What are the functions of the human brain? Let us think of whatever we have done, are doing, or have to do. For example, I am writing this article. I attend the speaker of a conference or the teacher in class. I have to go shopping before the store closes. They seem like simple things to do, but each of these actions involves a series of high-level cognitive processes that allow me to carry them out, that is where the functions of the human brain comes in.
These processes are called executive functions, thanks to which we are able to act with a specific purpose.
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Defining executive functions
Executive functions are understood as the set of skills and cognitive processes that allow us to successfully adapt to the environment and solve problems based on the integration of the different information available, being able to carry out proactive behaviors thanks to them. In general, it can be considered that they are in charge of controlling and self-regulating mental activity and cognitive resources, participating in aspects such as motivation or morals as well as in information processing and behavior control.
It is a series of abilities that are not completely innate but are acquired and developed throughout the life cycle and development of the individual. In fact, some of them do not finish maturing until around twenty-five years of age, this being something linked to brain maturation. Likewise, executive functions tend to decline as one ages, both normatively and with neurological problems.
The brain region that has been most linked to these functions is in the frontal lobe. Specifically, it is a part of the said lobe, the prefrontal cortex, which is most relevant when it comes to managing this set of skills.
Damage in this region will cause serious difficulties in the higher mental processes that allow the management of behavior, as can be observed in different disorders and trauma. Furthermore, the development of executive functions is largely linked to prefrontal brain maturation, which does not finish until adulthood.
But this does not mean that executive functions are solely due to the prefrontal cortex. After all, the information that enables processes such as planning and reasoning to take place comes largely from other areas of the brain. For example, structures such as the limbic system, the hippocampus, the basal ganglia or the cerebellum stand out.
In fact, all complex brain processes are carried out by networks of nerve cells distributed throughout the brain, and in this sense, executive functions are no exception to this rule. Thus, the areas specialized in certain functions are only partially specialized, in a relative way, and in many cases even if they are damaged, part of their work can be carried out by other networks of neurons over time.
What kind of functions are included?
As we have said, by executive functions we understand a set of skills and processes that are very useful for our survival and adaptation. But what are they? Some of the main and most important are the following.
Be able to use the different information and see the possible connections between them, as well as elaborate possible explanations.
This executive function is what allows us to develop action plans. It allows generating a series of steps that will lead us to a specific goal.
3. Goal setting
Linked to motivation, it is the ability that allows us to decide how to invest our energies and where to direct our behaviors.
4. Decision making
It is the ability that allows us to determine which option to choose among the many that can be presented to us.
5. Starting and ending tasks
Although it may seem strange, starting tasks at a specific time is an important cognitive activity. The same goes for the ability to determine when an action should be completed.
It is about the ability to combine and structure information in an efficient and useful way.
The inhibition capacity is another of the executive functions and one of the most relevant. It is about the ability that allows us to regulate our actions by stopping the behavior. It makes us able to resist specific impulses, stop an action, and prevent innocuous information from interfering with our behavior.
It refers to the ability to maintain attention on the task and regulate what and how we are doing what we are doing.
9. Verbal and non-verbal working memory
It is the ability to store information so that the subject can operate with it later. Both on a verbal and non-verbal level.
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This ability makes it possible to anticipate the results of an action and / or its consequences. It is about a projection into the future of our memories, what we have learned through experience.
The ability to be flexible is what allows us to change our way of acting or thinking in the face of possible environmental changes or modifying ongoing actions.
Some disorders in the brain
Different disorders and injuries in the brain can cause executive functions to not be carried out correctly, causing significant adaptation problems.
Some of the disorders with involvement in this area can occur from childhood, as occurs with people with ADHD. These children have problems such as difficulties in starting a task, poor inhibition capacity and in making and following plans or problems in retaining information in working memory.
Other disorders in which this happens are dementias, in which the neurodegenerative process causes an affectation that makes it difficult to maintain executive functions. Examples of this can be found in dementias such as that caused by Huntington’s chorea disease, or frontal dementias.
In any case, even without any type of disorder, executive functions usually begin to show a certain decline after the sixth decade of life, in a normalized way.
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