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What Are the Signs of Poor Executive Functioning?

Executive function is a set of mental tasks that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. These tasks are part of the brain’s frontal lobe functionality and are in charge of every day to learning, working, and managing daily life. Deficiencies with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, handle emotions, among other things.

The executive function is “the management system of the brain” that lets us set goals, plan, and get things done. Executive functions usually develop in early childhood and into the teen years, but they keep developing into the mid-20s.

Trouble with executive function can affect people in different ways. The difficulties often look like signs of ADHD but they are also related to Developmental Trauma and to Complex Trauma (C-PTSD).

The prefrontal cortex is the key structure for performing executive functions. Top-down signals are used to retrieve specific information stored in long-term memory. The prefrontal cortex sends top-down signals to the posterior cortices to control information retrieval. The abundance of connectivity between the PFC and the rest of the brain suggests that a definition of executive function can be obtained from the dynamics of converging networks into the cortical layers of the lateral PFC. The persistence of these signals through time is a fundamental neurobiological substrate that enables the organization of executive actions.

The PFC is involved in the functioning and regulation of:

  • ability to formulate behavioral plans

  • ability to ignore external distractions

  • ability to perceive the spatial relationships between one's self and the environment,

  • abstraction

  • active problem solving

  • actively encoding and retrieving information

  • analyze pictorial detail

  • attention and orientation

  • attention to demanding cognitive tasks

  • aversive tastes and pleasurable taste

  • behavioral self-regulation

  • bimanual coordination

  • carry out new and goal-directed patterns of behavior

  • changing behavior according to task demands or representing past events, current goals, and

  • future predictions

  • Complex planning

  • conflict resolution

  • Considering and prioritizing competing and simultaneous information

  • control and organization of emotional reactions

  • Coordinating and adjusting complex behavior

  • cravings

  • creativity

  • decision making

  • delayed responding

  • diverse set of cognitive processes, including actively maintaining information in working memory

  • emotional processing

  • emotional regulation

  • error-monitoring

  • explicit memory

  • filtering or gating mechanism for information processing

  • flexibility

  • focusing and organizing attention

  • impulse control

  • inhibitory control of interference

  • integration of perception with action across time

  • integrative scanning of all pertinent details

  • language

  • mediates negative attitudes

  • mediates positive attitude

  • metamemory

  • modulation of body arousal

  • motor attention, i.e., enactment of action schemas requires attention directed to events in the

  • motor or executive sector

  • narrative expression

  • new learning

  • novelty processing

  • organization and conceptualization of finances

  • perception of pain possibly in mediating the emotional response behind it

  • perform tasks that require the guidance of one's actions by visual information, spatial, or

  • otherwise

  • personality

  • planning

  • problem-solving

  • process religious experiences

  • pursue plans to their goal

  • response conflict

  • retrieval of information from long-term memory and metacognitive processes

  • reward and goal-related activity

  • reward expectations and in the anticipation and processing of outcomes even if the outcome

  • does not produce any reward

  • self-awareness

  • self-initiated movement

  • set-shifting

  • short-term memory tasks

  • simulation, i.e., process of generating internal modes of external reality

  • social and emotional behavior

  • social cognition

  • spatial and conceptual reasoning process

  • spatial memory

  • spontaneous speech

  • stimulus detection and sequencing tasks

  • sustained attention

  • temporal ordering of events

  • updating and maintaining the contents of working memory

  • verbal expression

  • verbal fluency

  • working memory

Poor executive function means that the range of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional functions suffer difficulties which often occur as a result of another disorder or a traumatic brain injury. Individuals with executive dysfunction struggle with planning, problem-solving, organization, impulsivity, time management, or many other.

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