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A new era for executive function research: On the transition from centralized to distributed executive functioning


"Executive functions" (EFs) is an umbrella term for higher cognitive control functions such as working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility. One of the most challenging problems in this field of research has been to explain how the wide range of cognitive processes subsumed as EFs are controlled without an all-powerful but ill-defined central executive in the brain. Efforts to localize control mechanisms in circumscribed brain regions have not led to a breakthrough in understanding how the brain controls and regulates itself. We propose to re-conceptualize EFs as emergent consequences of highly distributed brain processes that communicate with a pool of highly connected hub regions, thus precluding the need for a central executive. We further discuss how graph-theory driven analysis of brain networks offers a unique lens on this problem by providing a reference frame to study brain connectivity in EFs in a holistic way and helps to refine our understanding of the mechanisms underlying EFs by providing new, testable hypotheses and resolves empirical and theoretical inconsistencies in the EF literature.

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