When scientists talk about the brain’s control and regulation of mental processes, they often use the umbrella term ‘executive functions’. Executive functions are defined as the mental processes in your brain that deal with overall mental control of higher cognitive brain functions.
Your brain automatically regulates many bodily processes and performs thousands of automated actions every day, such as breathing. The purpose of this automation is to free up mental resources to be focused elsewhere. Executive functions deal with all decisions that are too novel, complex, difficult or dangerous to be automated. In other words, executive functions “control” our natural urges and impulses and override automatic responses when needed. Executive functions allow us to hold and manipulate multiple pieces of abstract information at the same time, make complex associations between concepts and also to imagine future outcomes, make plans and take decisions.
As such, executive functions have played an absolutely critical part in the survival and prosperity of the human race. To compare, our prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that governs executive functions, is more than 3 times larger than that of our closest mammal relative, the chimpanzee. The central role of executive functioning means that there is a lot to gain from exercising it.
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