Summary of core mental processes that support our striving, problem-solving, and dealing with challenges

Although many aspects make up human thinking, people apply a core set of general capabilities to many domains of life. These are referred to collectively as cognitive function, which is supported by the brain’s frontal and parietal lobes. Cognitive function can be broken down into distinct mental processes or executive functions. The three main types of executive functions are: working memory, attention control, and inhibition.

Working memory allows us to keep a goal or idea at the front of our minds, such as eating more healthily, and it also lets us update goals depending on what we have done (eaten the cupcake or the apple). It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get anything done that is meaningful without goals, but without the ability to hold goals in our minds to guide what we do, the best goals won’t do us any good. Working memory is crucial for ensuring that our goals stay active in our minds where we can use and update them instead of forgetting them or leaving them on a “to do” list.

Attention control allows us to focus on tasks and objectives that we might have, such as dealing with deadlines and determining priorities for tasks at work. However, as the requirements for a task change or a new more pressing concern comes up, the ability to control our attention helps us switch and refocus on the new problem. Maybe you’re a manager confirming the monthly budget numbers but you find out your company’s web platform is down. The budget is important but the web platform probably has priority. Attention control is critical for flexibly switching and re-focusing on those curve balls that come our way.

Inhibition refers to the capability to stop or suppress our thoughts or reactions to events that occur around us. Maybe you’re at a meeting and someone has said something you disagree with, but it’s probably best to inhibit and not say something snarky or offensive. Daily life can also present us with many attractive alternatives (snacking, watching TV) that have to be inhibited or avoided and kept at arm’s length. Inhibition is a critical capability because there are usually temptations and distractions we have to deal with and block out so that we can focus and stick to the goals we want to accomplish.

Although distinctions can be made among these executive functions, they many times work collectively (cognitive function) to help us control our thinking, behavior, and feelings. This is key to reaching our goals and attaining outcomes we value.

The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age

The book features interviews with leaders in the field of brain fitness. In the book Dr. Ybarra discusses the importance of social interaction and relationships for staying sharp, and the kinds of social connections we should strive for. The book also provides a very good overview of many of the different factors that support brain fitness.

Q & A with Dr. Ybarra

Chat with Dr. Ybarra

Dr. Ybarra answers reader questions that deal with social engagement and how it benefits cognitive function.