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Executive FunctioningScott LutostanskiStudy Skills

Emotions: The Light Dimmer of the Frontal Lobe

  By Scott Lutostanski

When I was a kid, I loved to read. I can remember trying to read books even when there was no light on. To this I was often told, “You can’t read without the lights on.” Literally. It’s too hard to see the words on the page and make sense of the book. No matter how hard you strain your eyes, you can’t see the page without some light in the room.

Similarly, for us to be moderately successful and adept in our daily lives, our frontal lobe needs to be firing in a functional way; it needs to have the light fully on. That’s because the frontal lobe controls many of the executive functions. If we Google “executive functions,” the first search item will provide us a link to the following list: inhibition, shift, emotional regulation, initiation, working memory, planning/organization, organization of materials, and self-monitoring.

One of these functions in particular stands out: emotional regulation. It is the light dimmer of the frontal lobe. When our emotions are regulated, our frontal lobe works in a functional way. In other words, the dimmer is turned all the way up. As the emotions swing into a dysregulated zone, we are unable to access our executive functions; our light dimmer is down near the bottom and there’s not a lot of light in the room.

This can happen in the short-term and the long-term. Think of an argument you’ve had with your significant other. Odds are that it ramped up from something small. Your emotions started relatively tame, but as the argument escalated, so too do the things we’re willing to say and do. The ability to regulate, make decisions, and rationalize gets thrown out the window. This is an example of an instantaneous argument that leads to a shutting down of the frontal lobe.

If we apply this principle to the long term, we can see how some students struggling with the executive functions are actually operating with their frontal lobes in the dark. A feeling such as sadness can lead to dysregulated emotions. Students will then have a much more difficult time initiating, planning, and self-monitoring. Their executive functions will work with less efficiency and their frontal lobe continues to shut down.

As the emotions become more regulated, so too do we become more functional. This is incredibly important to note about students who may already be susceptible to executive function challenges, such as a student with ADHD. In addition, it’s important to recognize the impact that other diagnoses such as anxiety and depression can have on a student. It helps if students have an understanding of this principle as it can lead to great self-awareness and problem solving as they try to navigate the daily demand that is placed on their frontal lobes.

Reading with the lights off is a bad idea. We turn the lights on so we can see, read quicker, and comprehend better. If there are students who are struggling with the executive functions, it is important to get them the appropriate emotional support in order to get the light dimmer of the frontal lobe going back up and increase the ability to use the executive functions.