Executive Function

Module 04 Misconceptions: Executive Function


Almost all the words and terms used for executive function are very misleading – terms like working memory, attention deficit disorder, borderline disorder or self discipline. This is partly because executive function have been researched from different angles and in different sub-disciplines in neuropsychology and behavioral psychology.These terms are used because they reflect the history of the research in some branch of brain science as a whole. Now as these branches come together, we are stuck with terms that suggest an outdated understanding.

Even “self-control” is not very accurate and tend to give people the wrong idea about how things work. The few things that people have learned about executive function over the last few decades are either totally wrongheaded – like the meme about 10.000 hours of training to build excellency. Or they are very easy to misunderstand – like the teaching on decision fatigue and depletion. For these reasons people still have a very vague understanding of self-control. And some weird expectations about what it feels like. And how the experience of self-control would feel and look like in their particular situation.

The truths is that people both have a bad understanding of the way self-control works, how it presents itself to you, how to get more of it and what difference it would make if you suddenly had lots of it. How it works and how to get more of it is such a huge subject that you can’t really boil it down to anything meaningful in one sentence. However, you can have a short version of the difference that good self-control makes for you:

1. Usually self-control does not let you do anything that is particularly impressive or even remarkable.

2. But it lets you go through these grinding processes that make changes possible in your life. Changes that after the fact makes your life easier, better, richer and longer.

Some good examples of such changes are: Getting some kind of work experience or education that makes you more valuable for the people that employ you. And gets you better pay, a more meaningful job and less stress. Or having a better quality of social life as you sort out the people that you connect. Sorting your social situation by better sorting of the people that you want in your life, is a prime example of self-control. Self-control might also show up in other ways in which you gradually build a better life situation for yourself and the people in your life. So great self-control will only really shine through a long slow process that sees you get into a better situation. While you are getting there, you mostly just feel behind, feel tired, feel inadequate, often to the point where you feel like an idiot for not doing what you are doing sooner. Or better. Or faster.

Having bad self-control can off course be seen in situations where you somehow lose control. However it is really a much stronger sign of bad self-control if you see that your life situation is slowly deteriorating, going from bad to worse. In theory this could be because you are either not very clever or just very very unlucky. In reality it is probably because you make the wrong choices, act out of short-term interests and don’t have the energy to make the right kind of changes in your life. Addiction to drugs comes under this kind of gradual change for the worse and it something that is not really so bad if you have a narrow focus on present situation, but which is really not what you need in the bigger picture. Addiction is very accurately described as slowly losing the sense of the bigger picture. And this is not just some flowery metaphor, you can actually measure the degree to which that this has happened to someone.

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