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– Executive function (HOS 3)

Executive Function
Secret of Success

Executive Function in the Individual and the Organisation

Successful organisations like Google and Facebook allow their employees an opportunity to experiment and pursue their own projects. Many public sector organisations also allow their employees opportunity for personal development. Why does this work and what does it say about how organisations need to be run in a world of increasingly rapid change? What kind of executive control is appropriate for organisations in the 21st Century?

To answer this we could look at all kinds of management, organisational and accounting theory. But there is another perspective. This is to look at what psychology has revealed about the executive function (REFs 1, 2, 3) in the individual and then to map that back onto what it means in terms of the organisation. This perspective can be revealing. It highlights why organisations behave in certain ways, it can help distinguish useful and healthy behaviours from those that are ineffective, aberrant and perhaps eventually self-defeating, and it can give us a way of looking at the executive function that is grounded in an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the human condition. It can point the way to making organisations more resilient.

REF 1
YouTube Video, ‪2012 Burnett Lecture Part 2 ADHD, Self-Regulation and Executive Functioning Theory‬, UNCCHLearningCentre, November 2012, 58:44

REF 2
YouTube Video, InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, June 2012, 5:35 minutes

REF 3
Youtube Video, Executive Function and the Developing Brain: Implications for Education, AMSDMN’s channel, November 2013, 58:22 minutes

There are several distinct components to executive function in the individual. These develop from infancy to adulthood more or less in order. This article looks at the overall architecture of control within an organisation then goes through seven executive functions one by one, first looking at what it means in psychological terms, then mapping it onto what it might mean in terms of organisational behaviour and the functions of an executive board.

In both the individual and the organisation, executive function is self-regulation. It is ‘actions on oneself’ or, in the organisational context, the executive actions in relation to the organisation itself. When fully developed the several aspects of executive function go together to provide the capacity for self-control in a complex and changing world.

There are numerous accounts of what makes for success in both the individual (and in the organisation). Many of these emphasise one or other aspect of executive function such as self-awareness, self-direction or emotional intelligence. However, all aspects of the executive function have a part to play, and understanding executive function helps demonstrate how all these parts develop and integrate to provide the many capabilities needed for success.

The Architecture of Control

The overall architecture of control in both the individual and the organisation can be seen as a two-part system with executive function residing in the second part.

Part 1 – An Automatic System

Much of what happens in both individuals and organisations goes on without much thought or reflection.

Individuals follow their routines and habits. When everything is predictable, actions like cooking or driving can be carried out largely on ‘autopilot’, often while thinking about something entirely different. In this manner, we can operate adequately on the basis of responding to cues in the immediate environment with little conscious control or effort. This is what Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking fast and Slow’ (REF 4) calls ‘System 1’ or intuitive thinking. It deals with the here and now when everything is familiar and reasonably certain.

REF 4
YouTube Video, Kahneman: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” | Talks at Google, November 2011, 1:02 hours

Similarly, in the organisation many activities can be carried out according to it’s established procedures and practices and require no executive intervention. They may have needed executive intervention to set them up but once bedded-in they can run without further executive input unless something unexpected or out of the ordinary happens.

Part 2 – A System for Exception Handling and Taking Proactive Control

Exception Handling

This system is engaged when the automatic system needs help. In terms of Khaneman’s theory, it is ‘System 2’ thinking. It is engaged when encountering difficulty, novelty and in matters that are not in the here and now. The executive level allows ‘action at a distance’ from the here and now, and deals with circumstances that are less certain and predictable.

In the individual, when something unpredictable happens, this system seems to pop items into consciousness and then relies on a somewhat slow and labourious form of conscious processing to effect a resolution. This takes effort and resource. It takes willpower and can use up cognitive capacity. What can be done is limited by the available capacity, and focus of attention on one thing will limit the capacity to pay attention to another.

In the organisation the executive may be called in to deal with some problem or may step in when it sees something going off-track (like profits, sales, production, costs, staff-turnover etc). As with the individual, this system, is slow and labourious by contrast to the ‘business as usual’ operation. It also requires the consumption of precious resources and dealing with one situation can detract from dealing with another, perhaps causing the organisation to take it’s eye off the ball.

In practice, in a healthy individual or organisation, the automatic system and the exception handling system work together in a highly interleaved manner. They also develop together. Functions that start out as requiring exception handling, become automated over time as they become embedded.

Pro-active Control

In the individual, the pro-active element of executive function emerges in childhood. The extent of the ability to inhibit certain behaviours correlates highly with many factors in later life including academic and social competence, wealth, health and (negatively with) criminality. It seems that the developing child moves gradually from reactive control to pro-active control. (REF 5).

REF 5
YouTube Video, Integrative Science Symposium: Lifespan Development of Executive Control, July 2015, 2:10:08 hours

This is more than just being able to stop or inhibit certain behaviours. There is an extra step. This is to re-construe the world in a slightly different way and become alert to other things going on in the environment. The extra step leaves open the option to continue the behaviour, stop it or do something more subtle.

Similarly, in the organisation, spotting an undesirable behaviour, trend or process does not generally result in immediately shutting it down. There is a period of reflection, where attention may be re-focused and alternatives considered. In both organisations and individuals, this may take time. An individual may think through the potential consequences of taking particular courses of action. The organisation may do the same by embarking on investigations or sophisticated modelling and simulations to help clarify the consequences of running with different options.

A simplified model of the control and executive function is:

  • No problems – continue on autopilot
  • Problem – re-focus attention, generate and evaluate options

Also, it is notable that problem solving can go on recursively. So, if a problem is encountered with any of the sub-processes of problem solving, then that’s a new problem that is subject to the same processes in achieving resolution. Meanwhile the whole process is being recursively and externally evaluated such that if it’s not going anywhere useful, it itself can be re-considered.

7 Stages of Development of Executive Function

Seven stages of development of the executive function are described in terms of what’s going on for both the individual and the organisation. There are striking parallels.
Many of these stages have a time dimension. An infant lives in the here and now, a teenager in perhaps weeks. An adult, like an organisation, may have a time horizon of months or years. The development of executive function enables longer time horizons.

In Early Development (0 years to 5 years)

Stage 1 – Self-Awareness

In the individual, self-awareness develops in infancy (from 3 months and continues to develop for a further 10 years). The capacity to turn one’s attention away from the environment and towards ones own actions and thoughts, grows. The self-monitoring function redirects attention back on the self. An executive has developed that watches the self.

An organisation might be self-aware from the start if it has been set up with management information systems. The executives can inspect the reports and consider actions designed to affect trends they see in the data. The executives normally act within a stable framework of parameters albeit that the values on the parameters are changing. Also an organisation may grow in self-awareness by introducing new systems to provide feedback on what are deemed to be key parameters.

When (informal or formal) management information systems come into play, they can become the basis of a prevailing viewpoint on the direction of the organisation, both past and future. This is the backdrop against which executive decision-making takes place. The organisation has become to some degree self-aware and able to turn attention onto itself.

However, both the individual and the organisation operate in what Simon refers to as ‘bounded rationality’ (REF 6). Organisational self-awareness is subjective in the sense that the organisation is only aware of what it is aware of. It may not be aware of all manner of things and what it is aware of may not be representative or accurate. In this sense, the organisation mimics the individual and may be subject to the same misconceptions about the self.

REF 6
YouTube Video, Herbert Simon, rationalLeft, July 2013, 3:42 mins

For example, Baring Bank may have been blind to the extent of the damage a rogue trader could do. Kodak may have deluded itself into thinking that there would always be a market for film (as opposed to digital). In 2008, the banking industry may have been unaware of the damage it might do to itself by not containing risk. Just as likely, these organisations were aware but didn’t care or know how to react.

These are just examples of self-awareness of organisations and begs the question of who holds this awareness. Is it distributed throughout the organisation or is it held by the executive? Just as in the brain, any one neuron is ‘aware’ of the activity of other neurons it is connected to, whether they be near neighbours or in some more remote location, awareness is distributed throughout the individuals and departments in an organisation. Each department and organisational role is tasked with being informed about particular things – production, human resources, suppliers and so on. In collecting and reporting both quantitative and qualitative data about local activity, the executive is fed information from across the organisation and can build a broader awareness. However, just as the brain can be deceived by it’s senses or selective and biased in its interpretation, the uncritical executive can also be led astray.

Stage 2 – Self-Restraint

Self-restraint develops In the individual between the ages of 3 and 5 years. This is the ability for a child to stop him or herself doing something that they would otherwise do automatically (like taking a sweet). It is inhibition of action. Children between 3 and 5 years will put their hands over their mouths to stop themselves saying something. In time this ‘executive inhibition’ can be done internally but it takes effort. It draws down on a limited resource.

In the organisation there are several mechanisms for self-restraint. Budgets act as inhibitors by containing costs in parts of the organisation and overall. Also, organisational policies, procedures, standards and guidelines are often designed to inhibit behaviours other than those already approved. The development of procedures is often motivated by ‘error’ – something has gone wrong and the organisation tries to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Procedures, new or just changing, often meet some resistance and it takes effort or resource to overcome it. Once bedded in, however, they can be executed more cheaply. The operation of restraint has become automatic. It has moved from the proactive and exception handling control system to the routine and automatic control system.

Stage 3 – Imagery and rapid brain development

In the individual imagery is ‘the mind’s eye’ or ‘a theatre in your mind’. It is the ability to resurrect (visual and other) images from the past (together with accompanying emotions) to deal with the present. In the child, imagery develops between 3 and 5 years. This is mainly imagery of situations represented in all the salient senses – visual, auditory, tactile, taste and smell – whatever was relevant at the time. The imagery may be stored along with how you feel about it, good or bad (to some degree). Pattern-matching triggers memories and resurrects relevant imagery from the past to act as a guide or a map that can be used in the here and now.

The developing brain at this stage consumes 60% of the glucose consumed in food and is creating new connections between neurones at a rapid rate. Although the visual systems in the brain can be fully wired up from the age of one, other sensory modalities take longer. At some stage a tipping point is reached when infrequently used connections are purged. This developmental progression is thought to facilitate innovation and hypothesis testing about the environment up to the point where consolidation on viable interpretations set in. The young mind mimics the progression of science in exploration before consolidation into useful knowledge that can drive applications.

Youtube Video, Alison Gopnik Lecture at CFI – When and why children are more intelligent than adults are, Future of Intelligence, September 2017, 1:31:50 hours starting at 15:35 minutes

In the organisation, the memories of staff and the management of files, file sharing, databases and information systems is its ‘working memory’. These systems are largely designed with retrieval in mind. Although, the data captured is not inherently what you would call image-evoking, it does perform the same function of retrieving memories (records, documents, anecdotes) that help guide action in the here and now. Envisioning activities, prototyping, simulation and modelling activities in the organisation, parallel the ‘theatre of the mind’. They are part of the organisations imaginative activity, where ideas can be tried out before they are fully implemented (and incur the full costs and consequences of acting on the world outside the organisation).

Stage 3a – Theory of Mind

There is another important stage that appears to develop between the ages of 3 and 5 years, that tends not to be emphasised in the mainstream literature on executive function. This is the so-called ‘theory of mind’ (REF6a) – the ability of a person to model what another person is thinking and feeling. Experiments with children show that a three year old expects everybody else to know what they themselves know, while by 5 years a child understands that other people can have different beliefs from themselves. If, for example, the content of a chocolate box is replaced with, say crayons, in front of a three year old, they will think that somebody later coming into the room will expect to find crayons in the box rather than chocolates. They are unable to differentiate between their own knowledge and the knowledge of others.

REF 6a
YouTube Video, Robert Seyfarth: Theory of Mind, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, May 2010, 3:36 minutes

Theory of mind may not be addressed in mainstream accounts of executive function because it is thought of as a social skill rather than a fundamental information processing capability, but I think it should be thought of as a key part of executive function because it is a base on which later executive functions develop. The multiple voices that develop in private speech, for example, are akin to the playing out in the mind of multiple belief systems and theory of mind must also impact on management of ones own emotions and motivations. In fact, the implications of theory of mind are so significant that it has generated its own large literature. Autism and Asperger’s Spectrum disorders increasingly reference both deficiencies in executive function and in theory of mind, adding further support to the argument that theory of mind should be seen as an aspect of executive function.

Research at the Max Planck Institute suggests that the maturation of fibres of a brain structure called the arcuate fascicle, between the ages of three and four years, establishes a connection between (1) a region at the back of the temporal lobe that supports adults thinking about others and their thoughts and (2) a region in the frontal lobe that is involved in keeping things at different levels of abstraction.

REF 6b
Article, Brain Structues that help us understand What Others Think Revealed, Neuroscience News, March 2017
http://neurosciencenews.com/fiber-connection-cognition-6293/

In the organisation, ‘theory of mind’ is akin to understanding your competitors and your markets. If an organisation’s theory is accurate then it will be better able to anticipate the consequences of events, both those that it control and those that are external (e.g. government legislation and changes in market conditions). For example, if an organisation changes the price of one of its products, it would be useful to be able to predict what its customers and competitors would think about this and how they are likely to respond. A good businessman, like a good car salesman, may have an instinct about how customers will respond and may be able to construct a more or less complicated strategy that will drive the behaviours of others in particular ways.

From 5 Years

Stage 4 – Private Speech

In the individual, at 3 years old everything is public. Children talk to themselves about the world. Listening to their own speech is a mechanism facilitating reflection and self-control. Between 3 and 5 years vocal actions and accompanying facial expressions become suppressed and the voice becomes internalized as a silent mechanisms of self-control.

Artificial intelligence is now being recruited to re-create the kind of dialogue we have with our inner voices.

REF 6c
BBC Radio 4, The Digital Human – Series 11, Echo, May 2017, 5:27 minutes
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08npnh6

However, even as adults, the nuances of facial expression leak information about what is going on in the mind, but most adults learn to distinguish between situations in which this is useful and those in which it presents some danger. Also, they can learn how to dissociate what is going on in the mind from what leaks out in the face and body language, thereby conferring the ability to deceive. (REF 7)

REF 7
BBC Radio 4, Where do voices inside our heads come from?, April 2016, 5:27 minutes
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03qq9mt

Youtube Video, What Causes The Voice In Your Head?, Thoughty2, August 2015, 6:57 minutes

In the organisation, executives are only too aware that they cannot air all of their thoughts in public. Executives are ultra-careful about what they communicate, to whom and how, or they soon learn. Board meetings are often closed and communications can be deliberately targeted, sometime with the help of a communications or PR department. Wise executives rarely blurt out the first thing that comes into their heads. They inhibit that tendency and use their own thoughts to first control their own behaviour. They exercise self-control. Some private speech ends up in the boardroom, especially the closed sessions, while the public speech is crafted by the PR department. Just as in the individual this can be crafted to deceive or mislead, but also, just as in the individual, the real danger comes when the executive starts to believe its own deceptions.

Stage 5 – Management of own emotions

The individual, by resurrecting images of the past, can ‘control’ his or her own emotional states in order to be able to socialize more effectively and not drive other people away. An individual can act to put themselves in a better frame of mind, not make important decision while angry, and otherwise act to exert some control over their own emotional state.

Daniel Goleman (REF 8) in his book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ identifies 4 aspects of emotional intelligence – (1) Self Awareness (2) Self-Management (3) Empathy and (4) Relationship Management. The first two of these are regarded as key executive functions whilst empathy and relationship management extend executive function into the social sphere that do not fully develop until adulthood.

REF 8
YouTube Video, Daniel Goleman Introduces Emotional Intelligence, April 2012, 5:31 minutes

Can organisations be said to have emotions? The answer is ‘yes’. Announcing profits, losses, redundancies, being given awards or a bad press can have emotional repercussions throughout the organisation. Sustained ‘moods’ can have implications for the organisation culture. Some organisations have enthusiasm and optimism while others have low morale and become depressed and dysfunctional. Some organisations feel threatened, get anxious and show some of the common human defence mechanisms such as denial, over-compensation, projection and compartmentalisation (REF 9).

REF 9
Article, 15 Common Defense Mechanisms, John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-defense-mechanisms/

The organisational memory of emotional events in the past (both traumatic and elating) can help to manage a current situation but often relies on there still being people engaged that remember the past. Most executives are only too aware of the relationship between the mood and culture of an organisation and its performance, and act to manage the mood. Even when times are hard they convey a positive message and vision that helps take the organisation forward. However, an unrealistic representation, or a glossing over of current circumstances, risks losing the trust of the people that are the key to future success.

Stage 6 – Management of own motivations

In the individual, this is self-motivation or self-determination. Management of your own motivations frees the individual from thinking and acting in ways that have been learnt, either through practice in response to circumstances or by copying others. It opens new doors. You no longer have to be driven by habits or others expectations. You can think for yourself, determine your own goals, prioritise them as you think fit and work towards them in any way that you like.

Imagery has already developed to allow external consequences to be substituted by mental representation. Motivations can thereby be created in relation to events that are distant in space and time, and these can be reasoned about and managed without recourse to acting on the outside world.

In the organisation: Organisations specialise in the management of motivation. In particular they manage motivations with respect to profit (or at least self sustainability) but this is achieved with reference to the organisation’s mission. Many companies will have a list of strategic goals or intentions, and although profit often comes high on the list, there are others such as customer and staff satisfaction. Often separate departments take charge of these different motivations but eventually it is the executive that must coordinate them. At worst it must suppress conflicts. At best it provides orchestration, aligning motivations so that parts of the organisation support each other.

Daniel Pink in his book ‘Drive’ (REF 10) describes recent studies on how organisational incentives affect employee motivation. For routine tasks that can be performed on ‘auto-pilot’ (system 1 thinking) monitory incentives seem to work well as a means of keeping people on task and increasing performance. However, and running counter to previous views, it seems that financial incentives either do not work or actually impair performance when the work involves higher level executive functions such as reasoning and problem solving. The more effective incentives for these types of tasks are: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy means allowing employees to have the freedom to achieve goals in a manner of their own choosing, rather than having the method defined and prescribed. Mastery means giving the employee the freedom and resources to develop their own skills to a high standard, helping engender a greater degree of self-worth. Purpose refers to a socially useful purpose beyond that of the individual. It means joining with others to achieve something great, that the individual could not have achieved alone. Pink argues that the 21st Century worker must be incentivised in this way or they will not be sufficiently agile , resourceful, flexible and resilient to cope with the rapidly changing demands of a modern global economy.

REF 10
YouTube Video, The puzzle of motivation | Dan Pink, TED, August 2009, 18:36 minutes

Stage 7 – Internalised Play

In the individual, the last manifestation of executive function is internalised play (REF 11). Internal play involves self-awareness and analysis, imagery, synthesis, planning, emotional and motivational control, and problem solving. It builds on all the other executive functions to allow us to take apart any object of our thoughts and re-construct them in the mind, in novel ways, to meet the needs of the moment.

REF 11
YouTube Video, Learning Through Play: Developing Children’s Executive Function, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, September 2015, 27 seconds

In the organisation: Organisations that are big and profitable enough, make room for a lot of internal play and experimentation, only some of which will lead anywhere. Play itself allows the organisation to exercise its muscles, fine tune its processes and see where ideas might lead without heavy financial commitment.

Several references are provided below to elaborate on this and to show how play is a necessary ingredient in the development of the highest levels of executive function.

Implications for Organisational Development

Self-Awareness: Without self-awareness there is no self-control, but equally damaging is an inaccurate or biased self-awareness. Key Process Indicators (KPIs) and other management information systems can provide self-awareness but in the same way that an individual can become pre-occupied with their own inaccurate perception of themselves, an organisation can become equally distracted by KPIs that are easy to measure but are not closely aligned to its mission and strategy. It is only too easy to be deceived by the apparent objectivity of KPIs, especially when it is in the interests of different parts of the organisation to supply data that it knows the executive wants to see. In the same way that individuals tend to select the information that confirms their prejudices, an organisation can be similarly ‘blind’ to information it feels uncomfortable with.

Self-Restraint: An individual without self-restraint is often impulsive, easily distracted, lacks focus and fails to finish tasks. Too much restraint, by contrast, makes the individual inflexible and fixated. Organisations without self-restraint often pursue short-term goals at the expense of longer-term profitability. They are unable to defer gratification. By contrast, some organisations the have a tendency to over-control and tie themselves up in their own bureaucracy. Over time more and more procedure is put into place, often to correct errors of the past, until it is so rigid that it cannot respond to change. This is one reason that organisations often continuously re-structure and why some organisations seem to pulsate as control alternates between being drawn into the centre and distributed to autonomous operating units. Each process seems to run away with itself then needs to be reigned in again. The best organisations, rather than control, simply provide services to their management making it easy to carry out the functions that are central to its strategy, and more difficult to do anything else.

Imagery: The capacity to create, store and retrieve information is key to the individual in their personal development. Without the capability to learn from the past and retrieve that information when relevant an individual would act like an amnesic. An organisation without a memory of the past is similarly disoriented, and will stumble about without an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, without memory it is impossible to imagine what could be. Images of the past are the building blocks on which futures are built, often combining elements of the past in new ways to create novel solutions.

Theory of Mind: Understanding how customers and markets will react to events, including those events an organisation has control over, is critical in navigating and organisation through a constantly changing world. An organisation, say a government, that fails to anticipate a negative reaction to a new policy, law or budget change may find itself having to backtrack and even apologise. This is perceived as a weakness, precisely because it demonstrates that the organisation has an inadequate theory about other players. In politics in particular, it shows incompetence because politics is all about the anticipation and management of others’ reactions.

Private Speech: Private speech is more than just suppressing what is shown in public. It is the capacity to create internal dialogue and debate, to model and speculate on possible consequences of actions that have not yet been performed. The evaluation of actions before they are performed is essential to good decision making in both the individual and the organisation. Investment decisions benefit greatly from hearing a range of voices, from both within and outside the organisation, before they are acted on.

Management of Emotions: Emotions are at the route of most decision-making because they impact both an individual’s and an organisation’s priorities. The prevailing ethos of an organisation and how it affects the way staff feel, can be critical to the smooth functioning of the organisation. Some organisations have a ‘blame’ culture and, all factors being equal, any spontaneous activity on behalf of employees is suppressed. Others encourage free-thinking and innovation. How many organisations monitor these cultural and emotional factors and manage them as standing agenda items? Even when managed, most organisations are ineffective in the control of the prevailing emotional ethos and their interventions to control can easily backfire, especially if they look manipulative.

Management of Motivations: Like other functions ‘management of motivations’ can be done over-zealously or in too relaxed a manner. Self-determination is an asset so long as it does not fly in the face of circumstances. Motivations and intentions have to compromise with circumstance. The market has to be ready for your brilliant idea. Having said that, switching motivations has a cost. Even introducing a new service is expensive, let alone an entire change of strategy. Balancing the benefits of sticking to your guns with the cost of being flexible is a necessary skill. Organisations that manage to successfully grow organically achieve this balance.

Play: An individual cannot be fully functional without the opportunity to integrate all its mechanisms of executive control around the activity of play. Play allows experimentation and innovation in a safe environment, away from the dangers of the real world. Similarly, the organisation cannot be said to be fully functional without some room to play. The organisational practices of accounting for everything, monitoring every key performance indicator or extorting every last drop of employee or shareholder value, leads to organisations that are essentially reactive and immature. They are unpractised at thinking deeply at all organisational levels, and therefore lack resilience and the ability to adapt smoothly to changing circumstances. Like the individual that has failed to develop a wide range of coping strategies, they may lurch from crisis to crisis. Essentially, any change in circumstances can result in them becoming ‘out of control’.

– Managing demands (HOS 2)

How we manage the demands on us has been a pre-occupation since the day I came to the realisation that a lot of what runs through my own mind can be explained in terms of what psychologists call the management of ‘cognitive load’ or ‘mental workload’. We all, to some extent, ‘manage’ what we think about, but we rarely reflect on exactly how we do it.

Sometimes there are so many things that need to be thought about (and acted upon) that it is overwhelming, and some management of attention is needed, just to get through the day and maintain performance. If you need convincing that workload can affect performance then consider the research on distractions when driving. (A more comprehensive analysis on ‘the distracted mind’ can be found at the end of this posting).

YouTube Video, The distracted mind, TEDPartners, December 2013, 1:39 minutes

At other times you find yourself twiddling your thumbs, as if waiting for something to happen, or a thought to occur that will trigger action. We sometimes cease to be in the grip of circumstances and our minds can run free.

If you keep asking the question ‘why?’ about anything that you do, you eventually arrive at a small number of answers. If we leave aside metaphysical answers like ‘because it is the will of God’ for the moment, these are generally ‘to keep safe’ or ‘to be efficient’. On the way to these fundamental, and intimately related to them, is ‘to optimize cognitive load’. Not to do so, compromises both safety and efficiency.

To be overwhelmed with the need to act and, therefore, the thinking this necessitates in the evaluation of choices that are the precursors of action, leads to anxiety and anxiety interferes with the capacity to make good choices. To be under-whelmed leads to boredom and lethargy, a lack of caring about choice and the tendency to procrastinate.

It seems that to perform well we need an optimal level of arousal or stimulation.

Youtube Video, Performance and Arousal – Part 1of 3: Inverted U Hypothesis, HumberEDU, January 2015, 5:05 minutes

In the longer term, to be ‘psychologically healthy’ we need optimal levels of arousal ‘on average’ over a period of time.

Being constantly overwhelmed leads from stress, to anxiety and onwards to depression. It can even lead to an early death.

TED Video, The science of cells that never get old’ – Elizabeth Blackburn, TED, April 2017, 18:46 minutes

Being constantly underwhelmed also leads to depression via a different route. How much load we can take depends on our resources – both cognitive and otherwise. We can draw on reserves of energy and a stock of strategies, such as prioritizing, for managing mental workload. If the demands on us are too great and we have some external resources, like somebody else that can provide advice or direction, or the money to pay for it, then we can use those to lessen the load. Whenever we draw on our own capacities and resources we can both enhance and deplete them. Like exercising a muscle, regular and moderate use can strengthen but prolonged and heavy use will tire or deplete them. When we draw on external resources, like money or favours, their use tends to deplete them.

Measurement of Load

So how can we measure the amount of load a person is carrying. This is going to be tricky as some people have more resource and capacity (both internal and external) than others, so observing their activity may not be a very accurate measure of load. If you are very practiced or skilled at something it is much easier to do than if you are learning it for the first time. Also, some people are simply less bothered about whether they achieve what they have to do (or want to do) than others. Even the same person can ‘re-calibrate’, so for example, if pressure of work is causing stress, they can re-assess how much it matters that they get the job done. Some capacities replenish with rest, so something may be easy at one time but harder, say at the end of a long day.

In fact, there are so many factors, some interacting, that any measure, say of stress, through looking at the chemicals in the blood or the amount of sweating on the skin is difficult to attribute to a particular cause.

The capacity of our thinking processes is limited. We can really only focus on one difficult task at once. We even stop doing whatever we were doing (even an automatic task like walking) when formulating the response to a difficult question.

BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo, Series 1 Episode 1, First Broadcast about 2014, 28 minutes
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r0gj4

We can use our thinking capacity to further our intentions but we so often get caught up in the distractions of everyday life that none is left for addressing the important issues.

The Personal Agenda

Another way of looking at it is to consider it from the point of view of each person’s agenda and how they deal with it. This is as if you ask a person to write down a ‘to do’ list which has everything they could think of on it. We all do this from time to time, especially when there is too much going on in our heads and we need to set everything out and see what is important.
I will construct such a list for myself now:


  • Continue with what I am writing
  • Get ready for my friend who is coming for coffee
  • Figure out how to pay my bills this month
  • Check with my son that he has chosen his GCSE options
  • Tell my other friends what time I will meet them tonight
  • Check that everything is OK with my house at home (as I am away at the moment)

Each of these agenda items is a demand on my attention. It is as if each intention competes with the others to get my focus. They each shout their demands, and whichever is shouting loudest at the time, wins. Maybe not for long. If I realise that I can put something off until later, it can quickly be dismissed and slip back down the agenda.

But the above list is a particular type that is just concerned with a few short-term goals – it’s the things that are on my mind today. I could add:


  • Progress my project to landscape the garden
  • Think through how to handle a difficult relationship

Or some even longer term, more aspirational and less defined goals

  • Work out how I will help starving children in Africa
  • Maintain and enhance my wellbeing

The extended agenda still misses out a whole host of things that ‘go without saying’ such as looking after my children, activities that are defined during the course of going to work, making sure I eat and sleep regularly, and all tasks that are performed on ‘autopilot’ such as changing gear when driving. It also misses out things that I would do ‘if the opportunity arose’ but which I do not explicitly set out to do.

What characterizes the items that form the agenda? They are all intentions of one sort or another but they can be classified in various ways. Many concern obligations – either to family, friends, employers or society more generally. Some are entirely self-motivated. Some have significant consequences if they are not acted upon, especially the obligations, whereas others matter less. Some need immediate attention while others are not so time critical. Some are easy to implement while others require some considerable training, preparation or the sustained execution of a detailed plan. Some are one-offs while others are recurring, either regularly or in response to circumstances. This variation tends to mask the common characteristic that they are all drivers of thought and behaviour.

Intentions bridge between and include both motives and goals. Generally we can think of motives as the inputs and goals as the outputs (although either can be either). Both the motives and the goals of an intention can be vague. In fact, an intention can exist without you knowing either why or what it is to achieve. You can copy somebody else’s intention in ignorance of motive and goal. In the sense of intention as only a pre-disposition to act, you need not be aware of an intention. Often you don’t know how you will act until the occasion demands.

Agenda Management

Given that there are perhaps hundreds or even thousands of intentions large or small, all subsisting in the same individual, what determines what a person does at any particular point in time. It all depends on priority and circumstance. Priority will push items to the top of the list and circumstance often determines when and how they drive thought and behaviour.

Priority

Priority itself is not a simple idea. There are many factors affecting priority including emotion, certainty of outcome and timing. These factors tend to interact. I may feel strongly that I must help starving children in Africa and although I know that every moment I delay may mean a life lost, I cannot be certain that my actions will make a difference or that I may think of a more effective plan at a later time. When I have just seen a programme on TV about Africa I may be highly motivated, but a day later, I may have become distracted by the need to deal with what now appear to be more urgent issues where I can be more certain of the outcome.

Priority and Emotion

It is as if my emotional reaction to the current content of my experience is constantly jiggling the priorities on my agenda of intentions. As the time approaches for my friend to arrive I start to feel increasingly uncomfortable that I have not cleared up. Events may occur that ‘grab’ my attention and shoot priorities to the top of the agenda. If I am surprised by something I turn my attention to it. Similarly, if I feel threatened. Whereas, when I am relaxed my mind can wander to matters inside my head – perhaps my personal agenda. If I am depressed my overall capacity to attend to and progress intentions is reduced.

Emotions steer our attention. They determine priority. Attention is focused on the highest priority item. Emotion, priority, and attentions are intimately related. Changing emotions continuously wash across intentions, reordering their priority. They modulate the priorities of the intentions of the now.

Emotion provides the motive force that drives attention to whatever it is that you are attending to. If you are working out something complicated in your head, it is the emotion associated with wanting to know the answer that provides the motive force to turn the cogs. This applies even when the intention is to think through something rationally. When in the flow of rational thought (say in doing a mental arithmetic problem) it is emotion that motivates it.

There is a host of literature on emotional memory (i.e. how emotions, especially traumatic ones, are laid down in memory). There is also a large literature on how memories may be re-constructed, often inaccurately, rather than retrieved. The following illustrates both emotional memory of traumatic events and the frequent inaccuracies of re-construction:

TED Video, Emotional Memory: Shawn Hayes at TEDxSacramento 2012, TEDx Talks, March 2013, 8:10 minutes

It is well established that the context in which a memory is laid down effects the circumstances in which the memory is retried. For example, being in a particular place, or experiencing a particular smell or taste may trigger the retrieval of memories specific to the place and smell. The context supplies the cue or key to ’unlocking’ the memory. However, there is comparatively little literature on how emotions trigger memories although there has been research on ‘mood-dependent memory’ (MDM) e.g.

Eric Eich, Dawn Macaulay, and Lee Ryan (1994), Mood Dependent Memory for Events of the Personal Past, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 1994, Vol. 123, No. 2, 201-215

http://www.communicationcache.com/uploads/1/0/8/8/10887248/mood_dependent_memory_for_events_of_the_personal_past.pdf

It seems plausible that emotions act as keys or triggers that prime particular memories, thoughts and intentions. In fact, the research indicates that mood dependent memory is more salient in relation to internal phenomena (e.g. thoughts) than external ones (such as place). Sadness steers my attention to sad things and the intentions I associate with the object(s) of my sadness. Indifference will steer my attention away from whatever I am indifferent about and release attention for something more emotionally charged. Love and hate might equally steer attention to its objects. Injustice will steer attention to ascertaining blame. The task of identifying who or what to blame can be as much an intention as any other.

Priority and Time – The Significance of Now

Intentions formulated and executable in ‘the now’, assume greater priority than those formulated in the past, or those that may only have consequences in the future.

The now is of special significance because that is where attention is focused. Past intentions slip down the list like old messages in an email inbox. You focus on the latest delivery – the now.

The special significance of ‘the now’ is increasingly recognised, not just as a fact of life but as something to become increasingly conscious of and savoured.

‪Youtube Video, The Enjoyment of Being with Eckhart Tolle author of THE POWER OF NOW, New World Library, July 2013, 4:35 minutes

Indeed the whole movement of mindfulness, with its focus on ‘the now’ and conscious experience, has grown up as approach to the management of stress and the development of mental strategies.

‪Youtube Video, The Science of Mindfulness, Professor Mark Williams, OxfordMindfulness, December 2011, 3:34 minutes

Priority and Time in Agenda Management

If I am angry now then my propensity will be high to act on that anger now if I am able to. Tomorrow I will have cooled off and other intentions will have assumed priority. Tomorrow I may not have ready access to the object of my anger. On the other hand, if tomorrow an opportunity arises by chance (without me having created it), then perhaps I will seize it and act on the anger then. As in crime, we are driven by the motive, the means and the opportunity.

Many intentions recur – the intentions to eat, drink, sleep, and seek social interaction all have a cyclical pattern and act to maintain a steady state or a state that falls within certain boundaries (homeostasis). It may be that you need to revive an old intention whether or not it is cyclically recurring. Revival of an intention pushes it back up the list (towards the now) and when some homeostatic system (like hunger and eating) get out of balance a recurring intention is pushed back up the list.

Intentions that impact the near future also take priority over intentions that affect the far future. So, it is easier to make a cup of tea than sit down and write your will (except when death is in the near future). We exponentially discount the future. 1 minute, 1 hour and 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 season and 1 year are equally far apart. What happens in the next minute is as important as what will happen in the next year.

Intentions Interact

However, from the point of view of establishing the principles of a control mechanism that determines our actions at any point there are other complications and considerations. Often our intentions are incompatible or compete with each other. I cannot vent my anger and fulfil an intention not to hurt anybody. I cannot eat and stay thin. I cannot both go to work tomorrow and stay home to look after my sick child. Therefore, some intentions inhibit others leading to a further jiggling of the priorities.

Prioritising what is Easy

A major determinant of what we actually do is what is easiest to do. So actions that are well learned or matters of habit get done without a second thought but intentions that are complicated or difficult to achieve are constantly pushed down the stack, however important they are. Easy actions consume less resource. If they are sufficiently difficult and also sufficiently important we become pre-occupied by thinking about them but are unable to act.

Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ sets out much of the experimental evidence that shows how in thought we tend towards the easy options.

Youtube Video, Cognitive ease, confirmation bias, endownment effect – Thinking, Fast and Slow (Part 2), Fight Mediocrity, June 2015, 5:50 minutes

How often do we get up in the morning with the firm resolve to do a particular thing and then become distracted during the day by what seem to be more immediate demands or attractive alternatives? It is as if our intentions are being constantly pushed around by circumstances and our reactions to them and all that gets done are the easy things – where by chance the motive, the means, and the opportunity all fortuitously concur in time.

Staying on task is difficult. It requires a single-minded focus of attention and a resistance to distraction. It is sometimes said that ‘focus’ is what differentiates successful people from others, and while that may be true in the achievement of a particular goal, it is at the expense of paying attention to other competing intentions.

Implications for The Human Operating System

The above account demonstrates how as people we interleave multiple tasks in real time, partly in response to what is going on around us and partly in response to our internal agenda items. We do this with limited resources, depleting and restoring capacities as we go. What differentiates us from computers is the way in which priorities are continuously and globally changing such that attention is re-directed in real time to high priority items (such as threats and the unexpected). Part of this is in response to our ability to retrieve relevant memories cued by the external world and our internal states, reflect on (and inhibit) our own thinking and thinking processes and to run through and evaluate mental simulations of possible futures.

Summary


  • In order to perform effectively we need to manage the demands on us
  • Having too much, or too little, to do and think about can lead to stress in the short term and depression, if it goes on for too long.
  • We have limited resources and capacities which can become depleted but that can also be restored (e.g. with rest)
  • Measuring the amount of load a person is under is not simple as people have different resources, abilities and capacities
  • Whether or not we write it down or say it, we all have an implicit list of intentions
  • We prioritise the items on this list in a variety of ways
  • Circumstances, our emotional reactions and timing are all crucial factors in determining priority
  • We also tend to prioritise things that are easy to do (i.e. do not use up effort, time or other resources)
  • Being able to manage priorities and interleaving our intentions in response to circumstances and opportunity, is a key aspect of the human operating system

This Blog Post: ‘Human Operating System 2 – Managing Demands’ introduces how we deal with the complex web of intentions (our own and those externally imposed) that form part of our complex daily lives

Next Up: ‘Policy Regulates Behaviour’ shows that not all intentions are equal. Some intentions regulate others, in both the individual and society.

Further Information

Youtube Vide, The Distracted Mind, UCI Open, April 2013, 1:12:37 hours

– Fragmented experience (HOS 1)

The Fragmentation of Experience

I was sitting quietly yesterday, just letting my mind run free as I frequently do, and was distracted by a single unusual dinging sound. I checked my phone, I checked my laptop, I checked my desktop computer and finally came to my iPad to discover that it was the game 2048 calling me back to play again.

Can playing 2048 really be so important as to distract me from contemplating whether or not ‘the nature of consciousness’ or ‘the impact of the observer on the observed’, necessarily lead to the conclusion that there must be a God? This juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous seems to be an all too frequent occurrence. In a single hour I can receive a stream of SMS text messages, communications from Whatsapp, Viber, Timbr, Tumblr, reminders and other notifications, emails, phone calls, Skype calls, Facebook messages, software updates, and a knock on the door.

YouTube Video, Why do we get so easily distracted by technology?, Documentary Channel, November 2014, 3:31 Minutes

Sometimes I am shoving so many intentions to respond on the mental stack that the coherence of this fragmentary existence feels that it could, at any point, come crashing to the floor like a waiter trying to clear just one too many dishes. My guess is that from time to time I do lose it – I forget to get back to somebody important, I miss an appointment, or I slip up in the logic of my thoughts about when or whether ‘the singularity’ might occur.

This can be life in 2015 if you are the least bit busy or electronically connected to the world. On the other hand, if you do not get back to people, if you do not initiate, the pace of incoming social communications can rapidly dwindle to nothing. You have to keep the plates spinning on their sticks. Even so, you can rely on the fact that the work demands will not go away, pressures of family life do not abate, and the bills keep coming. I once heard ‘if you think that nobody cares about you, then try missing a couple of car payments’.

YouTube Video, Avoiding Distraction, Jack Wright, June 2015, 6:44 minutes

Related to distraction is disruption. When things happen that are beyond our control, we tend not to react very well. We don’t like uncertainty. But there can be benefits.

BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo: Disruption, July 2016, 27:22 minutes
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07kpy44


Paying attention to attention

Daniel Goldman, of emotional intelligence fame, makes the connection between being able to control attention and being able to perform at a high level. Being able to control what you attend to, he maintains, is critical to high level of performance, in part because it provides control over the emotional reactions evoked by the constant stream of circumstances and distractions of everyday life. Fortunately, it seems, that if you are aware of this you can use a variety of techniques to ‘strengthen the muscle’ of emotional control. The concepts of both ‘mindfulness’ and ‘flow’ relate to this. Many of these ideas are echoed later in these blog postings, especially in relation to the prioritisation of intentions and what is known as ‘executive function’.

YouTube Video, Daniel Goleman on Focus: The Secret to High Performance and Fulfilment, iqsquared, November 2013, 1:18:17 hours


Operating System – Human

While the above account may seem particular to life in the first world in the 21st century, this is just a superficial view. Deep down it is about the human condition anywhere and anytime. It is about how we interact with our environment, how we feel about it, how we prioritise, how we interleave our own goals with obligations and demands made on us, how we make sense of what’s going on and how we reflect on our own thoughts about that.

Theories in psychology are bitty. They tend to confine themselves to small aspects or singular perspectives on the human condition. So they might look at, say, attachment, memory, leadership, personality or visual illusions as if they had ‘not that much to do with each other’. In physics we work towards the Grand Unified Theory but in psychology there have been few attempts, although there are exceptions including:

YouTube Video, Theories in Psychology: A Refresher for AP Psych, Charles Schallhorn, May 2013, 8:09 minutes

Only rarely do theories look at the human being as a whole, and in real time, with all the complexity and dynamics that this implies. You can argue that this is because people are so complex that it is impossible to say anything meaningful unless you look at the detail of some particular aspect.

However, in the following account I am trying to do exactly this. I start with the perspective of the person as an operating (or control) system and, drawing on the many and various observations that have been made about the human condition, try to describe what sort of mechanisms might be at play, that both bound and give rise to, the complexity of being human. Rather than focus on particular findings, I am looking for the generalities of the architecture whereby these particular phenomena are emergent from the underlying ‘mechanism’.

This somewhat cybernetic approach considers the human condition as a resource limited and reflective control system embedded in its circumstances and operating at the level of ‘mind’ in order to manage various needs.

This is hardly the first time I have thought or written about these things. I have been studying psychology for several decades, working in artificial intelligence for 10 years, in mental health for 3 years, and been writing the blog www.wellbeingandcontrol.com for a year. However, it is probably the first time that I have tried to capture the human condition in terms of a somewhat short-term, resource constrained, pragmatic but error-prone, multi-threaded operating system that stumbles about trying to out-guess an uncertain world, to suffice (rather than optimise) in meeting its many and varied, changing needs.

This is not intended to be a truly comprehensive and unifying theory. It will not lead to precise prediction and measurement demanded by science. However, it does try to capture some of the essence of what it is to be human – to ‘duck and dive’ within one’s circumstance, and manage with limited, uncertain knowledge and resources; to seek pattern and manufacture meaning from whatever is presented; to feel and evaluate, prioritise and direct attention; to create, innovate, and hypothesise; to be vigilant to threat; to assume, dream, speculate, model and envision; to aspire to climb a hierarchy of needs; and to fail, re-interpret, re-group and recover to survive another day.

It is the cut and thrust of the real-time operation of one complex control system – the self (itself made up of multiple competing and co-operating components) embedded within other complex systems comprising the environment, that is the essence of what I am trying to capture and label ‘the human operating system’.

Have I missed something?

So, like I always do, and like everybody else increasingly does, I typed ‘human operating system’ into Google in the full expectation that I would find the usual wealth of literature on the subject. I have made one consistent observation over the years, and that is, whatever you think of, somebody else has always thought about it before and indeed there is usually not only hundreds of books and articles on the subject but often a whole industry exploiting it. So, really I was expecting to find, in the psychology or cybernetics literature at least, some comprehensive and well worked out theories describing the human condition in terms of an operating system. Well, although the term has been used many times, so far I have failed to find exactly what I am looking for, and I find this surprising. Why?

Well, the reason is that it is such an obvious thing to do. There are no end of analogies used to help throw light on the human condition.

YouTube Video, Analogy-Human Brain Like a Cow’s Stomach, Michael Harris, December 2011, 1:49 minutes

The brain is compared to the library or the telephone switchboard, memory (usually inaccurately) as forms of ‘recording’, and the computer is routinely used as an analogy for describing people – the brain being the hardware and the mind being thought of as the software. But these parallels are pathetic simplifications that go nowhere near touching on the complexity of either computers or people.

Just off the top of my head, albeit that I have studied both psychology and computers for many years, I can see so many deeper parallels between the sophisticated multi-threaded operating systems used in modern computing and what we know about human cognition in terms of ‘limited capacity central processing’, ‘memory storage and retrieval’, ‘executive function’ and so on.

Without going too deeply into it, a computer operating system is designed to stand between the human user interacting with particular applications (internet browsers, word-processing etc.) and the computer hardware. It looks after managing memory, processes and devices (screens, printers etc.) so that neither the user nor the application have to be concerned with all the detail. In much the same way, the human operating system stands between the person and their environment or circumstances looking after all the details of retrieving memories, switching between tasks and managing inputs (hearing, vision, touch) and outputs (actions / behaviours).

The claim being made in this blog is that the human condition (and the mind) is best explained in terms of the human operating system as analogous to the computer operating system, and that the characteristics and limitations of being human can be made more readily understandable by teasing apart the nature of this operating system. Furthermore, we may be able to account more precisely and predictably for differences between people by looking at both differences in the nature of the operating system as well as differences in the content of the data the operating system works with (i.e. what has been learned and stored in memory as well as inputs from the surrounding environment and culture).

Try as I might I have not been able to find a good video to illustrate this, but here is a video about some of the basic principles of computer operating systems to be going on with:

YouTube Video, Programming Interview: Introduction to Operating System (OS definition) (part 1), saurabhschool, May 2014, 11:34 minutes

I am claiming that this approach might be more illuminating as an explanation of the human condition and of differences between people than many other psychological approaches because it gets at some of the underlying mechanisms of cognition and not just the ‘symptoms’. For example, tests of intelligence or personality measure the ‘outputs’ of the human condition but don’t really explain how they come about. However, if I told you that one person appears to be more ‘successful’ than another because they tend to use a particular type of priority scheduling algorithm or that a person is more prone to error in their judgement of people because they systematically retrieve a particular type of memory, then I am going much further in explaining, predicting (and where necessary remedying) the processes that bring about the behaviours. (Interestingly, just in the area of computer process scheduling there are several possible algorithms types such as ‘first come first served’, ‘non-pre-emptive shortest job first’, ‘pre-emptive shortest job first’, ’round-robin’ and ‘priority-scheduling’ – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtuQpQwlmYM ).

Levels of Description

Although, I am primarily interested in the operating system that we call ‘the mind’, as indicated elsewhere in these blogs, much the same mechanisms are operating at different levels of description. For example, here is a description of an operating system at the biochemical level:

TED Video, The operating system of life – George Zaidan and Charles Morton, TEDEd, November 2013, 4:00 minutes

There is something of a gulf between levels of description in terms of ‘mind’ and those concerned with the physical substance of the brain and body. The gulf is given rise to much philosophical debate (the mind/body problem – see: Philosophy Bites, Tim Crane on Mind and Body) and now, especially with the advent of many forms of brain scanning and monitoring (see: Representations of Reality Enable Control – Part 2), is becoming the subject of much empirical investigation. It is this gulf where I choose to focus my level of description and why I think the notion of ‘operating system’ might be a powerful language in which to express it. The operating system bridges between the ‘software’ and the ‘hardware’ in both computer and in human.

Summary


  • Life these days is increasingly subject to distractions from technology

  • How we prioritise our thoughts and actions is fundamental to the way people operate. It captures the essence of the human condition.

  • Although there have been many analogies between the human brain and technology, these are usually oversimplistic and capture nothing of the complexities of being human

  • However, computer operating systems are highly complex in the way that they scheduled tasks and manage resources.

  • Also operating systems are positioned between the software and the hardware. In people, the interface between mind and body is really where all the action is and is still largely unexplained.

This blog goes on to use the notion of the human operating system as a language to describe much of the complexity of the human condition.

This Blog Post: ‘Human Operating System 1 – The Fragmentation of Experience’ introduces the idea of the human operating system to describe the interface between mind and body

Next Up: ‘Human Operating System 2 – Managing Demands’. How do we manage to deal with the complex web of intentions (our own and those externally imposed) that form part of our complex daily lives