Executive Functioning and Working Memory.

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I.D 12001726

Psychology Marking Sheet

Over the decades, empirical studies on Working Memory have revolutionised the way that we think about the human mind, by providing us with a greater understanding of the cognitive processes involved in executive functions such as attention, problem solving, reasoning and decision making.  Nevertheless, despite this significant progress, certain questions still remain unanswered as to how specific cognitive mechanisms are organized.  Perhaps one of the most prominent models to have emerged from the study of executive functions and cognitive control in working memory is that which was proposed by Baddeley and Hitch (1974).  They described a three component model of working memory in which executive functions operate under a unitary core structure called the Central Executive (CE).  However, whilst the central executive is considered to be the most important component of working memory, due to the significant role it plays in manipulating and integrating visual and linguistic resources to distinct executive tasks, the notion that it forms a unitary structure still remains tentative.  Instead, more recent studies have argued that the central executive may in fact be fractionated into further sub-components, thus suggesting that this theoretical construct is more diverse than previously thought.  This paper will therefore attempt to examine and evaluate some of the evidence put forth in recent findings, in an attempt to reconcile these opposing perspectives.

Prior to the 1980’s Baddeley’s model of working memory appeared to depict the central executive as a solitary isolated unit which controls and regulates the other sub-systems or ‘slaves’ of working memory, namely the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad.  However, there remained much ambiguity surrounding the exact role of the central executive, because Baddeley failed to provide a definitive explanation as to how the central executive actually controls and regulates such cognitive mechanisms.  In fact, Parkin (1998) argues, that the central executive is nothing more than an inscrutable concept which is frequently used to explain executive task performance that cannot be explained by the other ‘slave’ systems, and suggests that more rigorous empirical testing is required before it can be considered more than a homunculus that deals with unanswered questions.    

In acknowledging some of the shortcomings of their previous model, further analysis by Baddeley et al., (1986) led to the conclusion that the central executive operated in a similar fashion to Norman and Shallice’s (1986) supervisory activating system, consequently rejecting any notion that it was involved in the storage of information.  Instead, they posited that the central executive was like an ‘attention controller’,   which seeks to resolve conflicts by selecting, initiating and terminating cognitive processes triggered by schemata, and as such, it plays a vital role in executive functions such as, task co-ordination, decision making and planning.  In recent years, attempts to study patients with frontal lobe damage have continued to provide researchers with numerous insights into the functions and diversity of the central executive system.  According to Baddeley (1996) cited in Eysenck and Keane (2010,  p. 218) patients with pre-frontal damage, often experience substantial impairments to central executive functioning, such as the ability to plan, organise, monitor and initiate behaviour.  The term he used to describe such impairments was called Dysexecutive Syndrome (also referred to as Frontal Lobe Syndrome).

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One tool which is commonly used to assess patients with brain damage is the Behavioural Assessment of the Dysexecutive Syndrome (BADS).  The BADS test forms a battery of six sub-tests and a 20 item questionnaire, each of which is aimed at tapping into and assessing specific executive functions, such as inhibition, problem solving, planning, temporal judgement, organization and self-monitoring.  However, as Baddeley (1998a) points out, whilst the frontal lobes are often implicated in deficits of executive functioning, this is not absolute.  Undoubtedly, neuropsychological studies using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) do provide evidence to suggest that the pre-frontal cortex plays ...

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