A piece inspired by Dr. Adele Diamond’s research into human Executive Functions, one of which, 'Inhibitory Control’, allows us to have agency over our impulses. As part of a collaborative project with a friend, I wrote an article below about the inspiration for the piece and my experience learning about Executive Functions during an artist fellowship with the Boston Children's Hospital.
Reversed Executive Functions: Intro and Inhibitory Control
January 24 2018
Topics: Psychiatry, Hospital
Background: Artist in the Hospital
Two summer ago, I had the opportunity to pursue a fellowship with the Boston Children’s Hospital to explore design thinking and storytelling through their Psychiatry Department. This involved interviewing patients about how characters and narrative influence a child’s engagement in therapy. Parallel to this research and running around the hospital meeting people, I collaborated with the then-start-up Neuromotion-Labs, a company dedicated to developing a platform of biofeedback app games to teach children coping skills to improve emotional regulation, typically hyperactivity associated with anxiety, ADHD, ADD, etc. They were interested in this topic as well and we thus formed a strong relationship to pursue this research project for three months.
What are Executive Functions?
During this time, my supervisor threw various new terms and research papers my way which opened my mind (pun not intended) to the careful realm of Psychiatry. One of these new areas of study encompassed a broad category known as Executive Functions. According to a study by Dr. Adele Diamond, Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, scholars define this as:
A series of top-down control processes used when going on automatic or relying on instinct or intuition would be ill-advised, insufficient, or impossible.
In other words, these are automatic responses that most people use to deal with their environment. These allow us to prioritize tasks, receive and maintain information, and to learn from our mistakes. I read her publication on this topic and discovered there were around three and a half different functions: Inhibitory Control, Working Memory, Cognitive Flexibility, and Fluid Intelligence.
For a bit of time during my fellowship, my supervisor tasked me to visually represent what the reversed version of each of these functions would appear and to create an environment that could be used in the game platform. That way, children could take care of this environment until it reverted to its normal healthy way with the hope that this will encourage the child to learn about Executive Functions in a narrative form. This idea did not manifest outside of the beta-version, though Neuromotion-Labs (aka Mighteor) now
Here on The Artist Statement, I hope to explore these functions again visually, perhaps sharing more than a singular way to portray these terms!
“Controls one’s attention, behavior, thoughts and/or emotions to override a strong internal predisposition or external lure, and instead do what’s more appropriate or needed.”
Inhibitory Control, according to Dr. Diamond’s study, allows us to prioritize our tasks (selective attention) else we’d be at the mercy of impulses. This makes it possible for us to change our habits and not be “unthinking creatures of habit.” We can resist extraneous or unwanted thoughts, essentially allowing ourselves to avoid temptation, over-indulgence, and practice general self-control. With this intuition, we can keep on task despite delayed gratifications. Dr. Diamond writes, “Our natural tendency is to look towards a stimulus when it appears.” For example, someone who diets would want to take out all of the cookies and chips out of their kitchen.
I illustrated the above image as an individual struggling with this their inhibition, distracted by little things around them, adding little modern touches with smart phones and over-purchasing convenient canned goods. I freed up my hand with this piece through use of brush-y and rough textures that came through a near-expired Pigma Sensei pen and I’m happy for the results. Moving forward, I’m exciting to see what the other executive functions will look like!