This post is in the Executive function category

The frontal lobes of the brain – Brodman 9 and 10 among others (Gilbert, Bird, Brindley, Frith & Burgess, 2008; Goycoolea, Mena & Neubauer, 2006; Murphy et al., 2002; Rankin, Kramer & Miller, 2005; Sokol & Edwards-Brown, 2004; Sugihara, Ouchi, Nakamura, Sekine & Mori, 2007) are responsible for these functions and as well as being involved in music and language (Goycoolea et al., 2007). Executive Function is also closely allied with memory in that such functions call on past experiences and learning in order to deal appropriately with present situations. EF is implicated when we perform conscious and subconscious mental activities such as recalling details of past experience, planning and organising, developing rules and predicting outcomes, selecting relevant sensory data and choosing appropriate actions or inhibiting inappropriate ones. It includes the conscious self-talk that we all employ to work through situations, for example telling oneself to calm down in anxious moments or talking-up before a sporting event, and when an idea cannot be let go regardless of it’s appropriateness to time or context. The post Stick to the Beat explores instances of this phenomena. Impairments of EF have been considered as a primary mechanism in autism, however more recent research indicates a more complex picture (Gilotty, Kenworthy, Sirian, Black & Wagner, 2002) where multiple domains of EF are abnormally or differently balanced in various conditions where it has been defined as a deficit such as ADHD and ASD (Happé, Booth, Charlton & Hughes, 2006; Kasari & Rotheram-Fuller, 2005; Lyons & Fitzgerald, 2004; Soprano, 2003; Williams, Whiten & Singh, 2004). Attwood cites numerous authors in support of Executive Function impairments especially in adolescents and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome (2008).

Along with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Queensland Health, in a publication from their Acquired Brian Injury Outreach Service (Queensland Health, 2007) note that deficits or impairments of executive function are implicated in a wide range of mental and cognitive disorders including schizophrenia, ADHD, dementia and acquired brain injury. They list a set of aspects of behaviour that are largely defined by elements of Executive Function; Self-Evaluation, Planning, Initiation, Self Correction, Problem Solving, Inhibition.

As would be expected given the range of functional control, problems in executive function have a very large range of outward and inner manifestations. Memory is strongly involved and imbalances may occur in short, medium and long-term recall, for example an individual may have exceptional and highly detailed long term memory of text, music or images, but not be able to find a friend’s house in the next suburb without consulting the map at every turn. An inability to hold facts in the mind while dealing with and sorting incoming information from the senses is a common issue and one that many people are familiar with in certain situations – how many of us can keep place in a conversation and pour a cup of tea at the same time?1  The post Incomprehension, explores some of these points and the frustrations that can arise even when the individual knows about the cognitive forces at work.

Emotion regulation is an aspect of Executive Function that is clearly affected in my own case and is highly relevant in musical situations, as composer, audience and studio collaborator. In particular the ability to process and recognise the internal stimulus provided by emotional response is significantly impaired. Most of the time I do not respond emotionally until I have processed events and situations cognitively – I have to know what to feel before I can feel it. The difficulties associated with emotion regulation are more often highlighted by people who have autism than those who observe it (Chamak, Bonniau, Jaunay & Cohen, 2008), and this aspect is of such pivotal importance to this study that I have devoted a separate section to its discussion.

Planning and prioritising is an area also regulated by EF. These behaviours require the ability to recall and project past experience (of self or others) into the future in order to give them a temporal space and assign a cognitive understanding of implications and impact. Individuals with atypical EF often have problems with time management and deadlines, but other aspects may be impacted because of difficulties deciding which incoming stimulus to concentrate on at any given time, such as understanding which line in a musical piece is the melody and which is a harmony, or which of several conversations going on in a room to listen to. In my own case as a composer, I believe that this aspect is a useful one as my compositional mind is always open to shifts in textural and melodic priority, and I often find that lines that were intended as harmony, backing vocals, riffs or other supporting musical elements ultimately become the dominant parts.

The format of this document is a reflection of my “disordered” mind in this respect. The “important bits” are “finding their own level” through the use of both automated and defined relevance mechanisms. Many of them are distinctly unplanned, unexpected and occasionally surprising in their simplicity, but they have allowed me to look at particular topics in new lights and assign priorities that may be counter to my initial thoughts.

  1. More a male problem perhaps – see “extreme male syndrome” elsewhere in this document []

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