On the evolutionary origins of executive functions

  • Ardila A
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Abstract

In this paper it is proposed that the prefrontal lobe participates in two closely related but different executive function abilities: (1) "metacognitive executive functions": problem solving, planning, concept formation, strategy development and implementation, controlling attention, working memory, and the like; that is, executive functions as they are usually understood in contemporary neuroscience; and (2) "emotional/motivational executive functions": coordinating cognition and emotion/motivation (that is, fulfilling biological needs according to some existing conditions). The first one depends on the dorsolateral prefrontal areas, whereas the second one is associated with orbitofrontal and medial frontal areas. Current tests of executive functions basically tap the first ability (metacognitive). Solving everyday problems (functional application of executive functions), however, mostly requires the second ability (emotional/motivational); therefore, these tests have limited ecological validity. Contrary to the traditional points of view, recent evidence suggests that the human prefrontal lobe is similar to other primates and hominids. Other primates and hominids may possess the second (emotional executive functions) prefrontal ability, -but not the first (metacognitive executive functions) one. It is argued that metacognitive executive functions are significantly dependent on culture and cultural instruments. They probably are the result of the development and evolution of some "conceptualization instruments"; language (and written language as an extension of oral language) may represent the most important one. The second executive function ability (emotional/motivational) probably is the result of a biological evolution shared by other primates. © 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Executive functions
  • Language evolution
  • Metacognition

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