Deep Dives

The Science of Adult Capabilities

Adults need certain capabilities to succeed in life and support the development of the next generation. These capabilities help us to get and keep a job, provide responsive care for children, manage a household, and contribute productively to the community. When these skills have not developed as they should, or are compromised by the stresses of poverty or other sources of ongoing adversity, our communities pay the price in population health, education, and economic vitality.

What Are the Core Capabilities?

Mounting research from neuroscience and psychology tells us that there is a set of underlying core capabilities that adults use to manage life, work, and parenting effectively. These include, but are not limited to: planning, focus, self-control, awareness, and flexibility.

To scientists, these capabilities fall under the umbrella of self-regulation and executive function.

Our Core Capabilities in Action

Animaged GIF: Our Core Capabilities in Action

Self-regulation helps us to draw upon the right skills at the right time, manage our responses to the world, and resist inappropriate responses. In the brain, self-regulation includes both intentional and automatic processes. The proper balance ensures appropriately responsive and productive actions.

  • Automatic self-regulation is our rapid, impulse-directed response (also called the “fight or flight” response) that is needed for urgent or threatening situations.
  • Intentional self-regulation is our conscious, planful, and proactive response needed for achieving goals. Attention serves as the critical gate-keeper for engaging our intentional self-regulation by directing our focus toward specific things within and around us.

Executive function, including inhibitory control, working memory, and mental flexibility, makes intentional self-regulation possible. Executive function skills help us to remember our goals and the steps needed to reach them, resist distractions along the way, and find a Plan B when Plan A doesn’t work out.

How Do These Core Capabilities Work Together?

Imagine any situation that requires a response—e.g., a knock on the door, a cry from your baby, or a request from a supervisor. First the brain must recognize that the situation requires a response. This launches a rapid-fire cycle of triggers and neurotransmitters in the brain that operate in an intricate, mutually dependent way. The automatic self-regulation system responds first, orienting to where the stimulus is coming from and initiating a response. The attention system alerts the intentional self-regulation system, which must act fast—directing the attention system to what it should focus on and prioritize. It also sends a signal quickly to the automatic self-regulation system as to whether the initial response is the right one, or more careful thought is required.

This cycle demonstrates a continuum between reactive or impulsive behavior at one end and proactive or goal-directed behavior at the other. Both reactive and proactive behaviors are important adaptations to the environment in which people develop: quick responses are helpful in the face of immediate threats. But when longer-term goals are more important than immediate concerns, proactive behaviors are required. Having the right balance is an important part of being able to use our core capabilities in life.

How Do These Core Capabilities Develop?

Youth Core Skills guide
To learn more about building core capabilities in adolescence, see our guide for practitioners.

We are not born with these skills, but we are born with the capacity to develop them through the right experiences and practice. The foundation is built in early childhood: By age 3, most children are already using executive function skills in simple ways (e.g., remembering and following simple rules). Ages 3-5 show a remarkable burst of improvement in the proficiency of these skills.

The orchestration of these skills requires communication between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions. With time and the right experiences, brain regions devoted to different mental functions connect. These connections allow the regions to communicate with each other; later in childhood and adolescence, the connections become more efficient. Two things are happening in the brain during this time:

  • Increased efficiency within specific regions of the brain; and
  • Faster flow of information among regions, which allows for better integration.

The full range of core capabilities, and the neural network that connects them, continues to develop into adolescence and early adulthood, with another significant increase in proficiency occurring between ages 15 and 23. Adults of all ages can continue to learn these skills through coaching and practice, although it’s easier and more effective to build on a strong foundation.

What Derails Our Ability to Use These Core Capabilities?

Chaotic, stressful, and/or threatening situations can derail anyone, yet individuals who experience a pile-up of adversity are often even less able to deploy all of the skills they have to cope with challenging circumstances. Early in life, the experience of severe, frequent stress directs the focus of brain development toward building the capacity for rapid response to threat and away from planning and impulse control. In adulthood, significant and continuous adversity can overload the ability to use existing capacities that are needed the most to overcome challenges.

Animated GIF: Excessive stress affects how well we develop and use executive function skills

  • Serious early adversity and trauma can lead to higher levels of stress, higher risk of stress-related health difficulties and mood disorders, greater difficulty modulating and accurately appraising emotion, and compromised executive function abilities.
  • Chaotic, threatening, or unpredictable environments that seem beyond our control can lead to poor self-regulatory behaviors and impulse control as well as a low sense of self-efficacy—the belief that one can be an agent in improving one’s life—which is an essential component of executing planful, goal-oriented behaviors.
  • Highly rewarding stimuli such as food or drugs can hijack the brain’s attention system and cue more automatic responses.
  • Poverty can overload self-regulation, as a result of a pile-up of stresses associated with trying to survive with inadequate resources.

As a result, many adults who have been raised in conditions of significant stress—or who are currently undergoing acute stress—struggle to keep track of the multiple problems in their lives, analyze those problems, explore options for dealing with them, and set priorities for how best to move ahead. Stress also hijacks our good intentions and increases the likelihood that we will be swept away by our impulses or automatic responses. So, even if we manage to develop a good plan, we will find it harder to stick to it if we are under a pile-up of stress.

Next: What can we do to restore and build core capabilities?

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