Executive Function: What is it and why should you thank your ancestors for it?

Executive function can be categorized in different ways, in this article we will walk you through the Metacognitive and the Emotional/motivational division in executive function. 

Metacognition can be defined as being the knowledge one has about their cognitive process and understanding related to regulating processes with the goal of maximizing personal development (e.g., learning). Metacognitive Executive Function is executive function abilities happening in the prefrontal lobe. They are focused on functions in relation to the following abilities: 

  • Working Memory
  • Concept Formation
  • Problem-Solving
  • Strategy Development and Implementation
  • Attention

The other class, Emotional/motivational executive function, is based on the coordination of cognition in relation to emotion/motivation. This comes from the biological need that everyone has an internal urge to fulfil. 

On top of the different actions, metacognitive executive function differentiates from the emotional/motivational executive function in the location in the prefrontal areas, the dorsolateral and orbitofrontal/medial frontal areas respectively. Most of the research is focused on the prior but neglects the needs of the human interactions the latter require. This leaves interpersonal interaction as a factor out of the equation.

Evolutionary Perspective

Recent publications are suggesting similarity in primates and hominids concerning our prefrontal lobe. From those publications, it was stated that primates and hominids have developed emotional/motivational executive function. Illustrating shared evolutionary conserved executive functionality with primates and humanoids. However, it is hypothesized that humans differentiated themselves due to our metacognitive executive function.

Additionally, the lateral prefrontal regions in humans served us to develop language, human reasoning and bilaterally (lateral frontopolar cortex, IFPC), without apparent homologues in monkeys. The ability to generate, store and use previously learned information offered evolutionary advantage in environments with externally induced uncertainty by making us more adaptable.  

Looking at executive functioning as means to offer behaviour-to-the-self mechanism, evolving from overtly expression to covertly expression gave the upper hand for those able to so due to the interpersonal competition in social species like humans living in groups. The executive function offers the biological adaptation needed to be better in reacting to external stimuli (e.g., uncertainty and chaos). 

Even though the complete understanding of executive function is not fully conclusive, it illustrates the importance of taking an evolutionary stance in getting insight in its nature, its adaptation and its trainability in helping to diminish loss of cognitive reserve in injury or developmental impairment. 

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