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Executive Functioning
by Serge Kahili King

The phrase "Executive Function," quite popular among psychiatrists, psychologists, and educators today, refers to a hypothetical explanation for why some people, particularly children, have trouble making appropriate choices (meaning the choices that psychiatrists, psychologists, and educators think they should make).

Notice the description "hypothetical." Although often called a theory, and just as often treated as a fact, the idea of Executive Function does not have enough experimental evidence behind it to be classified as a theory, much less a fact.

In very simple terms, "EF" assumes that certain human behaviors are due to certain brain functions, particularly in the prefrontal cortex at the back of the brain. It is very interesting to read the scientific descriptions of this, because it sounds like they are attributing the entire decision-making process to this part of the brain. In much of neuroscience today there is no "ghost in the machine." It is the machine that makes decisions. And, based on very vague presuppositions, some machines are assumed to be more qualified to make decisions about what's true and what's good for us than others.

The "Functions" in "Executive Function" are those that cannot be explained by habitual behavior based on stimulus-response. They are generally accepted to be these:

Those that involve planning or decision making.
Those that involve error correction or troubleshooting.
Situations where responses are not well-rehearsed or contain novel sequences of actions.
Dangerous or technically difficult situations.
Situations that require the overcoming of a strong habitual response or resisting temptation. (from "Attention to action: Willed and automatic control of behaviour," by Norman and Shallice in Cognitive Neuroscience)

When people have difficulty exercising these functions according to community and scholastic expectations, they are usually considered to have a deficiency of some kind in their brain. And since that deficiency results in unacceptable behavior, it is called a disorder, an alternative term for illness.

Here are two of the most common disorders believed to be due to a deficiency in brain-directed executive functions:

I. ADD (Attention-Deficit Disorder). This means that the individual does not keep his or her attention on things that other people think they should keep their attention on.
II. ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). This means that the individual does not keep his or her attention on things that other people think they should keep their attention on, AND they move around too much, sometimes disrupting what other people are trying to keep their attention on.

Just for fun, let's look at this whole issue from a Huna point of view. Based on the Seven Principles, here is a Huna look at some aspects of human behavior:

1. A "disorder" is whatever you call a disorder. The more people who call it a disorder, the more it is treated like a disorder.
2. The rules people make up about how or why things happen will determine how they act or react in relation to what happens. And rules can be changed.
3. Attention is naturally drawn toward movement and change. However, some people like more movement and change than others. Therefore, some people will create movement and change when their inner rules say they are not getting enough, and some people will be very uncomfortable with movement and change when their inner rules say that there is too much.
4. In any given moment, people act according to the strength of their current motivations. They may draw upon memories, rules, expectations, and surroundings to justify their acts, but the motivations motivate their acts, including their choices. The most basic human motivation is to move toward pleasure and away from pain, although if no immediate pleasure seems available people will move through pain toward pleasure. This basic motivation can be divided into two primary motivations.
5. One primary motivation is the urge toward the pleasure of sensory/emotional connection. Individuals make up or learn a wide variety of behaviors designed to satisfy this urge, and become very unhappy and stressed when they do not work.
6. The othe primary motivation is the urge toward the pleasure of intellectual resolution. This type of pleasure may come from such things as solving a problem, overcoming a challenge, winning a game, achieving a goal, or following one's own rules or those of another. When this pleasure cannot be satisfied people become bored and stressed.
7. Every human being has will power, because this is simply the power to choose one type of motivation over another. When a person consistently chooses to follow a motivation that results in behavior that is accepted, approved, or admired, we say that he or she has strong will power. When a person consistently chooses the strongest motivation of the moment without regard to consequences, we say that he or she has weak or no will power, or a disorder.

By applying these ideas to some of my children and grandchildren I have helped them get through high school, at least, without being labeled as having the so-called disorders named at the beginning of this article, even though through most of their school years they were bored out of their skulls.

I have looked at a number of the ways that different educators have used to reduce or eliminate the problems of what are called ADD and ADHD in schools (not including medicine) and all of them are based on making schoolwork more interesting and/or giving more appreciation for what a child is able to achieve or do. It seems to me that the acronyms ought to be applied to the schoolroom or the teacher or the school board. Then we could have ADD mean "Attention-Deficit Direction" and ADHD would become "Attention-Deficit Hierarchy Disorder."

When I was in elementary and high school (way back before most of you readers were born) we did not have fancy names for lack of attention in school, but it was recognized. One of my problems in elementary school was that I could finish a reading assignment in class seven times faster than the other students, so I read it three or four times and then started drawing pictures. Of course, the teacher wouldn't believe that I had already read it several times, so I was punished for not paying attention. Fortunately, I was sent to a special experimental class where I was able to enter the fascinating world of stamp collecting, ancient history, and chess. In high school in a small rural town some of the teachers tried to encourage me, but I was so bored I majored in pool (pocket billiards) in my senior year and barely graduated second from the bottom of the class with a D- average. In spite of that, I was accepted into a university because of high test scores, but succeded in failing my first year spectacularly.

Obviously, I turned my life around dramatically, so how did I do that? What I did on the inside is much more important than what I did on the outside.

First, I admit I had one big advantage. I was never taught to blame other people for my own problems. On the other hand, blaming myself gave me a very, very low self esteem. Like everyone, I had the urge to feel good about myself, to feel "self-connected." Like many, I didn't like myself, and that was a huge obstacle to feeling good and doing good.

My turnaround came when my urge to move away from pain led me toward seeking the pleasure of self esteem. I purposely chose not only to focus on that motivation, but to strengthen it by every means available, including study of the subject and sharing what I learned along the way.

This brings us to some suggestions for helpers and self changers. These are not quick and easy solutions, but they are things that have worked for myself and others.

For helpers, as best you can, make learning interesting and fun (one of my sons learned English by reading comic books, and one of my grandchildren learned how to read and write by playing multi-player computer games).

For self changers, if you want to change your life any any way, the single most important and effective thing you can do is to raise your self esteem. Why? Because self esteem enables your best behavior. To refer back to the executive functions, self esteem makes planning and making decisions easier, improves your ability to correct errors and troubleshoot, gives you the confidence to handle unusual situations and novel sequences of actions, helps you deal effectively with dangerous or technical difficulties, and enables your power to overcome strong habitual responses and resist temptations that distract you from more important motivations. Please note that the kind of self esteem I'm talking about involves feeling good about yourself even when you are not perfect, and regardless of how other people think or act. It has nothing to do with thinking or trying to prove that you are better than others.

To raise your self esteem the hard way, use:
Affirmations and self appreciation.
Visualizations and fantasy.
Environmental connection practice with sight, sound, and touch.
Development of skills (any skills at any level)
Random acts of kindness (without requiring gratitude).
To raise your self esteem the easy way:
Like a lot of things (objects, situations, conditions, actions, behavior experiences, etc.).
Add more things to like every day.
(if this sounds too easy, or you don't see the connection, there's always the first way)

For everyone, remember this: 1. All change comes from a change in consciousness. 2. Consciousness can be changed consciously.

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