The executive system is a theorized cognitive system in psychology that controls and manages other cognitive processes. It is also referred to as the executive function, executive functions, supervisory attentional system, or cognitive control.The concept is used by psychologists and neuroscientists to describe a loosely defined collection of brain processes which are responsible for planning, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate actions, and selecting relevant sensory information
The executive system is thought to be heavily involved in handling novel situations outside the domain of some of our 'automatic' psychological processes that could be explained by the reproduction of learned schemas or set behaviors. Psychologists Don Norman and Tim Shallice have outlined five types of situations where routine activation of behavior would not be sufficient for optimal performance:
- Those that involve planning or decision making.
- Those that involve error correction or troubleshooting.
- Situations where responses are not well-learned or contain novel sequences of actions.
- Dangerous or technically difficult situations.
- Situations which require the overcoming of a strong habitual response or resisting temptation.
The executive functions are often invoked when it is necessary to override responses that may otherwise be automatically elicited by stimuli in the external environment. For example, on being presented with a potentially rewarding stimulus, such as a tasty piece of chocolate cake, the automatic response might be to take a bite. However, where this behaviour conflicts with internal plans (such as having decided not to eat chocolate cake while on a diet), the executive functions might be engaged to inhibit this response.
While suppression of these "prepotent responses" is ordinarily considered adaptive, problems for the development of the individual and the culture arise when feelings of right and wrong are overridden by cultural expectations; when creative impulses are overridden by executive inhibitions
The neural mechanisms by which the executive functions are implemented is a topic of ongoing debate in the field of cognitive neuroscience. Traditionally, there has been a strong focus on the frontal lobes, but more recent brain research indicates that executive functions are far more distributed across the cortex.
Although research into the executive functions and their neural basis has increased markedly over the past 5 years, the theoretical framework in which it is situated is not new. In the 1950s, the British psychologist Donald Broadbent drew a distinction between "automatic" and "controlled" processes (a distinction characterized more fully by Shiffrin and Schneider in 1977), and introduced the notion of selective attention, to which executive functions are closely allied. In 1975, the US psychologist Michael Posner used the term "cognitive control" in his book chapter entitled "Attention and cognitive control".
The work of influential researchers such as Michael Posner, Joaquin Fuster, Tim Shallice, and their colleagues in the 1980s (and later Trevor Robbins, Bob Knight, Don Stuss and others) laid much of the groundwork for recent research into executive functions. For example, Posner proposed that there is a separate "executive" branch of the attentional system, which is responsible for focusing attention on selected aspects of the environment.The British neuropsychologist Tim Shallice similarly suggested that attention is regulated by a "supervisory system", which can override automatic responses in favour of scheduling behaviour on the basis of plans or intentions.Throughout this period, a consensus emerged that this control system is housed in the most anterior portion of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC).
Psychologist Alan Baddeley had proposed a similar system as part of his model of working memory and argued that there must be a component (which he named the "central executive") that allows information to be manipulated in short term memory (for example, when doing mental arithmetic).
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