Executive functioning and the adaptation to novelty

Jeff Nelson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated thesis] This thesis is concerned with executive functioning in two different but related ways. The first is as an information processing construct in cognitive psychology. There are many different conceptualisations of the information processing basis of executive functioning but this thesis will pursue the notion that executive functioning is best thought of as adaptation to novelty. In the thesis, this will be operationalised using performance indices (principally reaction time) from a number of information processing tasks. These tasks have typically been used in the literature to index either executive functioning or speed of information processing. Both kinds of tasks are used to tackle the second concern of this thesis, namely, how executive functioning is measured. The data analytic techniques developed in this thesis are based on the hypothesis that executive functioning is the process or processes involved in resolving task novelty and consequently measurement will be enhanced through an analysis of performance changes within tasks as the task changes from novel to familiar. The analysis methods will be based largely on the computation of coefficient of variation of reaction time in successive performance windows across the information processing tasks. An elderly sample was chosen for this thesis because of a history of research that has attempted to determine whether cognitive deficits in the elderly are the consequence of the slowing of information processing speed or to impairment in executive functioning. ... The analysis was driven by the hypothesis that a significant shift in the coefficient of variation would mark a transition from novelty to familiarity in task performance and hence from executive to non-executive phases. Three methods were applied to individual performance curves to determine the point at which for each task this transition occurred. Using criterion measures of variability to separate the task data into two stages, analyses showed, contrary to the hypothesis, that later task performance was more highly associated with executive functioning than in initial task performance. The fourth stage of analysis (Chapter 7) applied confirmatory factor analysis to the newly-formed pre- and post transition data. Evidence was found that the magnitude of the contributions of EF across the pre- and post-criterion phases was stable, failing to support the hypothesis. Finally, structural equation modelling was used to examine how age and intelligence in this elderly sample exerts its influence on task performance and whether EF or IPS was the primary cause of age-related cognitive decline. The results showed that the age and intelligence effects on performance were mediated by the requirement to adapt to novelty. Although there was limited evidence to claim that EF is the primary cause of age-related cognitive decline, ageing effects were only apparent when the participants were adapting to novelty. The thesis concludes that there is some support for the hypothesis that executive functioning is best thought of as the processes underpinning adaptation to novelty. While not a panacea, the analytic techniques developed show promise for future research.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2008


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