Episode 9: 12 Strategies to Improve Executive Functions - The Personal Brain Trainer Podcast

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12 Strategies to Improve Executive Functions



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Full Transcript for Episode 9

Welcome to the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast.

I'm Dr. Erica Warren and I'm Darius Namdaran and we're your hosts.  Join us on an adventure to translate the scientific jargon and brain research into simple metaphors and stories for everyday life.  We explore executive functions and learning strategies that help turbocharge the mind. Come learn how to steer around the invisible barriers so that you can achieve your goals.  This podcast is ideal for parents, educators, and learners of all ages.

This podcast is brought to you by Bullet Map Academy. We have free dyslexia screener app called dyslexia quiz.  It's a fun, engaging and interactive app.  Try it now.  Just search for dyslexia quiz on the app store and see how your score differs from your friends and family.

This podcast is brought to you by www.goodsensorylearning.com where you can find educational and occupational therapy lessons and remedial materials that bring delight to learning.

Finally, you can find Dr Warren's many courses at www.learningspecialistcourses.com .  Come check out our newest course on developing executive functions and study strategies.

So, what's the topic for this week, Erica?

Well, this is going to be a really great podcast because we're going to be talking about the 12 strategies to help improve executive functions.

Now we're not going to do a deep dive.

I think we're going to do kind of a surface skip here because otherwise it would be a four-hour podcast.

But I wanted to give this overview for everybody so that they could really get a sense of what are the tools that can be used as we discussed in Episode five, executive functioning conducts are multisensory symphony of cognitive skills and makes it possible for us to mentally juggle ideas.

I think before we act meet unanticipated challenges, resist temptations, stay focused and initiate tasks just to name a few.

But then we broke down executive functions into three domains.

In our past discussions.

In episode four we talked about working memory.

In episode six We talked about inhibitory control and in episode seven We talked about cognitive flexibility and then in episode eight We discussed higher level executive functions.

Now today is this opportunity for us to really look at 12 strategies that can help people improve their executive functions.

What do you think sounds good?

That's quite ambitious because I'm going to be tempted to go into depth on some of these.

I know I know we'll have to keep each other in check.

So, I've kind of organized them under a num headings and I'm sure we'll discuss whether they all fit under these headings or not.

But when you've got 12 strategies it's kind of like how do you chunk them down further?

I mean chunking is important in cognitive organizing things in your head.

So, we've got 12 strategies.

What are the main chunks that we're going to talk about routines and approaches diet, cognition and meta cognition, movement, and mindfulness.

Okay, so 12 into five.

Got it.

So, routines and approaches what have we got?

We've got the first three under routines and approaches and I think the first one is maintaining a structured daily routine, wow!

Is this important?

Being able to keep things organized, establish that daily structure so that you know what you're going to do can be really, really helpful.

It gets that automaticity going.

You're basically Externalizing a lot of executive function by creating a routine because you're not having to decide where you're going to put something, you've already decided.

Your keys always go there, your shoes always go there, you always do this, you always do that, releases a lot of the cognitive load of having to be an executive.

You've made that decision and that's what's happening.


Well, it's funny you called it external and it's funny.

I would call it internal.

I'm internalizing it meaning that I'm getting into that routine.

But I see your perspective of calling it Externalizing.

It's kind of funny.

It is when we should talk about this more in another episode because I'm dyslexic.

I have to externalize a lot of my habits.

So, for example to brush my teeth I put the toothbrush outside of the cabinet, so it becomes a visual externalized reminder to brush my teeth.

I see I see.

So, it's your you create these kinds of visual reminders and it's funny when I do things.  Every time I go into my garage there are four different light switches that you turn on.

So, you can see.

And I used to leave it on all the time.

So, every time I go in, I cross my fingers.

I don't let my fingers uncross until I've turned off the lights and it's just as you would call an external strategy so that I don't forget.

So that's interesting.

We need to do a whole episode on structured daily routines and so on because it's a big, isn't it?

All of these, all of these things that we're going to be talking about our deep dives.

Deep number two is using planners and any kind of personal assistant technology PDAs, and they can be a real game changer because yeah, I guess as you would call it, that is an external using an external system to give you reminders and to help you to keep yourself organized.

But wow, what a difference.

And how I have really become dependent on some of those things, they really, really help me having these kinds of weekly reminders, even working with my students, I'll send myself an email to send another email.

Yeah, yeah.

An email to remind you to do an email?

I mean, do you remember the days when the Filofax was a godsend?

Like you discovered the file of facts.

Did you ever go through that moment where you went, and you get a Filofax, and you open it up and you've got everything filed away.

Oh, okay.

I guess I would call that an accordion organizer.

I don't think we have file of facts in the state.

Okay, well you do have it in, in the States or you did maybe it's bigger here in the UK.

But basically, yes, an accordion organizer and it's like a mini clip binder with all your calendar in it and you write in things, and you flick things through it and it's your planner, but it's basically predates the smartphone and the iPad and so forth.

But having a planner is just so crucial, isn't it?

Yeah, and for some people it's interesting, some of my students for example, really like to have something that they can hold in their hand, you know, they want to be able to write things for me that is so crucial.

So, it used to be you wrote it on paper or you put it on a computer.

Now there's this third realm where you write it on a computer like you right on your iPad and this whole genre of digital planners.

You know, people coloring in their planners and planning their weeks on their iPad and so forth.

And I often do that with Children too.

And there's something about coloring in your planner and sketching and so on that helps you process and just sort of look at what you're doing and digest it for a bit that you kind of need that physical action to sort of fix it in your mind and in your awareness.

Yeah, and that line is starting to get fuzzy because now that you can actually color for example on an iPad you can actually get that tactile sense.

But yeah, I like to use a lot of those types of resources, and I think adding color and making it creative really makes it fun.

And of course, doodles.

I think we need to have a deeper talk on this one too because often I think with planners and P.



Technology etcetera, you need to duel code what you're doing, you need to write the task and have a little doodle of what you're doing and it's speaking to both sides of your brain, the visual side you're visualizing and you're activating that visual side as we talked about so early on that this working memory, having that visual whiteboard of your mind, not just the auditory repetition going on of the word itself, you're activating both.

And so, I think it would be useful to have a session where we talked about how to use planners with executive function, meta cognition awareness as it were.

I'm using this planet aware of the way my executive function works and I have to keep personally intentionally putting in doodles or icons and so on because my brain doesn't like reading the words naturally because it likes referring to the image very interesting.

You know, one of my publics, it's called planning time management and organization for success, and I recently merged it with another one of mine which is the ultimate planner.

So, it comes with all of these whole variety of different planner options, but it's presented in Microsoft power point so that it can be edited.

So, it's an editable planner.

I want to get that you got so much stuff I just have not touched on and I know when I go into it, it's like when I go into your workbooks and pdf, it's like refined gold, you know, like you don't waste words either, it's just like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, well thank you.

That's really nice of you.

It's so interesting in that particular planner.

I like to have a whole lot of variety and ones that are very structured and organized and the ones that offer a little bit more creativity where people do, there's a little place to have a doodle.

But again, what's really nice about that particular one is it can be personalized really easily because it's not a pdf.

So, allowing yourself or your kids to pick something that rez with you is so important because if we don't, we probably won't keep up with it and this is so incredibly important.

Okay, number three, we're going to talk a little bit about developing study skills is an incredible strategy for really developing executive functioning skills.

Again, a study strategy fits really well under routines and approaches because you're developing a way of doing things that works and we're just going to talk about four, there's spaced repetition is a nice study skills approach where you space things out, we are going to deep dive on that.

But there's a lot of research behind space repetition.

So instead of studying for a test right before the test, if you study right after you learn the information and then a couple of days later and then a couple of days later, review it, the research shows that you'll get into long term memory a lot faster.

The other thing is we want to use memory strategies.

I know you're a big proponent of memory strategies when we're talking about developing study skills.

I mean this is what I live and breathe in one of my companies Map Academy, we teach Children visual study skills and space repetition is so important.

And often having a visual approach allows you to repeat or revisit the information more rapidly and so space repetition is more realistic to look at a mind map for example and quickly scan through it in one or two minutes rather than reading through a page or two of notes memory strategies.

Again, visual, I think this whole visual, this aspect of working memory is very important within the executive function.

We talked about working memory and how to maximize your working memory by working on the under used visual whiteboard of the working memory and this also applies to space repetition using memory strategies, planning out projects visually, etcetera.

That's right, that's right.

So, I think we're using visualization or as they call it, the visual spatial sketch pad is I've always called as kind of a secret weapon to learning because there are those kids and adults that really don't know how to use it and when you learn to use it, it's just amazing how your brain works so much better.

I see this even in business, if you're having a conversation like this where there are 12 points you're talking about, you know, you're immediately going to overwhelm everyone's working memory because it's normally a unit of seven at the most, generally speaking.

And if you got dyslexia or executive functioning difficulties, it's normally two or three.

And so, if you know that already it's going to be more than two or three points, write it on the wall or on a bit of paper.

So, you're both looking at it.

It's a gift to the other person because like you're doing that for me right now, you've got it written up on zoom so I can see it.

It makes our conversation so much more fluid because I'm not using my working memory to hold these basic facts.

I'm using it to actually have a conversation right, we just have like a very bare bones outline which just has a few words sketched out, which just keeps us organized.

It's again an executive functioning approach and it works very well under the routines and approaches and the last thing I want to talk about under this heading of routines and approaches where we've discussed the first three maintaining a structured daily routine to using planners and P.



Technology and three developing study skills is under that heading of study skills, how important it is for us to do one thing at a time to many of us are multitasking these days and you know tasking is the way to go do one thing at a time to completion.

My advisor and my doctoral program, she was a workhorse.

I couldn't believe how much she got done.

And when I went over to her house it was like impeccably clean.

I'm like how do you do it?

And she said I only do one thing at a time.

I do one thing at a time, and I only do it, only pick it up and do it if I can do it to completion.

She said don't ever look at your mail, don't open your mail and leave it on your desk, open up your mail and go through it.

Just don't even look at it until you're ready to go through it from beginning to end.

Otherwise, you're wasting time.

So do things once and do them thoroughly.

And if you're focusing on just that one thing you'll get it done quickly And I've really taken that to heart lately and I think about her and that thought all the time and it really is kind of a guiding force for me is do one thing at a time, do it from beginning to end and then you know I don't have these huge lists ever because I kind of get things done in the moment and I stay very focused on that one thing granted.

I do have a list of things that I want to get to, but it definitely helps me to keep my desk organized and my time organized.

It's a nice strategy.

The guy who wrote getting things done the G.T.D. Method.

Well getting things done is like mega productivity book that actually works.

One of the fascinating rules he had in there was if you've got something in your hand that you can do within three minutes do it there and then don't put it on your list.

Right then he has another rule and that ties in with what you've got there which is well there's other rules in there.

It's a great book but that that's an interesting car orally with what you're saying there.

You know adding it into what you're saying is sometimes you've got a task that can be done in less than three minutes then just go do it and don't put it on your list.

If it's going to take longer than three minutes and if you're in sorting mode, don't start doing it.

He says you need to write it down on a piece of paper and throw it into your bucket.

He says you should have a bucket in your house.

Which everything that needs to be done goes into like a big box or an entry or often a very big box and the mail goes in their folder or a magazine or a note to yourself and you just throw everything in that box as you're thinking about it or needing to do it and then you sit down and like you sort through the box into tasks to do.

Yeah, that's very interesting that I definitely have a similar approach.

But I would say that I have multiple boxes because I don't want to have too much clutter in.

Well, yeah, I mean his idea, his system is delightfully simple, but it starts with the one box that then gets sorted into smaller.

Got it chunks and even the way he does his filing system and so on.

I just found it so refreshing.

Anyway, we're getting distracted.

We should talk about that more in another episode.

We absolutely will.

And remember we're just hitting a surface level and we will be deep diving.

So, number four is eating a healthy diet.

That's huge.

We are what we eat.

You know, feed your body is your temple.

Think about what you're putting if you're eating a lot of junk food and processed foods, preservatives, chemicals.

It's not great for the body.

We need to give it the nutrition that it needs.

Well, this is what I say.

Erica about this.

No comment.

I'm terrible at this.

I really have to improve on this.

So, I'm going to hand this over to you.


Yeah, this is my life.

You know, I struggled with all sorts of colitis and also had cancer and many other things.

And diet really healed my body and it's very interesting because my body won't let me eat anything that's not healthy now, which is a beautiful thing and I really felt that it completely changed my cognition.

It changed so much when I got rid of starches, processed foods, preservatives.

No one has to go into a diet that is as extreme as mine.

However, there are a few little things that I wanted to share with you that could help you to improve in particular your cognition.

So leafy greens and vegetables are really, really important because it has a lot of nutrients and a lot of vitamins.

I juice every morning and I put all sorts of, it's a very colorful juice and that is an amazing thing to feed your brain.

Another thing is fatty fish.

We want to.

Well, it's interesting.

I kind of have given up on fish lately because I'm just so concerned about the pollutants, but I actually use Thorne has an omega three that I use.

That is a fatty acid that I really like.

And that's one that the Huberman Andrew Huberman and his Huberman podcast suggested.

So, I started using that one.

Another one is Barry's.

Barry's offer a lot of nutrients as well and have a lot of antioxidants.

You're going to like this one Darius tea and coffee can be helpful, caffeine can give you a short-term boost and concentration.

And even in a in a research study at johns Hopkins University they saw that even giving A 200 mg caffeine tablet actually did help people with memory.

So, it's really interesting.

So, I think you have to be careful again with coffee.

There's a good the expression everything in moderation is probably good because I do know some people that get that overdo it with the caffeine.

What's your thought on that?

Yeah, I buy that even without the research because I wanted to be true.

It's a cognitive dissonance thing here.

Yeah, I'm happy to have that reinforce my belief that I should have my coffee in the day.

Well, you know the other thing is coffee is a stimulant and stimulants help people with attentional issues.

It can actually help you to focus because if you think about it Ritalin that is also a stimulant and it's not that different than coffee.

Coffee is a stimulant to order acting stimulant.


I remember we were talking about I probably got A.




As well as dyslexia undiagnosed as it were.

And you talked about how these stimulants can help people with A.




In another episode.

Let's talk about the effects of stimulants with A.D.D.

And so on.

And the food.

I'd really like to do more of that.

Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it?

It's a great wish list that we're creating here, Erica.

It is a wish list, and we'll do it.

Yeah, we can really jump off of this platform of these 12 suggestions while nuts are another great one to give you the omega three fatty acids.

If you don't want to have fish fermented foods are amazing because it gives you all the probiotics and gut flora that will really help you with digestion and really impacts your thought processes as well.

I find that is if your gut is happy then your brain is happy but if your gut is in distress, it really does have a major impact on your brain because if you have anything like leaky gut you know which is where the toxins get into the bloodstream it does affect your brain.

So fermented foods can really help to heal the gut.

And then finally I thought I'd put this in for everybody.

Dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate can actually be helpful.

It has a lot of antioxidants and helps to preserve the health of the brain cells.

So that's it on food.

We're moving to the next category, cognition, and metacognition.  In that one we have four.

So, we're going to be doing five through eight.

So, the next one is five, which is thinking out loud.

I love this.

For the work that I do with my students, there's no better way to teach executive functioning skills to other people, particularly Children than to think out loud.

Show them how you think.

Self-talk can also help you to manage your own cognition, but you can do all sorts of things with that.

What's your thoughts?

Yes, I like that a lot.

Erica, I had this experience where I was taught how to sail a yacht.

I went and did the Royal Yachting Association Day skipper license.

So how to sail a dinghy or yacht in open waters for a day and navigate and so on.

What I found fascinating was interestingly enough, my instructor was dyslexic and what she did, she modeled this very, very well thinking aloud.

So, she would be standing in the boat, and she would say I'm standing here.

I'm looking at the sale.

I'm looking at that telltale.

I'm making sure that this rope is tight.

I'm making sure that's happening.

I'm looking at the compass bearing.

Yes, we're holding our compass.

Yes, it was 273 degrees.

Did I write down the 273 degrees.

Yes, I did write down the 273.

There it is and she is just talking about everything that she's thinking about as a sailor.

You know, she sailed around the world and so on.

It was just brilliant because it ended up becoming My voice my and she was training my internal voice too.

And so, when I got hold of it, she would then said right, Darius talk out what you're thinking.

She said, I would say, Oh there's a big boat on the horizon.

I think it's approaching us at 20 knots.

We need to keep an eye on it and I'm a bit worried about that and she's like is there anything else you want to be saying it.

And I'm like oh I don't know, but I got distracted by that and I wasn't holding my bearing or whatever.

And so, she could actually not just judge me by my actions but by myself talk.

Oh, that's beautiful.

What a great way to be able to see inside another person's head, particularly when you're working with kids or you have attentional problems because then you can act, you're witnessing your inattention or you're witnessing someone else's inattention.

So, getting the people around you just to think out loud every now and then can be really a fun ride.

Well, it's actually ties in with cognition and meta cognition.

I mean sailing isn't amazing experience in having to the discipline and we've used this before as an analogy the discipline of what's that bit where you have to be adaptive and responsive to the environment, you know, the three subsets, you know, working memory, impulse control and then the flexible cognitive flexibility, cognitive flexibility, that ability to adapt to circumstances.

Thinking aloud is also useful with the cognitive flexibility because you may be talking through circumstances and how you're cognitively adapting and being flexible to it, etcetera.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

And know that some people aren't really comfortable talking aloud or even self-talking.

You can always do this through reflecting in a journal, which is the same thing.

It's just kind of coming through your fingers but it still is kind of recording your thoughts and enables you to organize them as well.

So, let's move on to six.

Number six under cognition and meta cognition.

We have interactive games.

So interactive games really helped to develop executive functioning, role playing imitation and copy games where you're having to integrate like songs like I don't know if you know that one head, shoulders, knees and toes, the hokey pokey, all of those types of things.

Oh my God, when I was a child, I loved these games where you did these kind of hand clapping, I'm doing a moving my hands around as I'm talking.

But there were little hand clapping games where you were singing and you're moving, and all of those types of things really helped to develop executive functioning skills as well as in some instances multitasking because you're doing multiple actions and multiple things at once.

And remember that, even though I said you should unit task, there's certain things that we have to do to automaticity so that we can complete something like reading and writing are multitasking, but we can only do it once we get to a certain level of automaticity agreed.

And I remember when I was a Rudolf Steiner school teacher at Waldorf school, I was a primary school teacher, we did a lot of these learning through songs, rhymes, rhythms, movements, routine and so on.

We had a whole morning program that I designed.

Every class teacher has to design their own morning program.

And actually, when I'm reflecting on this, it's basically an executive function sequence.

You know like the roll call at the beginning, when I did Roll call, I used to sing it out to them and they would sing it back to me and Leonardo, are you here?

And he's like I am here.

And so it was, you know, these six-year-old, five- and six-year-old and so on, I would do with a liar and so on, you know, playing a harp and so forth.

And then we would have, I'd write poems for the kids, the kids would do their birthday poems and recite them, there would be skipping, we would do our times tables with skipping ropes and there was this whole sequence cascading sequence of maybe an hour's program in the morning where we just repeated and repeated.

And what was interesting in that whole process was pedagogic li they did exactly the same thing every morning, every day in the same order.

Just really brilliant for autistic kids as well.

But it's also great for dyslexic kids because it gets them into a routine.

Maybe they can't hold a routine or the automaticity that well.

But then what I would do is I would change the routine according to the seasons, but it wouldn't be a brand-new routine.

Each season, each game would change ever so slightly and morph into something different.

So, we do the times table skipping or it would change to a different times table or a different skipping activity etcetera.

And so, there was a morphing of these habits.

So, I think a lot of this is that you start morphing these habits as well that it's not just it's iterative.

You know, it's not just set in stone and that's it forever.

You're adapting your habits gradually.

Yeah, beautiful.

I love that example.

Thank you.

I wish I was in your classroom.

That sounds like so much fun.

The next one.

Number seven is, pursue cognitive remedial therapy.

The question is what is that?

It's really about going back and looking what are the core cognitive skills that are required to do things such as reading, such as writing.

So, for example, if you if it's really hard for you to write your handwriting is really messy.

That's going to always get in the way of the writing process.

So, one of the things that you can do is you can go back and strengthen your fine motor skills.

So that would be an example.

Another one is, whenever you read your eyes have trouble tracking from one line to the next.

So, you might need to go back and strengthen your visual tracking skills.

That is cognitive remedial therapy.

So, where we're going back and we're strengthening core areas of cognition and we're developing them and we're building some of them to a point of automaticity.

When you say that to me sometimes, I think to myself you know you may be an adult and you go back, and you remediate something like that, and you think well we're kind of past it.

But what I've noticed is sometimes in certain jobs. I know here in the UK you can do a workplace needs assessment for ADD, Autism whatever difference or disability that you've got.

You can get workplace needs assessment done and it finds the roles you're doing and finds out particular things that might be tripping you up without you realizing it.

And for example there was one probation worker writing down the dates of the next appointment incorrectly and the result was the probation person would turn up at the wrong time and that's breaking their probation.

And so, he was a brilliant probation worker, but he wrote down the dates wrong and incorrectly often.

And he couldn't always tell if he got it right or wrong.

And so, this workplace needs assessor.

What she did was she said, I'm going to give you one piece of tracing paper and you're going to trace over the top where it's written in the official document And then you're going to put it over and trace over the top of that onto the piece of paper and it's going to make an imprint and then you're going to write into that imprint and hand it over to that person.

So, you're 100% sure you've got it right.

And so, it's a very extreme example, but that's the sort of thing that saved his job and saved many people from unnecessarily breaking their probation just because of this glitch.

And so, there are certain things.

that can be super important to remediate that are these very fine detailed executive function functions.

It's like the core skills behind executive functions?

That's true.

I'm using the term incorrectly.


So visual processing is a great example.

We talked about visual tracking, which is a little different visual processing.

Are you processing what you see?


And you know, I had one student that I worked with, he had very poor visual spatial skills and we went in and did cognitive remedial therapy.

And we worked, we started very, very simple was we were doing super simple elementary activities even though he was much older.

And we slowly built up his skills.

Well after four months I re gave him the test of visual processing skills and he got a perfect score and visual spatial and he went from hating puzzles and hating anything that I do with visual spatial to loving it.

But it was a matter of going back and catching him in his zone of proximal development so that he could do it.

And then we slowly built that skill.

So cognitive remedial therapy, I've seen it do profoundly helpful things for kids because now that kid isn't going to have that hurdle for the rest of his life, he's addressed it.

So, in effect, what I hear you saying here is that this isn't actually an executive function skill that you're developing or an executive function exercise directly.

It indirectly affects your executive function.

Because when we're talking about the working memory, we were talking about information coming in externally into the white board or the that focal point area and that's the working memory, that's the executive function.

But if bad information comes in you can't process good stuff, you know, bad information in bad decisions out.

So, this cognitive remedial therapy is about cleaning up that information coming in is what I'm hearing from information processing Absolutely.

Like visualization, you want to make sure that kids know how to do that, right?

And if they can then that's going to help them executive functioning skills.

Yeah, go listen to the working memory episode again, this will make a lot more sense in context.

That's Working Memory was episode four.



Okay, let's keep it rolling.

What we got next Now we're moving on to number eight brain exercises.

There's a lot of conflicting research about brain games and is that beneficial.

But I can tell you that brain exercising works if you don't use it, you lose it.

But it any kind of brain stimulation can help to build different cognitive processing areas.

And that's one of the things that I like to do in my is very similar to the cognitive remedial therapy but it's a little different but and they say with the elderly for example that it's really important that they're always keeping their brains busy, that they're doing different exercises, you don't always want to do the same thing.

So, if you love Sudoku that's great.

But if you keep doing it, you'll the benefits will minimize over time.

You want to keep learning new things.

But there are certain games, I have a lot of games that good sensory learning that work specifically on executive functioning skills, building that kind of core working memory, you know those three core skills of executive functions.

But yeah, so I have a bunch of the at good sensory learning but there are also ones that you can get on amazon like set and spot it and then even there are some brain games online which I quite like.

There's some at luminosity that I think are really quite good, you know that.

But the other thing to remember is you always want to have some level of direct application if kids are playing these games or these exercises and there isn't really any application to school or life, sometimes they don't actually know how to apply it.

So, they need more explicit instruction on how to apply it.

And that's where those skills of thinking out loud can be really beneficial.


So, we're moving on to a new category which is movement and under movement, we have three and the first one is exercise is really important for the brain.

So routine exercise doing it on a daily basis or at least multiple times a month is really important.

It gets the blood circulating, it moves the nutrients around, you know, any kind of 10-minute intervals whatever you can do to give your body, the exercise is really helpful.

I have one little student when she, she loses her focus, it's like her brain empties and she can't do anything.

But what I've discovered is that whenever I see that happening with her, I will just say, hey it's time for a brain break and we get really excited.

We jump up and we dance, or we do but you know it doesn't have to be for very long like 30 seconds, we'll do 30 seconds of jumping jacks, or 30 seconds of running up and down the stairs, or 30 seconds of twirling and then she sits back down and she's back online.

It's amazing.

One of the things that I used to do was juggle when I studied, so I take a break and I juggle for a minute or two and change up what I was juggling and so on for the brain breaks.

And another really useful thing for this is getting a dog.

I sometimes wonder if I didn't have my dog, how much exercise I would actually do.

I don't do very much exercise, I need to do more, but I do walk at least half an hour to an hour a day.

And I do a About 10,000 steps and miles and miles of walking because of my dog.

And I think that can be helpful to have something that forces you to stay in an exercise routine like that.

So, one of the nice things you can do to when you're walking your dog is throw in a couple intervals, just jog for 30 seconds, maybe three times 34 times during each walk, jog for 30 seconds because then you're getting your heart rate up and then all of a sudden, you're getting that interval training in and that can be really helpful.

And that's an easy thing, you're already doing that and I'm sure your dog will be excited about taking a 32nd little jog with you as well.

So, let's move on to the next movement recommendation or strategy that we have to help with executive functions.

Martial arts.

Martial arts really helped to develop executive functioning skills.

What are your thoughts on that?

I used to do a short account karate, remember when I was in the 1617-year-old I was playing rugby and I said to my head teacher I want to stop playing rugby because I'm getting too violent.

I'm going to go and do martial arts instead and it made me less violent ironically.

But the whole discipline, there's so much in it, there's routine, it's visual, it's moving, there's a rhythm to it.

There's lots of sequences where you have to do a sequenced set of fighting sequences.

You then need to have the cognitive flexibility to go away and take those moves and recombine them in different ways to adapt to a real fight.

They're stretching.

There are aspects of meditation, there's exercise, there's breathing, there's all sorts of what you've been talking about included there isn't there?

Yeah, and it's interesting because what research has shown they did a study with kindergartners to fifth grade students, and they trained them in the martial arts and what they did notice that it had a big significant increase in improved self-regulation skills ah self-regular.

Do you know the symbol of when you stand and you're just about to do a fight or when you begin you have one fist covered by a hand, okay and the symbol of a fist covered by a hand symbolizes power under control and also the symbol of meekness.

The word for meekness is power under control.

And so sometimes when we think a person's meek and mild, they're actually that's self-control, they have power but they're choosing not to use it to overcome their controlling their power.

And that that symbol in martial arts to stand there and you bow saying that I'm going to use my power under control.

I love that and what is that?

That's executive functioning, that's meta cognition but using it in a physical way to make you mindful, that's beautiful.

Yeah, I love that.

Especially if you are made aware of it.

So again, in many ways what we're trying to do in this podcast is to start embodying executive function in everyday life through visualizing it, imagining it physically doing it and physically it's about becoming self-aware enough of why you're doing something and what it's for.

And so, if you're going through the martial arts and keep doing this repetitive task of fist, hand over fist and you’re bowing and you do it for like three years and then you become a black belt and someone says by the way, do you know what that was all about?

This is power under control, you should be being telling yourself that when you're a white belt and they're like, I'm intentionally taking my power under my control here and I'm learning self-control and that's in effect, what we're doing here with this podcast is starting to wake us up to being more intentional about what maybe we do already.

Maybe we're already walking.

Maybe we're already doing martial arts.

Maybe already got a planner.

Maybe you do that planner a bit more intentionally by using your visual skills or the martial arts by saying I'm doing this because it's not just exercise or whatever, you know, really nice.

The last one that we have under movement, which kind of makes me giggle, is music training.

We weren't really sure where to put it.

And Darius said, oh no, that works under movement.

So, tell me why, why do you think musical training should fit under movement as an executive functioning training?

Or these five categories you've created are arbitrary.

You know, you you've created the mindfulness and so on.

It's not like these are scientific categories for executive function.

So, let's just clarify that we are just trying to chunk these 12 things that we've you have identified as very helpful for executive function.

But I mean music training under movement.

It's a really micro movement, isn't it?

And it's also the movement of the music.

I mean music is a wave, isn't it?

Through the air, it's moving through the air, it's moving you. I had Children, when I was teaching them, that simply could not sit still if they heard music, my daughter had to move when she heard music and she's at the dinner table and there's music and she's her body's moving, you know, just and even if it's imperceptibly, you know, she got to the point where she's imperceptibly moving, you know?

But I knew she was moving; she was definitely dancing on the inside.

And so, there's something about music that is about move as well.

So that's why I think it fits under a movement that was so beautiful.

I love that.

Now I feel very confident with it under movement.

That's really beautiful.

I have to tell you this fun story about music.

So, and I don't know how it fits in, but I bet you can figure out some way to shoehorn this in.

So, when I was in the primary school teaching primary kids, we all had these homemade liars, I got these parents to make these wooden liars, their little harps pentatonic harps and the Children would play the harps together.

And because the pentatonic, they couldn’t be dissonant with one another any note.

They played worked and I got the kids to play one note a C.

And we all played the note and then I got them to put their hands up in the air and said, we're going to play this note, I want you to put your hands up in the air and then when you stop hearing the note, bring your hand down?

So, we played the note and then it went, and they all had their hands up in the air and then after about two or three seconds most of them put their hands down.

After about five seconds there was about six kids with their hands up and then after about 20 seconds there was no sound, it was completely silent.

Two kids had their hands in the air still wow.

And then after about 30 seconds one of them put their hand down and the young lad will call him m he was one of the naughtier boys in the class had his hand up and then I stopped and we were all totally silent me for 30 seconds that's a long time with a class of 30 kids, there are seven years old and I said okay, m why do you still have your hand up?

And he's like I can still hear it.

He was hearing it on the inside, I can still hear it.

And so, in terms of movement and music, it was kind of resonating inside of him, still moving inside of him.

He could still hear and feel the sound when all the rest of us are like it's come and gone.

And this is fascinating because he was one of the Naughtier boys who always goes up to mischief but in those moments where he really was connecting physically and so on and emotionally, he could still physically hear it inside his body as it were and his ears and resonating what do you make of that?

Well, you know, it's very interesting because maybe that has something to do with why he was naughty in class.

You know, if he was that hypersensitive to sound right and if you're in a classroom of 30 kids that could create a lot of dissonance which could make somebody a little dis regulated.

It's Just a theory.

But what a lovely story.

And you know, they did do some research with Children, and they did discover that they had cognitive improvements related to executive functioning when they had only 20 days of music training.

So, there is there's some nice research out there that shows that learning performing and reading music all require executive functioning.

We're Moving on to number 12 and that is going to be meditation and breathing and that is under the heading of mindfulness.

I could have made meditation and breathing two separate ones, but I think they kind of go hand in hand but not always well I guess you always have to breathe.

But some meditations actually bring in a very specific type of breath, but both of these are wonderful ways to improve executive functions, self-regulation, stress responses, inhibitory control.

There's a lot of research on all of that stuff, also improving attention.

I am looking at a number of studies here that claim that it really does make a big difference and I think it works with all ages.

You know, I would add to this prayer as well.

Prayer, meditation and breathing.

It's something that's often not mentioned.

And it's interesting in terms of executive function, you know, because sometimes you're verbalizing what you're thinking or asking.

It would be fascinating to see that that process of prayer in terms, I mean sometimes silent prayer, silent meditation or meditating on a thing.

So sometimes meditation can be meditating to empty your mind or sometimes it can be meditation on a thing, you know, a singular focus on some wise words or scripture or even an experience or whatever.

So, it doesn't always have to be seeking an emptiness of mind.

It can be a dwelling on a thing I'd throw in prayer as well into this as well.

That's really, it's really interesting.

It's lovely.

Yeah, and can even focus on your breast, that's a common meditation focusing on your body or the different parts of your body where you're doing a body scan.

But there's a lot of research showing and there are a lot of devices out there that can help you with meditation and I have an app on my phone that I really like called breathe, which also helps you with meditation and breath.

But the other person that really helps us to understand how amazing breath can be in managing the body and the brain is.

The Wim Hof method, whim Hoff holds a whopping 26 Guinness World Book Records for extreme sport challenges including running a full marathon above the arctic circle, wearing only a pair of shorts.

So, wow.

And that he does that through breath he takes is a series of very full breaths which enable you to handle a lot of extremes.

And a lot of people are reporting that had major medical issues that their body is healing through breath.

So, it's amazing how breath and meditation can yes help us with executive functions, but it can also help us to improve our body functions in our brain because it's just putting us in a better mindset and it's giving the body what it needs to heal itself.

Fantastic Erica.

Well, this is a great list of 12 things.

Let's wrap this up.

Could you give us the top 12 in order again?

Just as a quick sort of summary?


So, we would say that the 12 strategies to help improve executive functions are maintain a structured daily routine.

Use planners and PDA - Technology, develop study skills, diet, think aloud interactive games, pursue cognitive remedial therapy, do brain exercises, exercise your body, consider the martial arts, music training and finally meditation and breathing.

What a lovely list.

Thank you, Erica - for putting that together.

I know that was a lot of work and we're going to go into some of them more in depth.

We might not go into all of them more in depth, but let's cherry pick a few.

Well, let's surprise the listeners with what we're doing next in the next episode.

So, we'll surprise you.

Thank you very much for listening.

Thank you very much Erica for preparing all of that and thanks for a great discussion.

Great, well, we'll see you next time.


Thank you for joining our conversation here at the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast.

This is Dr Erica Warren and Darius Namdaran. Check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the podcast, and please leave us a review and share on social media. Until next time.