The Adaptive Brain as the Chief Executive Brain (Part 2)


It’s March and I’m looking for the whispering signs of spring. Just thinking about Paris puts a smile on my face. In her book How Paris Became Paris, Joan Dejean describes the innovative and adaptive mind of Henry IV. Until that point, the cities around Europe, for practical and economical reasons, were connected with bridges that were lined with houses on both sides. It served a functional purpose and allowed trading. But Henry IV decided to change that. With vision, resourcefulness, and determination he constructed bridges that transformed the desolate city of Paris into the modern city that we have come to love. The sidewalks on the bridges made it possible for the poor and the rich to walk in the evening, watch the sunset, and bask in the glory of the river.  Even to this day, the “new bridge” of the Pont Neuf reminds us the innovative and flexible mind, which inspired change in many – people and places.

When accomplishing goals, the Executive Functioning ability constantly updates the input from the environment and assesses the circumstances to see if the goal can be met. This process requires an individual to sustain attention and engagement, relate new information to prior knowledge, detect what’s implicit and finally, reconstruct or reconstitute the goals. Take an example of charging your laptop. If it’s a regular day, you have a fixed place next to your bed where you may be plugging your laptop charger. But if you are at Starbucks or at the airport, you have to look around and scout out the area to see where the outlet is. Then you have to negotiate with the space and people to figure out when it’s all right to plug in.  This is where your adaptive skills play an important role.

To become successful at adaptive skills, one must appreciate the role of habits, routines or structure, which create a strong backbone for effective adaptation. Carrying out part of the day with a predetermined sequence of events allows automation. Hence, everyday habits or routine environments provide structured guidance, which take away the pressure of thinking of goals or plans. On the other hand, novelty or changes in the environment or newly added constraints interrupt the habitual sequence, which then forces the brain to employ adaptive thought.

A word of caution: novel rules may be particularly challenging in the context of over-learned habits or routines because they require people to adjust familiar behaviors and routines or engage in set shifting to achieve the same goals in the face of interruption or a road block (Schutz & Wanlass, 2009). This requires engaging in problem solving from the perspective of  “self” by detecting a breakdown and coming up with alternatives.

Researchers in field of developmental disorders including Russell Barkley (whose focus is ADHD) have identified a link between behavioral inhibition and 4 neuropsychological functions in the area of executive function, which put constraints on adaptive behaviors. They include:

  1. Working memory,
  2. Self-regulation of affect–motivation–arousal,
  3. Internalization of speech, and
  4. Reconstitution (behavioral analysis and synthesis)

Here’s a description of one such a young boy with ADHD. His mom wrote to me, “He is a very charming, delightful child who wants to do well but spends a lot of his time frustrated and crying because he has trouble following directions, remembering steps and getting started with tasks. He falls apart when things don’t go his way or when there is a small change in the plan”. I assume he would be one of those children who would stop doing math because his pencil tip broke or one who would have a massive meltdown because parents changed their plans to go to the movies and visit grandma who happened to be sick that day.

When routinized life is met with flexibility of thought, daily life becomes manageable. For parents of ADHD kids or adults with ADHD or other neuro-atypical individuals the key to successful adaptation lies in well practiced adjustment to last minute changes and working flexibly with unpredictable circumstances.

Here are a few tips to promote the development of adaptive brain:

  • At home, play a familiar card game with a slight change in a previously learned rule
  • Make a weekend plan on Wednesday and then forgo that plan on Saturday (followed by a small discussion)
  • Throw a small intentional wrench in your plan and brainstorm a novel alternative for your children to adjust to
  • Take an alternative route to work or change the recipe with small adjustment in an ingredient (without sabotaging the taste)

Real-life situations are unpredictable, consistently changing and unstructured. Here, one cannot just rely on internal habits or the environmental cues which may not be present. In fact, habits may act in opposition to essential adaptive decision making. Novel conditions require getting rid of routine steps and making adjustments to the familiar behaviors. Engaging in set shifting to achieve goals is crucial ingredient to life-long success.

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