Emotion and Executive Function

The most important thing to understand about your brain, when working toward wellbeing, is that the brain prioritizes emotion. There are five processing systems in the brain. Sensory (input), Motor (output or response), Affective (motivation), Executive (control), and Cognitive (understanding).

The Affective system is the boss system. It runs the show. The Affective system puts a positive (+) or negative (-) spin on things – on the information coming in and the responses we could make to it. Generally speaking, either we want it or we’re afraid of it.

The Affective system drives both the Executive system and the Cognitive system. Thus, it is the boss. The Executive system controls input (attending) and output (responding). We pay attention to what has the strongest emotional charge on it, positive or negative. We think about most, and remember best, what has the strongest emotional charge.

Note – this is the most important thing to understand about attention and attention problems and ADHD and executive function deficits and all that. Let me repeat – we pay attention to, and respond to, what has the strongest charge on it, positive or negative. If we’re very hungry, and our favorite sandwich is on a plate on the table, we won’t notice or think about or do anything else but grab it and eat it. But if a bear walks into the kitchen we will forget all about the sandwich. There is now a much bigger negative charge (fear) on the bear than there is positive charge (yum!) on the sandwich. So our brain will pay sharp attention to and respond very efficiently to exiting the kitchen.

The result of this characteristic of how our brains are wired is that both our executive system and our cognitive system work best when we are calm, when there is no strong emotional charge on things other than what we’re trying to focus on, learn or do. When we are upset – worried, angry, irritable, hungry, tired, unwell, in pain, when we are not okay, we cannot concentrate, plan, or learn. Even being too excited – a very strong positive charge, will interfere.

So mindfulness practice, which enables us to be aware of our emotions and our emotionally charged or habitual thinking, and to accept, understand and to calm them, improves both our executive functioning and our cognitive functioning. We develop the ability to control what we focus our attention on and to ignore distractions, and to control which responses we initiate and which we inhibit. And we develop the ability to think more clearly, to have a broader perspective, and to understand, learn and remember.