The Adaptive Brain as the Chief Executive Brain (Part 1)

The ability to invent and use a device, particularly the hand-held kind, to carry out a particular function was considered strictly to be human behavior. With exploratory animal research and our ability to capture animals in-action in their habitat has made us more aware. Through animal research many creatures are captured on a candid camera, carrying out a plan in order to retrieve things. This, of course, suggests that animals can plan, organize ideas and sequence actions just like humans do. This ability to adapt has helped all organisms thrive in their habitat or environment and eventually move ahead as a species.

One of the National Geographic documentaries on the human-like behaviors of chimpanzees has managed to capture one such instance. The ingenious invention and use of tools by chimpanzees to retrieve tasty treats, termites, from their mounds is fascinating. See it for yourselves.


A developed prefrontal system is able to innovate and replace a tool with another one in case one doesn’t work. The strength of the adaptive brain or the executive system lies in its ability to suppress a previously learned rule and modify or ADAPT to the new situation. For example, let’s take an example of a 3-year old and a straw. In one scenario, you drink from a straw and in another, you blow bubbles in colored soapy water to make art… if you don’t inhibit the impulse to suck from a straw during bubble painting activity, you’ll end up with a mouthful of soapy water!

Day-to-day activities are riddled with an influx of opportunities to adjust responses, tweak or adapt behaviors. Growing up in India, 3-4 months of monsoons a year definitely made me attuned with the need to adapt to the rainy day (literally not metaphorically) forcing me to be on the look out for things that would serve as an umbrella when I did not carry one. Ideally, an umbrella is what you need when it rains as it protects you from getting wet. However, in case you don’t have an umbrella handy, the adaptive brain kicks in. Here are a few examples of that.

While a protagonist in a good literary piece shows us how he, in his special ways, circumvents a monumental roadblock, we in our small ways adapt every single day. This may range from cutting the edges of a burnt piece of toast to taking a different road once you hit a traffic jam. Researchers Sparrow, Balla and Cicchetti in 1984 defined Adaptive functions as the ability to ‘perform daily activities required for personal and social sufficiency’. It is an individual’s actual performance on a variety of daily tasks including

  • Self-help (waking up, taking a shower, tying shoe laces etc.)
  • Independence (navigating through home, school and community without supervision)
  • Self-knowledge (knowledge of personal information including address, phone number etc.)
  • Motor skills (using craft scissors, replacing lead in the mechanical pencil etc.)
  • Social knowledge (knows how to tell time, how to relate to others, read expressions etc.) and
  • Language and communication skills with others (saying please and thank you, can answer questions, can follow directions etc.)

Research shows that children with ADHD (with delays in development of prefrontal cortex) are known to experience notable difficulties in the area of adaptive skills and over time, experience a significant breakdown in forming habits and in establishing self-sufficiency. One can imagine, the students who suffer from inattention and poor self-control never quite master the ability to “know” what to do next in case things don’t go per plan.

In conclusion, the signature Executive Function ability is to shift thinking to meet the rules, adapt behaviors and restructure actions during novel or unfamiliar or unstructured situations. This ability allows us to finesse a LAST MINUTE CHANGE!

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1 Comment

  1. TNC

    March 3, 2014 at 11:12 am

    thanks for your blog post Sucheta. It gets me to have a much better understanding of what it Actually means to adapt. Those monkeys prying termites outta their mounds with sticks is indeed a rather adaptive behavior. Sure makes me wonder what’m doing to better adapt to my tbi. I need to spend Much more time not only contemplating them up but also implementing strategies on how ‘I’ can start to better ‘my’ life again.

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