Neuroscience and Executive Function

Neuroscience and behavioural neuroscience examine the neural correlates of various brain activity. In other words, neuroscience, also called neurobiology, studies the brain. The brain is an immensely complex object, and thus, simplistic conclusions remain unwarranted when it comes to neuronal substrates and cortical activity. Further, the cortex is the grey matter underneath the skull. The grey matter is composed of neuronal cells, while white matter represents neuron’s axons or connections.

Moreover, the cortex is protected by the thick, rigid skull bone, but also by the meninges. The meninges are three layers (pia mater, dura mater and arachnoid) encompassing and protecting the brain. Hence, the three membranes envelop the brain and spinal cord. Furthermore, the brain and the spinal cord compose the CNS (the central nervous system). The CNS is associated with the fight-or-flight response. Lately, the response has also been added the “or freeze” dimension. The fight-or-flight response refers to reactions to threatening stimuli, when the organism must decide whether to gather energy and fight off the threat, or to run away to escape the threat. Therefore, freezing may be yet another response, such as when paralysis by fear precludes any action. Along these lines, social psychologists say that anger is a reaction to threat, also in cases when one feels dominated or manipulated.

Executive function is generally attributed to the frontal lobe, while executive dysfunction is diagnosed by the WCST (Wisconsin Card Sorting Test). Perseverative errors refer to persisting in the same strategy, while environmental cues clearly show that it is time to change strategy. For example, in the WCST subjects must sort cards according to a criterion, such as colour or shape. The administrator tells the subject according to which criterion the cards should be sorted by pile; what happens with executive dysfunction is that the subject persists sorting the cards when the administrator changes the criterion. The behaviour is called perseveration. Unlike perseverance, which is a desirable trait showing drive and persistence in pursuing achievements, perseveration is sign of executive dysfunction. Accordingly, the most famous case in psychology and neurology concerning executive dysfunction is that of Phineas Gage. In general, executive function refers to activities such as decision-making, planning and organizing, while executive dysfunction means loss of inhibition and tremendous, deleterious personality changes, which can lead to poor decisions even if the intellectual capacities of the person are left intact.

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