Retiring the central executive

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


Reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, learning and retrieval, inhibition, switching, updating, or multitasking are often referred to as higher cognition, thought to require control processes or the use of a central executive. However, the concept of an executive controller begs the question of what is controlling the controller and so on, leading to an infinite hierarchy of executives or ‘homunculi’. In what is now a QJEP citation classic, Baddeley (1996) referred to the concept of a central executive in cognition as a ‘conceptual ragbag’ that acted as a placeholder umbrella term for aspects of cognition that are complex, were poorly understood at the time, and most likely involve several different cognitive functions working in concert. He suggested that with systematic empirical research, advances in understanding might progress sufficiently to allow the executive concept to be ‘sacked’. This article offers an overview of the 1996 article and of some subsequent systematic research, and argues that after two decades of research, there is sufficient advance in understanding to suggest that executive control might arise from the interaction among multiple different functions in cognition that use different, but overlapping brain networks. The article concludes that the central executive concept might now be offered a dignified retirement.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2093-2109
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number10
Early online date19 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016


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