Executive Function Primer (Part 3)

This is part 3 in a series about executive function. It looks at the regulation functions that are related to initiating, monitoring and inhibiting our actions and thoughts. Looking for the other parts? Part 1 | ย Part 2

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The second category of executive function components, regulation, includes cognitive flexibility and the initiation, monitoring and inhibition of actions. These executive functions are primarily related to how we interact with our environment.

Inhibition

When you think of inhibition, you probably think of the common usage which means a feeling of self-conscious restraint. The inhibition related to executive function is somewhat different. It refers to our ability to block or suppress a thought or action, either consciously or subconsciously.

Biologically, inhibition takes place in three different realms: motor inhibition, cognitive inhibition and emotional inhibition. It’s quite possible that you’ve never even thought about inhibition in this way and yet it has a huge impact on your daily life.

Our brains are constantly inhibiting–or failing to inhibit–thoughts and actions. To focus attention on one thing, we have to inhibit countless other distracting inputs (remember the top-down and bottom-up attention systems as well as selective attention). To call up a desired piece of information from memory, we have to inhibit the retrieval of millions of irrelevant bits of information. To change a behavior we have to inhibit habitual actions. And sometimes, to get through a difficult situation, we have to inhibit our emotional reactions (or, if you’re alexithymic, consider the opposite case–your emotions are involuntarily inhibited, perhaps in part because of dysfunctional inhibition).

When you think about it, a lot of autistic traits could be traced back to poor inhibition. Infodumping, even when we know the other person has lost interest. Catastrophizing long past the point where it’s logical. Blurting out what we’re thinking only to regret it a split second later. Spending the day lost in a special interest when we really did mean to get all those chores done. Even stimming could be viewed as poor motor inhibition. What if all people have a natural tendency to stim, but neurotypical people are just better at naturally inhibiting their motor function?

Extreme difficulty with inhibition can lead to impulsivity, which is more characteristic of ADHD than autism, but can be present in both. Often, impulsivity is mistaken for problem behavior and met with punishment as a means to extinguish the problem. Like other aspects of dysfunctional EF, poor inhibition isn’t something that can be fixed by simply trying harder or having more self-discipline. Support can help. Accommodations can help. Understanding can help. Practice can help. Punishment and shaming only hurt.ย 

Initiation of Actions

Initiation is the flip side of inhibition. It’s the “getting started” phase of an activity. People who struggle with initiation are often labeled lazy or unmotivated. They commonly get asked variations of “if you know what you have to do, why don’t you just do it?”

I wish I had an answer for this. The closest analogy I can make is that what happens prior to initiation is like standing on the edge of a swimming pool with the intention of jumping in. You know, that few minutes where you dip a toe in, check the temperature, adjust your suit and goggles, comment on how cold it looks, do a few arm windmills, bounce up and down, take a deep breath, then another.

There’s no real point to all of those actions and the jumping in is inevitable. But not quite yet.

Out of necessity–because I have no boss to impose deadlines or fire me if I’m not productive–I’ve developed a whole bag of tricks to get myself through the initiation phase. Telling myself I’m just going to read something over before I start editing. Starting with the easiest or most appealing aspect of a project. Setting fake deadlines or creating rewards for getting a certain number of pages done in a day. Talking to someone about a project I need to start planning. Using one project to “procrastinate” on another. It seems silly that I have to trick myself into starting projects that I know are inevitable, but it works. And hacking executive function is all about what works.

paintbox

Monitoring of Actions

This is sometimes called the troubleshooting aspect of executive function. It’s loosely related to cognitive flexibility and a key part of planning and problem solving. Often, the monitoring of actions is intended to take place in the background.

Imagine riding a bike. You’re pedaling, steering, braking, scanning the area for hazards. A lot of this activity takes place “automatically” as part of the general bike riding process. You aren’t constantly thinking about how to pedal or every minor course correction you make or which muscles you need to tense or relax to balance.

The executive task of monitoring actions is much the same. If you’re doing something routine or familiar, you won’t be actively aware of it unless something goes wrong. Then the background monitoring takes center stage while you troubleshoot the problem and adjust your actions accordingly. On the other hand, if you’re doing something unfamiliar, like learning a new task, you may have to actively monitor your actions very closely so you can quickly correct errors. Learning is basically a process of repeated error detection and correction until some acceptable minimum level of error production is reached.

Like all aspects of executive function, the ability to successfully monitor our actions can vary from day to day or hour to hour. For example, my monitoring suffers when I’m overloaded by too much sensory or social input. On the second day of jury duty, overloaded by an activity that involved an unusually high level of input for me, I walked into furniture while talking to someone. Twice. I also nearly walking into a parking meter and dodged it only at the last second. The first two were a bit embarrassing; that last one would have resulted in a serious injury. Executive function is about being organized and competent, but it’s also about being safe from environmental hazards.

Generally, when I’m in an unfamiliar environment or learning a new skill, I have to be extra careful about where my attention is focused, especially when it comes to monitoring my actions.

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The final part in this series wraps up with a look at cognitive flexibility and how all of the pieces of executive function fit together

57 thoughts on “Executive Function Primer (Part 3)”

  1. This is going to help me – and I love how the first two articles in the series plug in to this one. Reading the bit about cognitive inhibition – I realize that it is in very large part, my disfunction ‘foundation’. {Put another way: why the heck didn’t I find this out thirty years ago?}
    If – IF I can shift my behavior a little bit off of the cognitive-inhibition-fails-foundation, and build a few non-fails into my EF, into my behavior I just might be able achieve a couple of important goals in my life.

  2. Initiation is a HUGE problem for me, more than any other aspect of EF, even task switching (although that has some overlap with initiation as well, because it’s easier for me to stay on a current task than it is to get started on a new task). Medication has helped a little bit with that part, but it’s still not ideal.

      1. I also find initiation a huge issue (I wonder what the results would look like if you did a survey asking “What aspect of EF do you find most difficult?”). And sheer panic is definitely a huge motivator for me. I finished an 8 month project in about a week, because I couldn’t manage to get started until the week before the deadline. Most of my homework gets done on the bus on the way to school. Certainly a terrible coping strategy.

        1. I used to get in early and do my essays before registration! Absurd, but I couldn’t bear to start them before the very last minute

          1. My inability to initiate tasks until or after the absolute last minute means I’m never at school early enough to do my homework before class (unless the class is after lunch)… I tend to arrive at school the minute the first class starts (I miss registration almost every day).

  3. Would you mind if I posted this link in a discussion on LinkedIn? I try to interject autistic perspectives on issues whenever I can, to balance out the NT/care provider/academic perspective in the discussions. I’m NT myself, but several family members are on the spectrum, and I’ve learned a LOT from reading/listening to the autistic voices out there.

      1. Done! It’s interesting, that the NT posters/members ask for tips from the parents usually, but don’t think to ask for “what do YOU do” tips. They may be assuming that autistic individuals don’t have a heavy presence on LinkedIn, or might not be “advertising” their autism. I’m hoping that will change.

          1. Yeah, I hear that. Luckily the internet exists, and I found you guys. And they’re in my extended family, so duh.

            Just call me the Autism Mythbuster (minus exploding things) ๐Ÿ™‚

            (Mythbusters is a TV show in the USA where some special effects guys “bust” myths – urban legends, tv stunts, etc. Exploding/breaking/crashing things are often involved.)

  4. ^ Is it the getting and acknowledging of an idea or task where the problem lies, or the strating on an action/course of action. Because I get lost off track in the starting of action part.
    If you don’t mind me asking?

    1. Whoops, spelled ‘starting’ wrong, and meant to direct that comment as a question to autisticook. Musings, that’s kind of cool the panic acts on you as a ‘go do it’ sort of thing? The panic response is where I get stuck and am hoping to find a way to un-stuck that part.

      1. Yes, the panic is very effective at getting me moving. Sometimes I think I create it unnecessarily as an incentive because I’ll be freaking out about how this thing and that thing have to be done right now and my husband will calmly point out that I’m needlessly panicking because I have plenty of time.

        But I also know someone who gets frozen by the panic response the way that you describe and it’s a huge barrier to action.

    2. For me it’s mostly starting an action part. I usually know what to do (plenty of ideas) but the actual action is not happening. Although sometimes I get a bit lost in the amount of things that need to be done as well, in which case it’s a problem with prioritising. But the main one is simply getting up and getting BUSY with whatever I want to do. It never made sense to me that I was so “lazy” even when it came to doing things I really like doing, but since I learned about executive function it has all fallen into place.

      1. “I usually know what to do (plenty of ideas) but the actual action is not happening. Although sometimes I get a bit lost in the amount of things that need to be done as well, in which case itโ€™s a problem with prioritising.” I share these very issues. Only rarely do I feel the energy? confidence? clarity? to act in the face of so much that needs doing.

  5. Great post, as ever. That inhibition stuff is really interesting; it explains practically everything!!

    I think getting started is probably my main executive function issue. Must find a way of resolving that. xD

  6. I have to laugh inside my head so many times when I read your articles. Earlier I thought nothing much of all of the strange things I did, except that I was strange. Now I see that I am normal in an autistic manner. Thank you for opening up myself to me.

  7. Just commenting (again) to say how very, very much reading all of this–both your articles and all of the many comments showing so many different perspectives on things I find so relatable–is completely transforming how I’m looking at everything I thought was ‘bad’ about me. Now I’m going to go take in some drycleaning that’s been sitting on my floor in a basket for four months ๐Ÿ˜‰ (Same person as Stullker here, I just played with my Gravatar ID.)

    I really do hope it’s okay to be commenting so much. I’m reading back through all of your entries, and it’s revelation central. Just tell me if I should settle down!

    1. I like your new name. Hurray for positive realizations and getting that drycleaning done. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Comments are very welcome and your enthusiasm makes me happy. I can be slow to reply these days but I voraciously devour each new comment as soon as it arrives in my inbox.

  8. Monitoring of Actions
    This! Is there anyone else who worries they may forget how to do something as simple as breathe?

    I’d always assumed my ability to walk into things was spacial/clumsiness but this make much more sense to me.

      1. That’s an interesting idea. I’m always walking into things. The final bicycle accident I had I collided with a pedestrian crossing light (the cycle path being the outside bit of the pavement);I had been cycling that route regularly and knew it was there, but somehow didn’t see it until it was too late. My mind was on other things.
        I am also rubbish at breathing, although I have survived so far.

  9. Sometime during undergraduate studies, I realized I could successfully positively reinforce myself (read as bribe) complete tasks using television or film scenes: If you _____, you’ll get to _______. It worked surprisingly well — still does. Although the television gets increasingly out there as stressors increase, so I was watching Walking Dead during last year’s finals season.

    Unfuck your habitat is also a useful time management system built around spaced breaks (20-10s or 45-15s – ratio of work-rest time) and celebrating small victories: http://unfuckyourhabitat.tumblr.com/

    1. I subscribed to UFYH on Tumblr and found it was giving me massive anxiety because Tumblr is supposed to be my happy place. I’ve been having really good luck with Todoist though.

      Rewards are good! I find them useful for staying on task moreso than getting started, but they definitely work.

  10. Wow. All of these are struggles for me. I’m really glad you’re writing this series because I’ve never heard these explained so well and in such an understandable way before. Initiation is super hard…I’m realizing that this is what keeps me from getting to bed at the earlier hour I desire…because it’s such a struggle for me to initiate the process of getting ready for bed (and all those god awful steps it entails). Do you ever feel like your monitoring actions thing is in overdrive? I feel like for me the “automatic” part of things that I do every day (like driving, for instance) never really kicks in, and it’s exhausting and such a challenge.

    1. All the godawful steps of showering. Even though it does serve a small function: I can determine beforehand whether I have the energy to finish the entire process, instead of running out of energy while my hair is full of shampoo. But still. It doesn’t feel very productive to think of EVERY SINGLE STEP in that process EVERY SINGLE TIME I need to take a shower. I’d love for parts of it to become automatic.

      (Although. Even though this sounds like a weakness. It also makes me the queen of writing user manuals, which is always appreciated in my line of work. So there’s that).

    2. I’m so glad the series is easy to understand. This can be a hard topic to untangle and I really want these posts to be as accessible as possible.

      My husband and I feed each others’ “not going to bed” inertia by recklessly agreeing to “just one more episode” thereby enabling each other. One night we might have watched 7 consecutive episodes of Deadwood. *ahem*

  11. I came across some websites very recently talking about a condition known as Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) Syndrome. I wonder if anyone has heard of it. A quote from one of the articles I read states: “People with pathological demand avoidance syndrome (PDA) will avoid demands made by others, due to their high anxiety levels when they feel that they are not in control. PDA is increasingly recognized as part of the autism spectrum” My daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s a year ago at the age of 20 and although some of the diagnosis really fits it still feels like something is missing and it relates to what this series on EF is talking about. My daughter, although very bright and very competent seems to lack any form of self-motivation and her natural state is one of inertia. It is hard to understand or explain, especially when I compare her with the cohort she is part of. They are often less ‘high function’ than my daughter but appear to have more self-motivation or willingness to change/learn new behavior skills. My daughter has many of the skills to be independent but left to her own devices will do nothing. She tells me what she would most like to be is a guinea pig (she has had several as pets) She believes they have the perfect life because they are fed, their cages are cleaned and there are people to give them love and affection. Now I am wondering if her lack of initiation is connected to the EF part of her brain or is her behavior related to her need to avoid and demands and expectations at all costs. And, if so,, how does this change the help and support she needs to be able to move to a more independent, self-motivated self-directed state of being. HELP!

    1. “I usually know what to do (plenty of ideas) but the actual action is not happening. Although sometimes I get a bit lost in the amount of things that need to be done as well, in which case itโ€™s a problem with prioritising.” I share these very issues. Only rarely do I feel the energy? confidence? clarity? to act in the face of so much that needs doing.

    2. I have a conception similar your daughter’s. With an engineering degree my best and longest held job was staying home to father to my daughter and son and take care of the house and family needs. This EF installment has been clarifying of so much of the challenges in my life. Thank-you Kim. I can wish I knew all this early in my life. Perhaps, yes!, “I coulda been a contender.”

    3. I had to Google Pathological Demand Avoidance. It isn’t a recognized disorder in the DSM-IV, DSM-5 or ICD-10 so it may be an outdated concept when it comes to autism. A lot of early research was done without actually talking to autistic people about their experiences and executive function in particular wasn’t well understood until recently.

      Is it possible that your daughter is depressed? It sounds like she isn’t interested in leading an independent life and sometimes fear and the resulting depression can play a part in that for people her age. I can imagine how hard it must be to try to support her when living independently sounds like the opposite of what she wants. Perhaps family counseling or seeking support from an agency that works with autistic young adults might be helpful for both of you to better understand what is best for her at this point in her life.

      1. I don’t like the idea of this being a separate disorder, because it pathologises something that might have a very valid root cause (like Cynthia’s suggestion about depression). When someone is diagnosed with Pathological Demand Avoidance, what will happen when they avoid a demanding situation is that it will be labeled as “just part of their condition”, instead of looking at WHY they avoid it. There is always a reason, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

  12. Cynthia, thanks for another tremendous article. I found the threefold aspects of inhibition very interesting and explanatory, as well as the flip side of procrastination. Also, I love the list of tricks you’ve utilized to help yourself get started on projects. I particularly liked starting on the easiest part of a project, or doing a different project to avoid starting the other. Fantastic!

    1. Not at all. I’m always happy for people to share things that they feel are helpful. My only request is that if you print it out or otherwise separate it from my blog, that you include a note with my blog address so people know where it came from. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Interesting. Reading this, I think I have a lot worse inhibition and monitoring of activities than I thought from the summary. I’m very obsessive and have extraordinary trouble forcing my mind from a given thought-track. And I walk into things (or traffic) I guess not terribly often but often enough given the risk of death or serious injury.

  14. I think my biggest problems are inhibition (which is why I get so emotional) and initiation. The latter being the bigger one. Like I know I have homework to do or to register for classes yet somehow I always wait until the very last minute, esp lately.

  15. Can you force yourself to learn inhibition? I feel like I naturally tend towards a lot of these actions but because of various emotional loneliness / neglect / etc. things I’ve learned to curb those impulses because of fear of the results. I’m not advocating this as a strategy because it’s not at all healthy but I’m wondering if this makes sense, or if my inhibition skills are just naturally better than I think.

  16. Inhibition … what a strange beast. Not only is there the issue of lack of inhibition of certain stimuli, responses to the stimuli, motor tics, etc …

    There is also the inhibition which inhibits our own success. A combination of wanting a process, rule or script for dealing with life … and fear of being told no (or worse things like other people reacting with malice, meting out punishments or violence) … has resulted in many situations where I let myself be railroaded or blocked. I often fail to negotiate. I have a lousy timing instinctively knowing what sorts of perqs, bent rules, short cuts, free stuff, etc, to ask for in which situations.

    What’s weird is that i CAN do many of the above things in the context of work. But out away from work doing my own thing? I suck.

  17. I like the swimming pool analogy in the initiation section. Generally what I end up doing in the literal situation is to get in gradually an inch or two at a time (using steps in the shallow end to start, then tippy-toeing to flat-footing it while moving increasingly deeper). I think that your bag of tricks is a good analogy for the sliding in slowly method. In both cases – whether you get in by jumping in all at once, or by sliding in slowly – you still end up in the pool and swimming.

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