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 | Part 2
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.
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.
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.
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.
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