Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Full Fridge and Nothing to Eat: How Executive Function Impacts What We See Right in Front of Us.

We have all had the experience of looking at a full fridge and not being able to find anything to eat.  Sure, part of it is a lack of decision or trouble finding something that we are hungry for.  But a lot of it has to do with executive function. 

Executive function is a cognitive ability impacted by the center and the front of the brain.  It involves many attentional abilities such as sorting through stimuli, carrying out multiple steps to complete a task, paying attention to detail, organizing our life, keeping track of what we are doing, and multi-tasking.

When we are faced with a visual field filled with stimuli (e.g., a refrigerator full of food), our brain needs to sequence and sort through every detail of the field and tell us all the meaningful things in front of us.  If we have trouble with this part of executive function, we can see "a bunch of stuff" but the details get lost.  This is also why you might find 5 open jars of mayonnaise in your fridge.  Someone missed the detail in the fridge, and opened a new container...multiple times!

This is true for our kids too.  Take a look at this visual field--

Have you ever heard your child say "I have nothing to play with!  I'm bored, I have nothing to do!" 

Or do they stand in their room when you ask them to clean up...looking dazed and say "I don't know how!" 

This is likely that same executive function problem--Here are all these stimuli!  What do I do now?

I find that my son plays with more of his toys when his playroom is organized than when all his toys are out in the open.  You would think having all the toys visible would make for more ideas of what to play.  But no--it only makes the visual field more confusing and actually less noticed.  "Where do I start.  What do I play.  What should I do?" 

1. Realize this is a brain function.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses with brain functions, including executive function abilities.  What is easy for you may be challenging for someone else.  Also, when we are fatigued or stressed, our ability to attend to detail may be even harder.
2. Try organizing things and making less things visible.  Sometimes when less toys or food are visible, people feel like there is actually more to do and more to eat.