ADHD Symptoms & ADD Symptoms: Executive Functions

Executive functions are critical in understanding the role of Cogmed Working Memory TrainingTM as it relates to Adult ADD, children with ADHD, ADD symptoms and/or symptoms of ADHD. 

What are Executive functions (EF)?  They are important to understand even though they generally are jargon ladened theoretical concepts (ideas about how the brain works) which must be proven by research to be valid.

First, here’s a formal definition of executive functions:  “…neurocognitive processes that maintain an appropriate problem-solving set to attain a later goal.” (Willcutt, et al, 2005)  Willcutt also states that according to the most prominent neuropsychological theory of ADHD, primary deficits in these areas are the root of most ADHD symptomatology (2005).

In lay terms, executive functions are what you need to keep attention on a problem, stay organized and on task to solve a problem and accomplish a goal. They provide a “problem-solving” mindset or approach to achieving a goal.

Since executive functions are only a theory, the critical issue is whether or not this idea is gaining support over time to validate it.  The more support it gets the more it is considered to be a valid “educated guess” and with enough support it is considered to actually “exist”. Current literature greatly shows this theory is gaining support with research.

According to the hypothesis, executive functions allow one to access “appropriate problem solving to attain a later goal” (Willcutt, et al, 2005) involves 4 phases ( Zelazo, et al, 1997): representation, planning, execution and evaluation. This indicates that theoretically one moves through phases in problem solving.  First, a person “represents” the problem in his or her mind.  This requires paying attention so that he or she notices the problem and can articulate it in some way.  Then, the person plans how to solve the problem.  Next, for the plan to work it must be used or executed – this requires actually following through. Finally, the problem needs to be evaluated to determine if it has been successfully solved. If it is not solved, one must regroup and go through the process again.

Erik Willcutt did a meta-analysis of studies on executive functions. A meta-analysis is a study which takes multiple studies on a topic, combines them together and analyzes the data to see if there are significant trends in the research. He found there were!

This study took 83 studies that were assessing executive functions in people with and without ADHD. They found that groups with ADHD did have impairment on “all executive function tasks.”  However, in contrast to those without ADHD, people with ADHD had the strongest and most consistent deficits in the following 4 areas (which are all required for successful completion of each of the above four phases of problem solving):

  1. Working Memory: That small amount of information you can hold in your mind temporarily as you go.
  2. Response Inhibition:  The ability to appropriately keep yourself from responding, responding automatically, randomly or inappropriately.
  3. Vigilance:  Meriam-Webster Inc (2010) describes this as being “alertly watchful especially to avoid danger”.  It is seen as “attention” and some include “visual attention within it”. .
  4. Planning:  Organizing information and or activities to move toward a goal.

These studies show that “executive functions” theory is gaining notable support. More importantly, these four areas of working memory, response inhibition, vigilance and planning are the most strongly research supported areas of need for those with Adult ADD, children with ADHD, ADD symptoms and/or symptoms of ADHD.

This provides a basic starting point for understanding executive functions, although the overall picture is more complicated than this.

Research and clinical work arguably has gone from these constructs to focusing on what have become the two focal points of research and treatment, working memory and response inhibition.  Future blogs will then address each of these areas. This series will assist in clarifying the role Cogmed Working Memory TrainingTM has on executive functions and Adult ADD, children with ADHD, ADD symptoms and/or symptoms of ADHD.



Database: PsycARTICLES

[Journal Article]

Early development of executive function: A problem-solving framework.

Zelazo, Philip David; Carter, Alice; Reznick, J. Steven; Frye, Douglas

Review of General Psychology. Vol 1(2), Jun 1997, 198-226.


  1. Executive function (EF) accounts have now been offered for several disorders with childhood onset (e.g., attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, early-treated phenylketonuria), and EF has been linked to the development of numerous abilities (e.g., attention, rule use, theory of mind). However, efforts to explain behavior in terms of EF have been hampered by an inadequate characterization of EF itself. What is the function that is accomplished by EF? The present analysis attempts to ground the construct of EF in an account of problem solving and thereby to integrate temporally and functionally distinct aspects of EF within a coherent framework. According to this problem-solving framework, EF is a macroconstruct that spans 4 phases of problem solving (representation, planning, execution, and evaluation). When analyzed into subfunctions, macroconstructs such as EF permit the integration of findings from disparate content domains, which are often studied in isolation from the broader context of reasoning and action. A review of the literature on the early development of EF reveals converging evidence for domain-general changes in all aspects of EF. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved)


Dr. Charles Shinaver

Located in Carmel, Indiana near Indianapolis, Noblesville, Fishers, Zionsville, and Westfield.

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Dr. Charles Shinaver, Carmel, Indiana, Indianapolis, Noblesville, Fishers, Zionsville, Westfield, clarity4Health, Cogmed Review, ADHD natural remedies, ADHD treatment, ADHD alternative treatment, family fitness, exercise at home, American family fitness, ADHD Doctor DAD, Charles Shinaver, Charles Shinaver’s Blog, Charles Shinaver III PhD

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