Monday, May 5, 2014

Executive functions: what they are, how they work, and why they evolved

Barkley, R. (2012). Executive functions: what they are, how they work, and why they evolved. New York: Guilford press.

The focus of this text is to provide an understanding of both the how and why of executive functions. Barkley suggests that executive functions evolved to solve social problems. According to this view, there is a daily need to look ahead and anticipate what others are likely to do in the context of pursuing one’s own self-interests. Executive functions are seen as comprising both ‘cold’ cognitive functions of ‘what, where, and when’, as well as ‘hot’ cognitive or motivational functions of ‘why’. One key to the development of executive functions is the ability to create internal representations of stimuli that are no longer present. With these internalized representations, we can create a conscious mental life capable of imagining a hypothetical future. As we become self-aware, we shift our motivations towards attaining a goal, that is, a hypothetical future of our imagining. Using self-directed private speech, we coach ourselves through the actions necessary to achieve that goal. Barkley argues that one of the most distinctive features characterizing executive function impairments is the social disability arising due to a failure to act insightfully in the social context while pursuing a future goal.

The ideas described in this text have important clinical implications. The emphasis on both the individual’s motivations as well as cognitive abilities in setting future goals and plans is important. It calls for a need to consider an individual’s reason to pursue a goal as well as their ability to select and pursue that goal.

Blogger: Lisa Archibald

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