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Executive Function Notes

Psychology Notes > Developmental Psychology (2nd year) Notes

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Executive function
Exec function (EF) = an interrelated set of 'high level' cognitive skills, including planning, reasoning, WM,
inhibition, and cognitive flexibility
Prefrontal cortex is crucial for exec function (Robbins, 1996)
Damage to PFC  problems with planning, inhibition, cognitive control
Important improvements between 3-4 years
EF is shown when people engage in conscious, goal-directed thought and action under new situations,
where previously established routines for responding do not exist
EF emerges early, develops rapidly during preschool years, and continues to develop into the 3 rd decade
EF = unitary construct that becomes increasingly differentiated with development and experience
Influenced by bottom-up processes eg stress, motivation, arousal
Measurement of EF in early childhood has improved and new psychometric approaches are promising
EF can be trained with corresponding changes to brain structure and function

Development of PFC in Childhood
Within PFC:
Lateral PFC
Cognitive functions including monitoring visual input about spatial locations and objects, mediation of attention, and WM
Orbitofrontal cortex Brain regions involved in emotion processing, eg amygdala, connect with
OFC received processed sensory and associative memory info
Involved with motivation and reward
Anterior cingulate within ACC connects OFC and parts of the limbic system involved in learning the Medial frontal cortex
Growth of PFC:

1. Myelination within PFC increases  increased efficiency, processing speed, and info integration

2. Gray matter in PFC slowly increased and then decreases in late childhood and adulthood  Ushape may reflect the overproduction and pruning of synapses which allows the brain to be shaped by experience
Shift from more diffuse to more focal activation of EF
 more activation in areas related to EF in adults
 less activation in areas unrelated to EF
= focalisation as a function of age and EF suggests that the functional development of PFC may be assoc with more specialised and efficient processing Executive function
Moriguchi et al., 2009:
Direct evidence that development changes in PFC function accompany changes in exec function
Card sorting task while brain activity recorded via NIRS
Nearly all 5y/o but only 75% 3y/o successfully switched rules
Changes in blood oxy in PF areas between control phase and experimental phase
Those who passed had more blood oxy than those who failed

Hot and Cold EF
Neural systems vary as a function of motivational significance
Top-down influences that operate in…
Hot EF
Motivationally and emotionally sig situations
Cool EF

More affectively neutral contexts

Paralimbic structures
Lateral PFC

Optimal performance on hot EF tasks lag behind cool EF in development due to the additional demands of managing emotional arousal
Cohen et al., 2011: tested 8 and 14y/o
Adult like levels of performance reached on hot EF measures at an older age than for cool EF measures
More individual differences in hot EF  matter of motivation than capacity for cognitive control
Delay of Gratification Task:
Age-related declines in impulsive responding
Ind diff correlated with performance on cool EF measures
Remain fairly stable over time

Age-related changes in EF
Infancy through middle childhood = increases in:
 WM
 Inhib control
 Cognitive flexibility
 Planning
= allow for greater cognitive control with increasing automaticity and efficiency
Young children show impulsive, stimulus-bound behaviour  opposite of goal-directed behaviour

A-not-B error = earliest emerging behaviour that requires EF 
 By 7-8 months infants can retrieve an object when hidden and obscured for 2-3 seconds
 By 9-12 months infants can remember the location for longer delays Executive function
Piaget, 1952: Means-end clothing-pulling task: PLANNING
Means-end = recognising that a particular action results in a particular event
Infant presented with an object of interest  out of reach
Infant must pull cloth (means) to reach the object (goal)
 ability emerges at 8m/o
EF develops at 3y/o, but ground-work for EF develops earlier

From age 2-5, children make gains in EF
Plan solutions

Inhibit behaviours

Cognitive flexibility

Carlson et al., 2004:
3y/o children performing the Truck Loading task:
Showed planning by remembering to load all items into the truck
Did not show a means-end strategy in which they had to load items in reverse order for the stops along the route
Gerstadt, 1994: day and night task: Stroop task variation  70% correct at 3.5 years,
90% correct 7 years
Grass/Snow task: children asked to point to white card when examiner says grass
 performance improved sig from 3-5y/o
Diamond & Doar, 1989: A not B task: 7-12 months: increase in retention interval for spatial location - proposed to relate to PFC development
Dimensional Change Card Sort task  Zelazo, 2006:
Sort the same cards in 2 different ways eg first by shape, then by colour (similar to
Wisconsin card sorting test for adults)
Requires inhib control to prevent responding based on the irrelevant dimension
Require WM to maintain reps of the relevant task rules
 4y/o can switch rules
 3y/o continue using the first set of rules after told to switch  correctly respond to questions about the current rules but still perseverate on the basis of the previous rules = knowledge-action dissociation
= children develop the ability to represent and use rules during the preschool period
= ability to hold rules in mind for longer period and switch more flexibly develops between ages 3-6

Advances still occur  increases in:
 Attention control
 Efficiency
 Flexibility
 Organisation of complex problems
Humphrey, 1982: by middle childhood, children can selectively focus their attention in the face of complex distractors

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