Executive functions

We have often heard about executive functions, but what are they and what are they for? We explain in this post.

What are executive functions?

In our daily lives, we face situations for which we do not have a predetermined plan of action. Executive functions are the central axis that guides adaptive and socially accepted and acceptable behaviours [1].

Executive functions are defined as the processes of associating simple ideas, movements and actions and orienting them to the resolution of complex behaviours [2]. In other words, a set of cognitive skills that control and regulate more basic abilities (such as attention, memory and motor skills) and that are at the service of achieving goal-directed or problem-solving behaviours. It comprises a series of processes whose main function is to facilitate the subject's adaptation [3, 4].

What processes include?

Processing speed

Processing speed reflects the amount of information that can be processed per unit of time and the time that elapses from the occurrence of the stimulus to the execution of a response [1].

An example of processing speed would be, from the time the telephone rings, the time it takes to react and pick up the call.

Working memory

Working memory is the brain system that makes it possible to temporarily store and maintain in the mind the information necessary for the execution of complex cognitive tasks [5].

An example of working memory would be keeping in mind what the teacher has said so that we can write it down in our own words in our notes.

Verbal fluency

The ability to produce words fluently without many pauses or glitches would be specifically within an individual's ability to look up words efficiently or poorly [6].

An example of verbal fluency would be being able to quickly make a list of words beginning with a particular letter, for example P.


This is the suppression of irrelevant information [7].

An example of inhibition would be when we are having a conversation with a person in a group, and we do not pay attention to the group conversation, in order to focus on the conversation we are having with one of the people.

Dual performance

This consists of performing two tasks simultaneously, usually a verbal and a visuospatial task [1].

An example of dual execution would be having a conversation while doing a puzzle.

Cognitive flexibility

Allows behaviour to be modified when necessary according to external demands [8].

An example of cognitive flexibility would be, when we are returning home, we see that a road is blocked and we have to change the pre-established route.


Planning is presented as a number of actions where the subject must activate previous schemes to correlate them with new information and formulate new action plans that lead to the consequence of the goal [9].

An example of planning would be when we have to go to a city we have not been to before, and we organise the different steps to follow: transport, schedules, etc.


The ability to select the most adaptive course of action from a set of possible behavioural alternatives [9].

An example of decision making would be, when we are thinking about whether to renovate our house or move to another one, deciding what to do based on what may be more convenient for us.

What happens when executive dysfunction occurs?

People who suffer from an impairment of executive functions find it difficult to adapt in their daily lives at family, social and professional levels. They may present cognitive impulsivity, difficulties in organising different tasks, in finding an effective strategy to solve a problem. They may have problems of inhibition, impulsivity, etc. [10].

How can we work on these functions?

We could train the ability to plan by setting out a situation and developing a plan of action to carry it out. For example, to do the shopping, we would have to decide what items we should take to the supermarket (wallet, shopping list, keys to go back home, etc.).

We could work on dual performance by doing a task as a puzzle, and repeating what they say on the radio.

There are multiple ways to work on these functions in a simple way. Another option is to use tools designed for this purpose. Many of these tools will allow us to regulate the level of difficulty of these exercises, so that we can work from a fairly high level of impairment to a milder one.

In this sense, virtual reality provides added value, because by giving the sensation of being in the place we are seeing, the activities become much more realistic, and therefore, learning is more transferable to our daily lives.



1. Tirapu, J., Cordero, P., Luna, P., Hernáez, P. (2017). Propuesta de un modelo de funciones ejecutivas basado en análisis factoriales: Revista de neurología, 64(2): 75-84.

2. Tirapu, J., Muñoz, J.M., Pelegrín, C. (2002). Funciones ejecutivas: necesidad de una integración conceptual: Revista de neurología, 34(7): 673-685.

3. Ojeda, V., Carvajal, C., Painevilu, S., Zerpa, C. (2019). Desempeño de las funciones ejecutivas según estado cognitivo en adultos mayores. Revista chilena de neuro-psiquiatría, 57(3): 207-214.

4. Philips, L.H., Rabbit, P. (1997). Methodology of frontal and executive function.

5. Ramos, L., Arán, V. (2017). Funciones ejecutivas y práctica de ajedrez: un estudio en niños escolarizados: Psicogente 21(39): 25-34.

6. Cáceres, A., Flórez, Y. (2019). Relación entre funciones ejecutivas, fluidez verbal y el desempeño en comunicación escrita de los estudiantes de 10 semestre de la universidad de la costa.

7. Montalván, M. (2019). Funciones ejecutivas y memoria de trabajo en educación infantil: Diseño de un programa de intervención.

8. Pardos, A., Gonzales, M. (2018). Intervención sobre las funciones ejecutivas (FE) desde el contexto educativo: Revista Iberoamericana de Educación, 78(1): 27-42.

9. Genoni, L. (2018). Las funciones ejecutivas de planificación y toma de decisiones: una revisión bibliográfica desde el neuromanagment: Revista de Investigación interdisciplinaria en métodos experimentales, 7(1): 125-153.

10. Cañas, M. (2016). Disfunción ejecutiva en pacientes con Demencia tipo Alzheimer. Relación con los trastornos neuroconductuales y las capacidades funcionales.