achieve the different goals we set for ourselves and adapt to the environment. These are essential skills in our daily lives.

Despite the complexity of these functions, they are used in many activities that we carry out during the day, such as choosing the best way to reach our destination, memorizing a number that we have just consulted, planning and organizing the order which we will follow. the different tasks we have pending or to assess the best solution to possible setbacks that may arise.

We see how, in the same task or activity, we can demand more than one function. Thus, it will be essential to train them all to gain comfort of use and be more efficient. There are different ways to train them: we can do them individually, with other people, or perform cognitive or motor tasks, and even exercise them while playing and having fun.

In this article we will talk about what strategies and techniques can we use to work and improve executive functionswhich can be used in the educational context, in therapy sessions, as part of parenting strategies, etc.

    What are executive functions

    Executive functions are complex psychological processes that we perform with the intention of achieving a goal. So these functions they help us adapt to the environment and live functionallythat is, being able to perform the different actions or tasks that allow us to achieve our objectives.

    Given the complexity of these abilities, the most important development period is 6-8 years, and the maturation of some of them can be extended to 25 years.

    There are different types of executive functions, with different objectives, to meet the demands of each job.: planning, which consists of setting objectives, the procedure for achieving them and anticipating the consequences; decision-making, selection of one action among several; organize, gather and structure information; flexibility, ability to adapt to change; monitoring, i.e. total attention on a task; and anticipation, based on predicting results and consequences.

    Other equally useful executive functions are: response inhibition, voluntary cessation of behavior, self-control; verbal and non-verbal working memory, temporary storage for working with data; change, which shifts attention to different variables of a stimulus; updating, which consists of adding new contents to the memory; and fluidity, which relies on the production of new information available to us.

    So, to achieve the same goal, we can or will have to use different executive functions to perform the task properly. let’s see how some of these functions are linked and related to each other; For example, the ability to monitor, which we have seen consists of concentrating on a task in order to modify its performance if necessary, is linked to cognitive flexibility, which makes it possible to change one’s mind and adapt to the change.

    All these functions are very useful and essential for our daily life. They allow us to make plans, make decisions, solve problems, reduce impulsivity, increase cognitive flexibility, maintain our attention… In short, to carry out the different activities in an optimal way.

    For a better understanding, some more concrete examples would be: thinking about the best way to get where I want to go, what means of transport is the best to get there sooner or being able to change our behavior if we see that it there is a wave of trains.

      How to work and develop our executive functions?

      Executive functions, like many other skills, depend in part on the genetic factors of the subject, which means that each individual shows a predisposition to be more or less skilled in this regard, but we will always have the possibility of working on them.

      Given the importance they have in our daily lives, in the possibility of allowing us to adapt to the different situations we encounter, It will be crucial that we train them to be as functional as possible.

      Here are some tasks that can be helpful in training these skills. Some require equipment, others are done in groups and with the possibility of adapting to different ages.

      1. Labyrinths

      This task It consists of finding the path that allows you to go from the entrance to the exit, without encountering obstacles.. In this activity we will work on different functions, such as planning the goal we want to achieve, making decisions to see what is the best way, anticipation to anticipate possible obstacles or cognitive flexibility that will give us the opportunity to change our initial plan, the path initially chosen, in order to reach the exit.

        2. Find the differences between the drawings

        Another activity that can help us perform executive functions is look for the different differences between two drawings. This task monitors attention by holding it in a stimulus and fixing it on different parts of the drawings and from one drawing to another. It also gives us the possibility of practicing cognitive inhibition, linked to not refocusing our attention on details of the drawing that we have already checked and which are not different and of the organization, if we want to follow a pattern which guides us to seek more tidy differences.

          3. Perform tasks that depend on a condition

          In this case, the subject is given a task that must be solved given a premise or restriction. For example, you must find the answer to the problem using a specific procedure. In this way, planning is formed, to fix the goal, working memory that allows us to manipulate the information that we use at that moment or fluency, that allows us to use the knowledge that we already have with the information they give us .. in order to find the solution.

          4. Repeating letters and numbers

          The task of repeating numbers and letters has no greater mystery than repeating a series of stimuli (letters or numbers). primarily train working memory.

          A few modifications to the activity can be made to make it a bit more complex, such as asking the subject to repeat the sequence in reverse order, ordering it from highest to lowest or vice versa, also exercising organization or you ask to order letters and numbers by the hour. In this way, if we propose to do the different alternatives, the cognitive flexibility will also work, since it will have to adapt to the different changes to be able to do the task well.

          5. I remember pictures

          This is another useful technique for training primarily working memory, but in this case visual memory, since the test will consist of showing an image which must then be memorized and identified. It is important that little time passes, it is believed that if we stop using the information, the working memory takes between 10 and 15 seconds to decrease the memory of it.

          One way to make the activity more complex could be to increase the difficulty of the drawing or the stimuli to remember. For example, consider the need to remember both the color and the number indicated by each of the circles in the drawing.

            6. Reproduction of gestures

            Another way to train working memory, as well as other cognitive functions such as flexibility or inhibition, it’s about asking people to reproduce gestures. They must remember the gesture, have the ability to make new ones, and inhibit those who have already learned.

            We can make the activity more complex if we require it to remember and reproduce a sequence of actions.

            7. Alternate writing

            The subject is asked to write a series of words but alternating between lowercase and uppercase. That is to say that the activity will consist of writing a word in uppercase and then another in lowercase. In this way, we work on cognitive flexibility, since it allows to vary the state of writing and cognitive inhibition, since it slows down and controls the most spontaneous action which would consist in continuing with the same type of letter.

              8. Board Games

              By using board games such as dominoes, chess, parchment, even playing cards, we also perform executive functions.. For example, we train planning to set the goal and see what actions are most appropriate to achieve it; we exercise decision making to choose the best game or organization to decide how we are going to do it and what sequence we are going to do.

              In the same way, we work on the cognitive flexibility which allows us to modify our game according to the movements made by the opponent or the working memory which gives us the possibility of preserving and using, for a few moments, the game made. by our adversaries.

              9. Sports or motor games

              Playing sports or even playing motor games can also be useful in improving our executive functions.. For example, when playing team sports such as football or basketball, each player must plan the game he wants to play, taking into account the position of the members of his team to help him and the position of his opponents.

              It will also be useful to examine different options and choose the one that seems to you the best alternative, anticipating the possible consequences that it may generate and being flexible to the different setbacks that may arise.

              Bibliographic references

              • Bausela, E. (2014) Executive Functions: Concepts of Development from a Neuropsychological Perspective. Psychological action.
              • Cristofori, I., Cohen, S. & Grafman, J. (2019) Executive Function. Handbook of clinical neurology.
              • Marzocchi, GM, Usai, CM & Howard, S. (2020) Publisher: Training and Improving Executive Function. Frontiers in psychology.

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