The Adaptive Brain as the Chief Executive Brain (Part 3)

The Adaptive Brain and Social Prowess

Executive functions are essential not just for effective learning but also for applying that learning to various contexts eventually contributing to development of adaptive mindset. The important place in our lives where we adapt is in the social context. The difference between naïve and devious is all the “intent” and those who have the capacity to read others’ intent are called mind-readers. Take a look at this video.

To understand this meaning, one must “read” the little girl thoughts, “read” the police officer’s confusion and “read” the overall of situation to determine who fooled who and why.

The social world entails subtle, complex, layered and multifaceted information, which calls upon a contextual evaluation to determine the social script and subsequently, the process of selection of an appropriate response. This involves generating “other-oriented” thoughts and inhibiting or putting one’s own “self-oriented” thinking on hold.  When we encounter a social situation we must do three things, which contribute to social dexterity:

  1. Inhibit our impulsivity to wander off (so that we don’t  miss anything)
  2. Update information (compare current information with the past knowledge)
  3. Generate new responses that are more in sync with social and cultural needs (so we are appropriate)

Take an example of a bunch of 5th graders socializing during a lunch break. Even though social interactions tend to be unstructured, it requires that we detect structure, generate common goals and then socialize by adapting in the given circumstances by performing the acts of “mindreading”.

John, Tom, Adam, Jeff, Jason and Ryan were sitting around the table during their lunch break. Tom wanted to share a riddle with all.

(Note: this was the riddle/joke that Tom had read and remembered and was keen on sharing. In order to be effective in presenting a riddle or a joke one must have decent linguistic competence to capture the group’s attention and engage their imagination. The riddle went something like this: A man wants to go home, but is afraid to go home because of a man in a mask, and something that he has. WHERE DOES HE LIVE? -hint- you’ve seen his house, and probably have been there.)

As often is the case, social situations don’t go per plan. As soon as Tom expressed the desire to share the riddle/joke three others boys had the same idea who jockeyed for the position by all talking at once. They all had to negotiate (congenially) as to who was going to go first. As soon as Tom secured his turn he butchered the set up, “There is a man in a mask running to get home.” Before Tom could get to the next part of the joke or “set up” the joke Jason butted in and blurted out, “I already know it,” breaking one of the golden implicit social rules – “allow” as an act of cooperation.

Tom: (his face drops) Aww!

Jason: Oh I got it. I know this one.

Tom: Never mind…..

Jason: (persistent – and oblivious to Tom’s facial expressions) Is that a psycho killer?

Tom: No (picks up again but loses the punch line as he had already botched the opening)……

Researcher Judith M. Rumsey in one of the articles in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (1985, 15, 23-36) commented on the similarities between executive functions and social functioning. According to her, they both call upon “Integration and weighing of multiple contextual variables, selective attention and inductive logic”.

My girlfriend was describing her observations about her 5 year old twin boys Aaron and Mason and here’s what she said: The boys were playing hide and seek around the house with two other kids whose families had shown up for a play date. It was Aaron’s turn to count while the other kids scrammed to hide. After the count up to 6 one of the parents in the living room told Aaron that he didn’t need to go all the way up to 20 as no one was around. This prompt to stop counting and start looking for others was good enough hint for Aaron to move on to the next thing- look for kids who were hiding. When it was Mason’s turn to close his eyes and do the same, the adult in the room intervened again and told Mason to take advantage of the fact that no one was around and to get on with his search. However, bound by rules, Mason was not able to “shift sets” and was somewhat fixated on completing the counting till 20 and only then starting his search. At age 5, this minor incidence does not wave any alarming flags about Aaron or Mason but this vividly captures the flexibility in the prefrontal system to adapt as shift as the need changes in the social context.

In my practice, I see many young kids, college students and young adults with social impairments with or without explicit disability or justifiable diagnosis. Many symptoms of such social impairments include interruptive behaviors, disengagement in conversation if the topic is personally of no interest, a lack of empathy, socially embarrassing behaviors, circumscribed interest, negative reactions to environmental changes or inflexibility of thinking, preoccupation with own thoughts and ideas or perspectives, and fixated mindset. These individuals are noted to not have many friends or know how to keep friends and nurture relationships. They are often are ignored/ neglected, picked on or ostracized because of their annoying, irritating, overindulgent, apathetic or disengaged presentation.

It is important to understand that social situations are dynamic in nature. Social engagements are in a state of constant flux and very much depend on their participants. As an individual pursues a personal goal of wanting to express an idea, or tell a joke or share facts, each individual participant must coordinate and navigate that intention or desire in accordance with other people’s goals of a similar nature. This tango that we perform in social situations demonstrates our social dexterity.

When social proficiency is at its best, it leads to a deep-seated understanding of others and eventually leads to intimacy which is the ultimate human connection. I love this exchange from Jennifer E. Smith’s book The Statistical Probability of Love At First Sight:

“He looks at her and smiles. “You’re sort of dangerous, you know?”
She stares at him. “Me?”
“Yeah,” he says sitting back. “I’m way too honest with you.”

If you are unwilling to allow others to pursue their social goals by constantly interrupting without listening, or teasing without consideration, or horsing around without serious side to self, then others will not reciprocate with enthusiasm or interest.

In conclusion, social navigation requires a complex set off executive abilities and a tremendous amount of flexibility of thinking when both of these sets of skills are impaired or are under-activated then that individual often is excluded or sidelined and that can lead to a profound sense of loneliness. Every individual aspires to becoming independent, however that does not mean becoming solitary. Our prosocial behaviors or behaviors that promote socialization and connectivity are the most effective adaptive social skills.

One of the African proverb says, “Alone you’ll go fast but together you’ll go long.”

I invite you to leave a comment and share this post with your friends. If you would you like to know more about my practice, visit my website at or contact me at

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