Many of the ideas for this column come out of my experiences and interactions week to week with the people (and plants and animals) who work and live in the world around me. Often my intention is to offer guidance from a brain perspective that might make all our lives a little easier – “Oh, it’s not me, it’s my brain causing the difficulty.” This past week I have been inspired by a few instances of me showing up as an unskillful corporal executive. Corporal executives are different than corporate executives, of course, but not by much. One is in charge of organizing and directing a body of people and the other is the boss of their own body, brain, heart and mind. Presumably. Too often, however, I find I’m not in charge of any of it; and my actions would be decidedly more skillful if I were.
Executing Executive Function
Where the difficulty seems to lie for me is in something Dr. Gerard Gioia and his colleagues at the National Children’s Organization call Executive Function. I’ve written about it before, but briefly, here are eight abilities that often end up compromised in healthy brains, especially under stress …
Inhibition – This is the ability to stop one’s own behavior at an appropriate time, including curbing actions, speech and thoughts. The flip side of inhibition is impulsivity; if you have a compromised ability to stop yourself from acting on your impulses, then you are “impulsive.” America’s prisons and corporations are full of people unable to stop from acting on impulses like anger, fear and greed.
Shift – This is the ability to transition freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond skillfully to new situations. As a child I was never deliberately instructed in ways to restore calm when moving from one known situation to another unknown. Transition sensitivity shows up too frequently in my adult life as avoidance and reclusiveness.
Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings, simply put, is emotional control. Too often in my world, my feelings run the show. Rational thought seems to become buried in some neuronal traffic jam deep in the bowels of my neural No Man’s Land. Feelings make good trail guides but horrible masters.
Initiation – This is the ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies. I’m always puzzled by the fact that so many of us are willing to work at a job provided by someone else, rather than start our own business and work for ourselves. Turns out that poor Executive Function is often the culprit.
Working memory – This is the capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task. This is a particularly challenging one for me, especially with taking all I know and am continually learning about brain science, and creatively applying it in the real world. It’s like there’s a lack of information pathways that should enable me to transfer learning/knowing into doing.
Appreciating Beauty – According to this study by Professor Semir Zeki at the Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London, our ability to appreciate beauty is enhanced or diminished according to the amount of energy and information we can process through our Executive Function structures. Sometimes a rose is a rose is a massive collection of orbitofrontal neuronal connections! Which means that my beautiful rose is almost certainly different than yours.
Organization of Materials – Here we have the ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces. Even though every neuron in my brain knows the importance of order and organization, it is an ongoing daily struggle for me from my truck to my tool shed to my office space, disorganization continually creeps in and has its way with me.
Self-Monitoring – This is the ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected, with discernment and without undue harsh criticism that triggers internal emotional reactivity and poopy self-talk.
Each of these abilities are part of what UCLA neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel associates with “mindsight.” And they all have one thing in common: they are the result of many different brain parts sending neuronal fibers to congregate and connect at the front and center part of the brain: the orbitofrontal cortex.
The good news is that we can all do things to increase the connectivity of our brain parts to this central area. Studies in meditation and contemplative practice by people like Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin and Andrew Newberg at Princeton show positive results and benefits in as little as five weeks!
Even better news is that once we realize any of these eight areas might not be so well-connected, we can apply The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience and find other people in our lives willing to serve as External Operators in those areas. So, for example, we can ask people who are easily able to plan and organize to help us with that; other people can also help us identify and initiate important goals, process feelings and calm down. In essence we can build a personal corporate structure to help us with our personal corporal structure. It’s what healthy community is all about, actually.