After the boom in recent decades of scientific research based on neuroimaging techniques and computational methodologies, it has been possible to establish the mechanisms on how the human mind operates when it comes to activating cognitive reasoning procedures.

Thus, today there is a great consensus in to define the executive functions (FFEE) as a set of processes whose ultimate purpose is to supervise the execution and determine the control of such cognitive and, therefore, behavioural activity in the individual.

Executive functions and their importance in mental processes

The so-called executive functions are located in the frontal lobes and are fundamentally involved in specific cognitive operations such as memorization, metacognition, learning and reasoning.

On a practical level, therefore, the executive functions allow actions such as planning events or situations, choosing and deciding between different options, discriminating between relevant stimuli and discarding the irrelevant ones, keeping the attention on a task in a sustained way , deciding what type of motor movement is appropriate in each moment, etc. All of them are included in three more general classes of functions (Tirapu-Ustárroz et al, 2008):

  • Ability to formulate goals.
  • The ability to plan processes and establish strategies to achieve these objectives.
  • Ability to carry out purposes and to pose them effectively.

It seems, therefore, that a good functioning of the executive functions allows a greater competence for the individual when it comes to regulating his behaviour and carrying it out in an efficient way.

Activities to train and empower executive functions

Let’s see how this type of faculty can be trained through the implementation of simple exercises and daily activities:

1. Description of the appearance of an object or person

Numerous skills are involved in this activity, such as the establishment of differential characteristics, elaboration of categories , structuring of linguistic discourse, vocabulary, focusing attention on relevant details. On the other hand, alternative thinking is stimulated, since this object is valued from an objective perspective (according to its origin, material, history, current and future use) eliminating prejudices or subjective evaluations.

2. Discovery of guidelines

The continuation of incomplete series, for example, involves processes of abstract deductive and inductive reasoning. Thus, our mind must analyze all the physical characteristics of the available elements to find patterns and common features in order to deduce what the next component will be. This process is fundamental for the human being since it becomes a great resource in the generation of expectations and in decision making , both essential capacities for our psyche and our survival.

3. Generation of alternative action plans

One of the basic procedures of executive functions is linked to mental flexibility when reflecting on day-to-day situations or events. Therefore, a practice that greatly exercises this skill is found in elaborating diverse alternative explanations about the causes of the experiences that are presented to us or in contemplating other options different from an initial established plan.

When we generate various perspectives on an event we manage to adopt a more objective position, since we once again resort to in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of each of the options and it allows us to draw more rationally based conclusions. Thus, the fact of detailing all the steps to be followed in each proposed plan also implies the implementation of processes such as abstract reasoning, the search for analogies, categorization or the creation of expectations.

4. Practice of the creative capacity

Research shows how creativity becomes a central component of human intelligence. This ability can be stimulated on a daily basis simply by performing a regular task in a different way, altering the procedures that are automated in its execution.

An example of this would be going to work using different routes, solving a problem in an innovative way or changing the route in the supermarket when shopping. It is said that the creative process consists of the phases of exploration and application. Thus, the fact of looking for alternative methodologies to solve situations is fundamental for the implementation of the first of the indicated phases.

At the biological level, this facilitates the generation of new neuronal connections and, consequently, new learning. It should be noted that automatisms and routines are forms of energy saving to which our brain resorts due to the large volume of mental activity that it must constantly process. That is, can be considered as adaptive mechanisms , in principle. Even so, an excess in this style of functioning based on inertia diminishes competition in the optimal exercise of our intellectual capacity.

5. Use of metaphors

Using this type of resource when communicating our ideas involves a previous process where different complex skills are combined. On the one hand, the procedures for recovering the information stored in our memory regarding past experiences and referring to the elements used in the metaphor must be carried out. On the other hand, the establishment of analogies is activated where the similarities between the information contained in the concrete message and the content of the metaphor are linked. To do this, common aspects must be analysed, categories established and the attentional capacity activated to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant information.

6. Exercise of selective and sustained attention capacity

Every new activity requires, among other things, the investment of a high intensity of attention and concentration capacity. Activities such as finding differences between received stimuli, learning a new language or playing a musical instrument, for example, involve:

  • A great activation of the working memory, which is the one that operates with the information in front of it during a certain time and allows to generate a specific result or answer – to memorize a phone number to dial it in a few seconds, for example.
  • The creation of new connections that favours an increase in cognitive flexibility and the volume of new and discrepant information to be stored.
  • The implementation of so-called inhibitory control (the ability to control impulsive or inadequate responses to the situation in question) Inhibitory control is closely related to the ability to discriminate, since when there is irrelevant stimulation, the executive functions are responsible for sending the order not to react to such information.

Bibliographic references:

  • Kolb, B. & Wishaw I. Q. (2006) Human Neuropsychology, 5th edition. Editorial Médica Panamericana: Madrid.
  • Tirapu-Ustarroz, J., & Luna-Lario, P. (2008). Neuropsychology of executive functions. Manual of Neuropsychology, 219-249.
  • Wujec, T. (2006). Mental Gymnastics. Ediciones Planeta: Madrid.