"Executive Functions": The Conductor of the Mental Orchestra

Mr Hiroshi Ihara (PhD student, Psychiatry, Robinson College)

Saturday, 21 November, 1998; 7:00-9:00pm

Seminar room, Darwin College

In the middle of the 19th century, a railroad construction worker called 'Phineas Gage' met with a serious accident in which an iron bar penetrated his skull. When he returned alive miraculously about six months after the accident, his physical health was fine and apparently fully recovered. However, his personality was radically changed. For example, when he faced with a grave situation which he should be concerned about, he did not take any interest in its gravity. Although he appeared to comprehend its serious nature, he was not troubled by it and could even joke about it. "(He) was gross, profane, coarse and vulgar, to such a degree that his society was intolerable to decent people" (Anonymous). Harlow (1868) gave a vivid description of his personality change, which is consistent with clinical features of patients with frontal lobe damage in subsequent reports. It is, hence, regarded as a historical landmark for the clinical research on higher mental functioning.
Starting with his case, the relationship between the frontal lobes and higher cognitive functioning will be discussed. Above all, particular attention will be paid to what is called 'executive function(s)', which refers the conglomerate of attention, co-ordination of cognition and behaviour, retention of goal-directedness, impulse control and so on.