Who controls your brain? Executive functions and you.

Dr. Laura Cooper Articles

Have you wondered why you make some decisions and not others? Have you wondered why it is so difficult for you to stay on that diet? Or why during this Quarantine, instead of learning a new language or a new skill, you spend all day watching Netflix? Who makes those decisions in your brain? Well, it turns out that our brain is not really one organ-when we talk about function- but many working together in perfect accord. You may think of your brain like a huge marching band with many people playing different instruments located strategically so the sound is perfect. And like any marching band, your brain has a director that stands in front. This director is in charge of deciding what to play, when to play it, and provides feedback, so when the band gets to play again, they do better.

Like in a marching band, a group of neurons (brain cells) in your frontal brain act as the director or executor of your behaviors. This brain executor is in charge of deciding what functions (hence the term executive function) you focus on and what you do or don’t do. Our brain executor does that by choosing and selecting a goal while making sure you increase mental resources and attention to what it thinks it is that you need. So, if it believes that it is of great importance to learn Spanish for your upcoming trip to Mexico, then it will make you focus and spend your energy on that. But if you are not going to any Spanish countries anytime soon, well then, you are more likely to stay on your couch watching the next episode of Stranger Things.

But how does the brain executive decide what is important and what goals to select? As any good business executive person does, your frontal brain will take many pieces of information into consideration. First, it will look at environmental cues: “Are there any good shows on Netflix?.” Second, it will take your previous experiences into consideration: “Have I ever learn a language while sitting at home?” And finally, it will look at your current mental energy resources and distractors: “it is late at night, and everyone is watching Netflix.”. It will make a decision based on which signal is noisier and what you need now. Say, for example, that you have decided to lose 10 pounds during Quarantine. Day 1 of the diet will be somewhat easy because you are very motivated. Your balance (environment) gives you a number that you don’t want, so the executive has enough mental fuel to get you started. But, after a few days, you start feeling hungry, the balance has not change much and you run out of ideas of what to eat. Thus, after a few days, the executive does not have the same power sources as before. So, it may now decide “the hell with this diet,” satisfying my current hunger state is more important.

Also, it is essential to mention that executive functions develop throughout the life span and are dependent on brain maturity. This means that our brains need to be ready before making some type of decision. For instance, you may have noticed that it is challenging for parents to ask their two-year-old to use a soft voice and say “please” when she wants ice cream. This is because her brain is not mature enough to see the benefits of that behavior. Instead, her executive brain understands that actions such as yelling, shouting, and screaming are more beneficial to obtain that ice cream. Assumed that as an infant, she was always rewarded when she did similar behaviors.

The good news is that we can train our executive functions. According to the latest neuroscience research, your brain executive can learn how to select tasks that are truly important for you by learning some new strategies. Among those startegies are, for example, setting short-term and long terms goals, properly manage your time, and use linking and associations when learning new concepts. So –if you genuinely want to learn Spanish during these days– you should think about creating a checklist assigning the number of hours you will spend every day on the tasks and assignments. You should also train to self-monitor yourself, and the necessary steps take steps to learn from your mistakes. Thus, you should check your checklist every night, so you know whether you spent the two hours you said you were going to spend that day.

Last but not least, you should reward yourself when you have done what you said you will do. You could utilize a reward system to encourage you to complete the tasks in a timely fashion. As an example, you could reward yourself completing difficult tasks (e.g., studying for 30 minutes) with a snack or a cup of coffee. If you complete an assignment or study for an examination early, you could reward yourself by watching one episode on Netflix, calling friends, or buying something online for yourself. On a smaller scale, you could begin rewarding yourself for every chapter/assignment/ten-minute time period of studying that you are able to complete by taking a short break following task completion.

Keep training your brain,

Luis E. Aguerrevere Ph.D.

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