Executive Brain Function

Executive brain functions constitute a person’s mental ability to govern other abilities and behavior. This governing is, therefore, inherent in a person's ability to succeed at goal-oriented behavior. Such behaviors as the ability to stop and start a certain action, the ability to “see oneself” through the eyes of others (i.e. exhibit feelings of empathy), change current behavior based on insight, and to plan any further behavior are the domain of executive brain function.

Executive brain function is a very basic evolutionary trait related to survival; one must be able to view current behavior, anticipate reactions from other and their outcomes, as well as be able to change behaviors according to the current environmental situation. The idea of environmental situation also constitutes relationships with other people, as well as to the non-animate environment (i.e. dangerous situations). Therefore, the ability for a human being to formulate concepts and think abstractly is inherent in executive brain function.

Executive brain functions are related to high-level thinking that can govern more basic behaviors such as the ability to pay attention, move the body appropriately to certain stimuli (i.e. motor skills), as well as the ability to recall information in an efficient and clear manner. One of the most important of these aspects is the ability to recall information through the use of “tricks” to remember. For instance, a person might invent an acronym that would otherwise make little sense in order to be able to retrieve more complex information that could not be remembered easily, at a later date. Because executive brain functions are related to so many basic behaviors, they have been notoriously difficult to determine and study. As they are so inherent to a person’s ability to use trial-and-error analysis to understand situations and environments, they are directly related to a person’s ability to function properly in society.

Executive functions are necessary to survival because of the speed at which they allow a person to react. As a person’s situation and environment may be changing very rapidly, these functions also allow a person to perform hierarchal structuring of priorities in order to determine what task or measure should be taken first in order to avoid or allow the next action. Therefore, executive actions are directly related to a person’s ability to apply the concept of significance to any given situation. This is especially important when a person is confronted with unusual situations, with which they may be completely unfamiliar.

Executive functions allow for a fast response to the stimulus based upon previous experience. However, in understanding executive functions, we should not construe them as only to be dealing with complex, or rapid situations. Rather, these functions are related also to a person’s normal, everyday life. The ability to recognize, prioritize, and resolve through fast and efficient analysis is important for a person’s success in such normal activities as work and school. These various prioritization methods are especially important when one considers a person’s ability manage stress.

Since executive functions are inherent in both the ability to allow, as well as to inhibit any certain behavior, people with weak executive functions may find it extremely difficult to function in society at large. They may exhibit abnormal speech patterns, lacking a filter for their audience, for instance. They may also be impulsive, saying whatever comes to their mind without regard for how that speech will affect other’s perception. Since prioritization is related to the ability to form hierarchy, they may also exhibit a disdain for authority, a basic precept for functioning in human society. For these reasons, people with weak executive function ability may be quickly marginalized by others in groups. For children, this can be an especially difficult situation in school, where the ability to "fit in," is usually of great importance.

Weak executive function is the hallmark of many developmental disorders in children, as well as psychiatric disorders in adults. Attention Deficit Disorder, depression, and schizophrenia are just a few results of the inability of a person with weak executive functions to manage stress and regulate their behavior to fit societal constraints. As a person grows older, suffering from any of a variety of disorders arising from this weakness, they may be more apt to turn to drugs in order to dull or mediate the stress being caused. However, the use of drugs and alcohol nearly always has a reverse effect; rather than mitigating the issues, it enhances them, making it even more difficult for the person to function in normal, everyday life. For this reason, patients may suffer from multiple disorders resulting from weak executive brain functions.

Although there is no concrete scientific evidence to suggest either for or against the exact area in the brain where the executive functions are governed, it is usually believed that it lies in cortex in the front part of the brain. This is where low-level brain functions like perceptional and sensational abilities are stored and used to influence other behaviors. So if a person is in a car accident, whereby the front part of the brain is damaged (which is the most common case), they may begin to exhibit a myriad of difficulties in high-level functions that are supposed to be governed and regulated by the low-level function within the front cortex.