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The term „Executive functions“ refers to a group of higher order cognitive abilities that coordinate and regulate other abilities and behavior making it possible to perform meaningful, goal-directed activities. They are called EXECUTIVE because they are crucial for EXECUTION of an action.

To better understand the concept it may be helpful to visualize executive function as a conductor that makes it possible for various musical instruments in the orchestra (i.e. a number of cognitive abilities needed to perform an action) play in accordance to each other.

Executive functions are sometimes called 'prefrontal' as they are associated with the prefrontal lobe, a functional zone of the cerebral cortex which matures the last in the course of human brain development. The greatest spurt in the development of the prefrontal cortex takes place around the 6th – 7th year; however, it is not before the onset of adulthood until it finally matures.


There is no definite list of executive functions, various researchers attribute somewhat different cognitive abilities to executive domain, however, most agree that executive functions include mental flexibility, working memory,impulse control and planning.

Three executive functions are most often studied in past decade, and these are working memory, mental flexibility (also called mental set shifting) and impulse control (also called dominant response inhibition). These three cognitive abilities are included in widely accepted 'unity and diversity' model of executive functions, proposed by Miyake and colleagues (2000). According to the authors of the model, working memory updating, shifting and inhibition are separable, but moderately related to each other. They are also referred to as core executive functions, comparable to the building blocks used for the more complex executive functions, such as planning or problem solving.