Executive functions

08 May 2015

The aim of the TASTER game is to improve the task switching ability of the children who play it. This is because a deficit in task switching in individuals with Prader-Willi syndrome has been linked to temper outbursts associated with changes to plans or routines.

Task switching – also sometimes called ‘shifting’ – is an executive function. Executive functions are general control processes that regulate human cognition; for example, when we resist the urge to eat a lot of cake, our executive functioning is involved.

There have been several models of executive functions proposed, but the most widely-accepted identifies three such functions:

  • Shifting: allows us to move flexibly from one mental set or task to another.
  • Inhibition: allows us to override dominant responses or impulses.
  • Updating: allows us to constantly add/delete working memory contents.

It is important to note that, according to this model, the three functions both share a common core (i.e. they involve a common underlying ability) but also show some diversity (i.e. there are some extra abilities specific to some executive functions).

In recent years, a number of studies have suggested that playing action video games can lead to improved executive functioning. This research is not without critics, but ongoing work will hopefully address some of these criticisms.

Meanwhile, I’ve found it extremely useful to look at typical action video games and analyse the features they offer which seem most likely to be responsible for this improvement in executive functioning. In other words, what exactly is it about these games that might give people who play them superior executive functioning?

I’ve then tried to include some of these features in TASTER. One way to think of this is that I’m trying to extract from the action video games the features that improve executive functioning, but leave behind the features that make them unsuitable for children (both in terms of mature content and difficulty). In addition, I’d like to try and concentrate the former features, to make TASTER a really intensive executive function workout.

Posted by Nigel Robb