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Executive Functions

executive functions

Being confronted with new or complex situations such as finding the reason for a car breakdown, finding the best itinerary for a trip, planning the gardening, or beating your chess opponent can greatly challenges our executive (frontal) function in any of its modes: inferential, analogical, or automatic.

  • Inferential reasoning by means of hypotheses, deductions and inferences (hypothetical-deductive) is used when facing a new problem for which we have no “ready” solutions to apply. We are then forced to consider all elements of the problem, to deduce a solution by means of inference and/or to develop possible theories to find a solution.
  • Analogical reasoning relates to adequately “recycling” a solution that was found to solve a past problem with common characteristics to the current problem.
  • Automatic reasoning means spontaneously applying a well-known solution that occurs in familiar situations (such as traveling to the store by a familiar method). It is done through the automatic application of knowledge stored in our memory. These situations require little attention and barely cost any cognitive resources.

Establishing a Reasoning Strategy

Below are the necessary steps to in order to establish a reasoning (hypothetical-deductive) strategy.

  1. Problem analysis and definition of the goal to be reached
  2. Choice of strategy - determining the action plan to solve the problem
    - if the final goal is too difficult to reach in a single step, intermediate sub goals are defined, making it easier to progress towards the solution
    - considering available means to reach the goal, as well as possible constraints
  3. Selection of a solution from amongst several possible solutions
  4. Check the validity of the achieved result in comparison to the initial analysis

Other Cognitive Skills Used for Reasoning

Attention: In order to solve a problem it is necessary to focus attention on all available information and to then determine the most relevant pieces. Attention also allows us to ignore all interferences that might disturb the reasoning process. It can also help us leave automatic answers aside (delist) that have been generated by the brain but are inadequate for the situation.
Example: Holding at a STOP sign when a traffic cop is signaling us to move on.

Memory: Long-term memory is particularly involved in reasoning as we use ready-made action plans stored in our memory to solve a new problem. Working memory also intervenes and helps us to consciously keep essential elements of the problem in mind and work on the various available elements like a series of numbers during mental calculation.

Mental imaging: The ability to mentally create an image also greatly contributes to an effective reasoning process. It allows to us create, imagine, or anticipate future chess moves and to keep information in mind, to compare situations, to do a mental rotation of objects in order to decide, for instance, whether a wardrobe fits into a certain space.