This is part 4 in a series about executive function. After wrapping up the discussion of regulatory functions with some thoughts about Cognitive Flexibility, it talks a bit about some models of EF and how the various pieces fit together. Looking for the other parts? Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Cognitive flexibility is all about change. Changing your mind. Changing your opinion. Changing your beliefs. Coping with change. Understanding why change happens.
In a more formal sense, it’s the ability to shift your thinking or attention is in response to changes in the environment or situation (such as new rules, information, demands or goals). If you’ve ever wondered where the autistic tendency toward rigid thinking and routine comes from, this is it. Change requires cognitive flexibility. It’s not necessarily that we don’t want to do things differently. Impaired executive function makes it harder to adapt to change by forming new thought or behavior patterns.
Variation in executive function capacity can explain why one day it’s not a big deal if the bus is five minutes late or your favorite shirt is in the laundry but on another day, this kind of small disruption to routine triggers a meltdown. What appears to be a fit of irrationality is actually a failure of the prefrontal cortex to cope with change in the expected way.
Cognitive flexibility also refers to considering multiple aspects of a situation at the same time, such as seeing opposing points of view or multiple characteristics of an object. When you think about it, there is little difference between “lack of empathy” or “impaired theory of mind” and impaired cognitive flexibility. Not seeing the other person’s point of view can be as simple as having difficulty seeing multiple aspects of a situation at the same time.
Finally, cognitive flexibility includes task switching, which is sometimes listed as a separate component of executive function. Difficulties with task switching are what make it hard to stop playing World of Warcraft and start making dinner. Or to pick up where you left off on a task after being interrupted. Poor task switching is also why people will often say that autistic people are so good at doing repetitive tasks. It might be more accurate to say that we’re not very good at stopping.
Once we disassemble the various components of executive function, it becomes obvious how intertwined they are. It also sheds light on the roots of many aspects of how the autistic brain works. Suddenly, walking into furniture or struggling with change or having trouble focusing in a noisy environment have an identifiable cause–impaired executive function.
It also makes finding solutions both easier and harder. Easier because when I understand the roots of a problem, I can figure out better workarounds. Harder because seeing how everything is connected means I can’t just “learn to plan” or try harder to “pay attention.” Executive function is a complex web of issues. We can’t simply patch up the most obviously deficient parts and hope that fixes everything. In fact, once you understand how the parts of EF work together, it’s easier to see why patching one area might cause another area to “spring a leak.”
In an attempt to find an alternative to patching, I’ve been trying to get a better grasp on what executive function really is. The “control center” analogies are good for generally understanding what executive function is responsible for. But how does it actually work? What’s the underlying mechanism?
There’s the clogged funnel model of executive dysfunction. This hypothesizes that the input channels are much larger than the processing channels–like a funnel with a wide mouth and narrow spout–causing a back-up of information prior to processing. This feels like a crude analogy and doesn’t account for the fact that processing does happen and lots of information is getting through. Just not necessarily the right information. In fact, a twisty hamster Habitrail metaphor might be more accurate for what happens in my brain when it comes to information filtering.
I’ve seen executive function described as the processes that connect past experience to present action. That’s intriguing, but also feels incomplete. Impaired EF does often look like difficulties with generalizing. When something goes wrong–often an external sign of executive function failure–it’s often not a new experience, just a variation on some past disaster.
Because I have trouble generalizing from one situation to another, I won’t foresee the new mishap based on a similar one from the past. Instead of general principles, I have a set of specific rules. This could make my impaired EF look like a problem with predicting present outcomes based on past experience, but it’s not that simple.
Past experience isn’t directly involved in selective attention or filtering out sensory inputs. It doesn’t account for working memory difficulties or problems with initiation. You could argue that thinking of the negative consequences of not “getting started” is a form of connecting past and present–assuming you’ve suffered such consequences in the past–but I think only people who’ve never experienced impaired executive function would make that case.
The entire time I’ve been researching and writing this, I’ve been wracking my brain for some connecting thread that will tie all of the aspects of executive function together. The closest I’ve come is awareness. Again and again I’ll do something that results in a less than desirable outcome and then think “how did I not see that coming?” That, for me, is impaired executive function in a nutshell.
My awareness of my environment and myself seem to get randomly muted and the result is nearly always some form of executive function fail. I have difficulty filtering through the massive amounts of internal and external inputs to prioritize which ones need to be front and center. Often, once I’m aware of something, that’s all it takes to focus me on what needs to be done or not done. But bringing that key piece of information into the cognitive spotlight? That’s where the root of my executive function problems lie.