Understanding Executive Functions

Cognitive neuroscientists have identified three Core Executive Functions:

Inhibitory Control is all about resisting things—resisting temptations, resisting the impulse not to continue what you started, and resisting distractions.

Working Memory involves holding information in your mind and being able to creatively play with ideas to see how they relate, to see connections between seemingly unconnected things, to do mental math, to hold multiple step instructions in mind, and to hold something in mind while you’re temporarily doing something else.

Cognitive Flexibility involves being able to think outside the box so you can conceive of a problem in a new way from a different perspective, come up with a different way of addressing it, or creatively find an alternative solution. Another aspect of cognitive flexibility is the flexibility to take advantage of sudden opportunities, to quickly adapt to change, to adjust to changing demands or priorities, and to admit you were wrong when you receive new information.

These three Core Executive Functions serve as the foundation for higher-order Executive Functions, which include:

  • Problem Solving
  • Reasoning
  • Planning


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