Episode 16 Executive Function and Memory on the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast

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Executive Function and Memory

Executive Functions and Memory has man conducting his brain



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Full Transcript for Episode 16

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.

Okay, Darius, it's great to see you.  You have a surprise episode for us!

I want to talk about executive function and memory.

I spoke at an executive function and dyslexia master class here in the UK.

There were five speakers.

Professor Amanda Kirby Dr Neil McKay and others.

It was really fascinating to be part of this master class and it was truly a master class in executive function teaching the whole day some of the best trainers and teachers and writers on executive functioning around the world that had been gathered together and I really enjoyed it.

And one of the interesting things that was brought up was this area of executive function and how it connects with memory.

And I wanted to explore this with you Erica and see your take on it.

So let me just give you a quick overview.

This was very much inspired by Dr Neil Mackay's talk on the memory light classroom, and he was the guy who created the dyslexia friendly approach within the British Dyslexia Association.

Do you have the dyslexia friendly classroom kite Mark in America?

I don't know much about it.

Can you tell me Dr Neil Mackay came up with this, it's basically an executive function approach to helping dyslexia in the classroom.

And he called it the dyslexia friendly approach.

And it was taken up by the British Dyslexia Association and schools can now apply to be dyslexia friendly, approved in their classroom.

And so, the British Dyslexia Association has 100 key points and elements and factors that a classroom needs to have within its processes and the way it's done to make it dyslexia friendly.


Because often people think dyslexia friendly, oh print out on colored paper and bob's your uncle, you're done or give them some extra time and so on, there's way, way more to it than that.

So, he was the guy who kind of initiated all of that British dyslexia association picked it up and then this dyslexia friendly kite mark or approval stamp can be applied for.

That's really cool.

That's pretty exciting.

Yeah they've been doing it for a number of years in schools systematically, you know apply for it, do it and it's kudos that you've taken that time and it's no small thing I have to say Now one of the key things he talks about is when you're talking about working memory which is one of the three component parts of executive function, obviously how do you shift from working memory to short term memory to long term memory?

How does that actually happen in real life in the classroom?

And so, he says basically you know working memory is very fleeting.

Short term memory is really quite a temporary process.

So, you remember something you type it in and then your brain pretty much deletes it unless it moves up to long term memory.

But the key to long term memory is effortful mental transformation, effortful mental transformation is required to change something from something you've just received and then you process it, and you have to transform it in some way and then it becomes a long-term memory.

And he reckons this ability to convert working memory into long term memory is a core executive function skill.

Like if you had a grid of 18 skills that you can learn around executive function.

There are a lot of good skills.

But then bang in the middle of that would be transferring things into memory because if you can't do that, everything else starts to disintegrate because your memory is so integral.

So, I found that just fascinating.

And he's got some a really cool study on this about what they did in the classroom that I want to share with you.

But before I do what your takes on all of that, it's really interesting because comparing it to battle is model that we've talked about in the past.

He really theorizes, is that the sensory input goes through the immediate memory then through the short-term memory to the working memory.

And then working memory communicates with long term memory and the information goes back and forth between working memory and long-term memory.

So, it's a slightly different take on it too.

And I think that's really interesting because again, these are all theories, we don't have any proof, but I think just that distinction between the short term and the long term, but ultimately the working memory is all about that processing.

Yeah, the working memory is, I kind of think of it as the tray that transmits information between it's like a waiter carrying your food or the elements to long term or short-term memory, right?

And I like bad lease model too in the sense that and his name is Alan Baddeley, by the way, um that he has those two components of how we process because yeah, I mean okay, so how can I improve working memory if I don't know how it processes.

And he talks about how it's processed through the visual spatial sketch pad which is visualization and being able to imagine moving through space, for example, which I call it specialization, but it's not really a technical term, I just made it up and then we also have on the other side the phonological loop or what I like to call the inner voice and that's a separate way of being able to process.

So, we can either process through imagery or we can process through our inner voice.

But it's very interesting.

It's very I've thought about this.

Can you process without your inner voice and without visualization or specializing or imagining things in space.

I don't know if you can.

So, I think that that's really kind of the working model behind working memory.

Those are the two areas that are working and what's your thought on that do you think it's possible to process another way?

Well, it's interesting you brought out because I think it was Oliver sacks that compiles you know how he writes these interesting books from psychological studies and makes them popular and approachable.

He did a book where it was examining the experiences of people that had never learned to speak and so they didn't have words, they hadn't heard words they hadn't learned to speak like and it was cruel because it wasn't intentionally cool, but they got to those Children and people who have been locked in cupboards and separated from society and all sorts of horrible things were often people are locked away but they're not and so they don't experience language and so when they got freed, a lot of people helped them and so on.

But then they also got studied and he talked about some of these experiences of how it was actually very hard for many of these people to think and so they couldn't think in the way that we take naturally.

And once they started to speak and learn to speak, they could start thinking, and how connected language was to thinking, that we actually need that phonological loop to think, and we need words for it to work.

And anyway, I can't remember the book, but it was fascinating to see how important words where to thinking.

It's not just about communicating with other people; it's actually about communicating with yourself and with your own mind.

So yes, there is research out there.

I don't actually have access to it just now.

But that's really, it's really interesting and I guess technically they were kind of surviving and thinking differently because they probably were visualizing and quite possibly specializing, but you're right, you have a limited degree of being able to make sense of things without language because language helps to organize information categorize information and I think it would develop, I would imagine that parts of the brain that are required in language would be underdeveloped in those and that Was 20 years ago when I read the book.

But you know, feral kids, you know, kids who grow up with animals and so on and that they just become part of the pack and you hear about these occasional stories etcetera.

So, they were perfect for how does language actually change the way you think?

And it's fascinating.

Now let's get to the actual classroom, feral animals.

I'm a schoolteacher, formerly a schoolteacher.

Sometimes you could describe Children as being a wild, a little bit feral sometimes.

Anyway, so he shared this interesting study where they wanted to test, what difference does it make if you give a group of people a piece of content and get them to read it over and over again compared to giving them a piece of content and getting them to read it and then giving them a test, which group remembers it more.

Okay, so what they did was they did three groups.


The first group, they got them to read the content once, read it twice, read it three times, read it four times.

Okay, that's all they did read it four times.

The second group of Children, they gave it to them, they read it once, they read it twice, they read it three times and then they got one test.

So, like a little quiz at the end of it.

Okay then the third group they got them to read it once and then they tested them once tested them twice tested them three times.

So, each group did four steps.

It's just a different element in each.


And the interesting thing was that the people who read it over and over and over again said to the researchers that they felt that that was the most helpful way for them to learn.

They got the people to say how much do you think that helped you learn that content?


So, from the subject's perspective the highest rating like eight out of 10 went to reading, reading, reading and the lowest rating went to reading test.


But the actual results were exactly the opposite.

So, the people who read got 36% in the test and the people who read it once and were tested three times got 80% in the test.

What do you mean by that?

Why were they tested three times?

They, the reason why they were tested three times was it's all down to this idea of effortful mental transformation every time you read it and it's presented to you in a way where you are reviewing the information.


So, you've got two aspects you're either reviewing the information or you're retrieving the information and the read approach is constantly reviewing or receiving.

Whereas the read test is retrieving.

And so even though they were given a short exposure to the knowledge because they only read it once because they were making the brain through the test retrieve and then retrieve again and try and retrieve again.

When they actually did the final one, they did so much better. They were told beforehand that they were going to have a test. For example, that after they read three times.  Then the other ones, you're going to have a test after you only read it once.

Oh, that's interesting because yeah, I think you'd be more relaxed if you knew you could read it three times and you may just be kind of approaching it in a much different way than if you were to read it know that you could only read it once you're trying to hold onto the information.

You're more and that's it.

Right, okay.

That's really interesting but that's fascinating.

I would have never guessed that.

And isn't that fascinating.

And so, what Neil Mackay was saying there was that this impacts the way we communicate and the way we teach and the way we learn from other people we have got so used to the important thing being receiving information.

But the issue is not receiving information, it's retrieving information and that effortful transformation that has to go into place to be able to retrieve information and it ties into what we've been talking about in the past about using visualization to picture things and to make it fun and interesting and etcetera.

You know, this transformation is so important.

Instead of so you've got two options.

Do you revisit the information continually or do you retrieve the information?

And in a classroom, we're always revisiting.

Whereas if you spent more of your time constantly retrieving and this was interesting because they did another study where before they taught people, they said we're going to give you an unmarked quiz before we teach you.

So, we're going to give you the questions we're going to quiz you on it.

We're not even going to look at the answers, we're not even going to give you the answers and we're not going to market.

So, there's no stress, just do the quiz and see if you get it right or wrong.

I think they got given the answers, but they weren't given whether they got it right or wrong or whatever.

It wasn't shared with anyone.

So, there was no pressure at all.

And the results after being given pre quizzed on something were a massive increase in comprehension.

They knew what they were having to look for to speak.

So, they're being primed.

Their brain is starting to learn how to retrieve the information that they're being told what their brain should look for etcetera.


What's popping up for me from everything that you've told us is that number one, it's really important to be an active learner.

And unfortunately, I really see in our school districts in the United States that many kids are often passive learners where they're just right there, just receiving, but they're not really receiving because they're probably a good percentage of the classroom time not attending.

Because I think when you're constantly receiving, your brain does kind of shut down a bit, it's really important to be having some kind of active processing or it kind of shuts down.

You're not really using it because we're not really like a filter.

And then the other piece that really popped out at me as being something that's extraordinarily important that I do with all of my students.

But I don't see enough of it in the classroom is the implementation of memory strategies because memory strategies are really processing with that information and creating that hook that link into long term memory so that you can put something in in an organized fashion and then pull it out.

Yes, I'm surprised that we don't do more training in memory strategies.

Of course, I do, and I do have that in my course, that executive function of course I have a whole section and I would say that's probably the most valuable portion of my course is teaching kids all the memory strategies.

It's huge.

It is huge.

And it ties back to that effortful mental transformation because it takes effort to take a person's name or the name of a bio biological process and transform it into something funny and visual and engaging and so on.

So, this is the effortful mental transformation of that information that the child is going through.

And it's so funny because people often say to me like wait a minute when you're using memory strategies then they're having to remember even more.

That's really bizarre.

I mean how is it that this long story with all of these details is going to help a kid remember some fact.

How is that possible?

But there is something to that because I think what you're doing is well you are creating a meaningful sequence but many time you're also dipping into memory or dipping into past ideas or dipping into things and ideas that you know that are already established in long term memory.

So, a lot of it is I think a nice metaphor is a filing cabinet that you have your filing the information in the right place of your filing cabinet so that you can access it.

But many times, if you just throw it in there maybe you put it in the wrong filing cabinet and you can't access it later.

But the more effortful and the more active and the more using of those memory strategies which kind of organizes it, the easier it is to retrieve that information and know it.

Let me take a sidestep that might not seem totally related to this but is related.

And that is something I experienced this week when I was teaching a parent to coach their child, I was saying when we're learning, sometimes Children get really fixated on making sure they learn everything that they're hearing in the right order.

But actually, if say I'm taking notes from a video or a talk, I'm accepting that it's like doing a jigsaw puzzle and what happens is I get some pieces from the jigsaw puzzle and I start placing them roughly where I think they should be and maybe I know I've got all the pieces there in that video or that talk.

I know they're all there, but I don't have to start doing the jigsaw puzzle in exactly the order from top to the left in the right order, I can leave bits out that I don't quite get yet and then come back to them and fill them in.

And I think that's more like our memory in that we create this construct which has a sort of a sketch of it.

The sketch gets added information refined and it becomes this net of information that gets richer and richer and richer until it's a really strong picture of the jigsaw puzzle finished.

But a lot of Children that we choose to both map Academy, they get fixated, like the parent was saying, so we teach them how to watch a video and take notes while they're listening with a mind map.


And it's really hard taking notes if you're wanting to transform it into a map because you can't just write down exactly what the person is saying that's receiving information, it's not actually transforming it.

So, if you can bring transformation of that information into the moment where you're just initially receiving it, you're doing so much more for your memory.

But the problem with transforming that information as you're getting is notes creating a mind map out of it or a web or bullet map or whatever you want to call it, is that you're not always sure you've got everything and you've got to give yourself enough forgiveness as it were, forgive yourself for not getting 100% of everything that person said, but to treat it like a jigsaw puzzle, oh that's a corner piece, that's an edge piece, that's another corner piece, oh that's that big red bit in the middle and so on.

And you start creating this outline of the jigsaw puzzle and then you keep adding pieces into it as you learn again and again and again and how important doing that is.

So, this ties back into the effortful mental transformation.

If you're going to go down an effortful mental transformation route, you need to accept that you're not going to learn everything in a linear order, you're not going to get everything perfect the first time that you are constructing this like a jigsaw puzzle and you're one pass through, you get the edges, another pass through.

You get the corners, say then you get the edges and you're looking for all the red pieces in the left-hand corner and then you're looking at this and gradually it builds up.

That's what I love about learning.

That it's this increasing high fidelity, growing net of knowledge and understanding.

Yeah, absolutely.

And it reminds me of a student that I was just working with yesterday who came and had to watch a short video and answer questions.

And he turned on the video, I pulled out a sheet of paper.

He sat there and watched it.

I took notes.

So sometimes what I like to do is I like to lead kids to doing certain things or demonstrate it right instead of saying, why don't you take notes?

So, he sat there, and he listened to it.

I took notes and I did, yeah, very, very similar to a combination of a bullet, a bullet list, and a web.

Then when it was time to answer the questions, he, he knew most of them, but he didn't know all of them.

So, I was like, hey, we can go back to my notes, let's look at those and helped us to answer the ones that he didn't know.

And I said, do you think it's possible that in the future when you watch these short little videos that you could do these little notes or doodles to help you because it does actually save time and it helps you to learn things better.

But it's a strategy that you can use.

And in those moments where I'm not there with my notes you would have to go back and watch the whole video again and you won't have to do that in the future.

What do you think about that?

He was like, hmm that's a good idea.

But you know, it's interesting if I said right in the beginning, why don't you take notes?

You know, he would have been doing it from a different type of energy.

Whereas I kind of led him to that.

Uh huh.

Maybe that would be helpful the next time, wow, you tricked him into liking doing notes.

Yeah, let's hope so brilliant.

Well done.

Well done, that's genius.

And it's fascinating.

I was at this conference hearing the speaker's talking over and over again, they were saying how important modeling is, you know, that they need to see executive function skills modeled by parents, by teachers, by classmates and so forth.

And that's exactly what you were doing their modeling.

Well let's talk about some other ways to model executive functioning.

One of the things that I like to do is to think out loud.

If I think out loud, then it's giving them a chance to hear my inner voice.

And so, every time we can think out loud, we're kind of showing them how they can think internally.

Um And then also talking about R.


Visuals and saying like oh you know the way I visualize; you know the first chapter of the book is this way and the character looks like this to me.

What do you see?

You know, so that you're really starting to use that language of, well did you use your inner voice and asking kids those questions?

Did you use your inner voice to answer this?

Or did you use visualization?

Or maybe you didn't use visualization?

You kind of imagined moving in space with some of these concepts and organizing them spatially.

But sometimes the kids are like oh I never thought about doing that.

Yes, and then you can say well let's give it a shot.

It reminds me of my sailing instructor, I was on a sailing course and one of the things she did all the time was to stand there when she was demonstrating what she was doing, she was demonstrating it and she would just be talking out everything that she's thinking all the time.

She's like I'm looking at the horizon, I can see that ship, that ship is moving slower than the other ship.

I'm moving the tiller to the left; I can feel some pressure.

Oh the sail is laughing a little bit, I'm just going to shift away from the wind a little bit here and she's just talking about everything that she's thinking about while she's standing there and all she's doing is standing holding the tiller of the boat, moving it slightly left and right, that's all she's doing Okay, she's not moving, she's not doing anything, but she's saying she's just talking through all of her mental processes and I'm looking at the ship's log, I'm looking at the ship's depth, we're at 16.5 m.

Yeah, that's good.

I know that our day Depth is 3.5 m, so we're okay and you know, she's just talking through all of this really obvious stuff but she's just helping us understand what her multi mental processes all the time.

It's incredible way of teaching, as well as modeling, having a good mental dialogue as someone who's got mastery over their subject.

Yeah, I think that's brilliant, and I think that's something that we need to do more on education.

And I think of earth science is a class that a lot of our students take, and they have an earth science reference table and it's extremely complex and visually dense.

And I'm thinking wow, that would be such a great way to teach students how to use the earth science reference table is to have the teacher go up, put it on the screen and then to think out loud how to solve it, we'll see.

The first thing I want to do is I want to look at the X axis and the Y axis and oh wow look at the colors and let's see what this means but really walking through it as if they are processing out loud would be such a great way for kids that struggle with that particular process.

Yeah, that's cool.

I love that example of your sailing teacher.

So, were there any other takeaways from this workshop?

Oh, there were so many but that was just one small aspect of it I just wanted to share with you.

I think the biggest takeaway from the executive function and dyslexia master class that we did was how dealing with executive function helps so many challenges in your world, in your life.

If you've got dyslexia in your classroom or in your life or if you've got A.




Or if you've got emotional problems at that time the moment you deal with it from the executive function avenue you get so much return on the invested effort and attention as a teacher and as an individual it just sort of highlighted how important executive function is as this broad spectrum solution for so many different things that doesn't solve everything but it helps so many difficulties in life and in the classroom that makes sense.

And it comes right back to memory that's what learning is all about.

Learning is about using your memory and using it efficiently and being able to encode information and to retrieve that information.


Oh, I had a little phrase that popped up this week when you said education is all about learning, I've noticed some students need to understand something before they learn it and other students learn something and then understand it.

And I've noticed a lot of Children with dyslexia really need to understand it before they learn it.

Unfortunately, when with younger Children we kind of do it the other way around, you just learn this and then when you're older you'll understand it.

But actually, sometimes if you sit down with an eight-year-old and start talking to them about 14-year-old level of biological understanding of your stomach or your digestive system, they go, right, okay, I understand the process and now I can learn that we have a stomach and esophagus and a mouth and a tongue, okay, I've got it.

Whereas another kid's like, oh yeah, we got a mouth, a tongue and esophagus and the stomach.

Whereas the dyslexic kid, it's kind of like I can't remember them because they're not connected within a realm of understanding.

And so, education for me is about understanding and then learning, but within the system, it's mostly about learning.

And then some people understand it.

I love that.

That's such a great and that goes back to the project that I've been working on, which is that I just finished on the multiplication tables.

It's a new product of mine.



And to me it's all about teaching kids and what it is and if you understand it and you know how to implement it in creative ways.

So, I go into multi-sensory ways of teaching multiplication, you learn it through song, you learn it through imagery, you learn it through touch and hand clapping activities, you learn it in your body and then they have kind of options of being able to do it in all sorts of games and fun things to do.

They really understand what it is, they feel it in a multisensory way and then it's much easier to learn.

You showed me this clever finger touching technique for your multiplication tables, which we can't explain on a podcast, you've got to see it, but let's put it into the show notes.

But I have to say that even as a 52-year-old, I found myself saying, oh I need I really need to know what eight times seven is and I don't have my calculator with me.

So, I've got my fingers out and I did the whole, you know, three fingers touching two fingers and it's, you know, 56 is eight times 7, 56.

Oh great.

I'm right, but I don't know if it's 56 or not, but I know because of the finger, I'm learning your finger techniques and so on.

It's brilliant, highly recommended guys if you're listening, go check that out, It's brilliant.

Well Erica I just wanted to do this kind of more informal, roam around the area of executive function and its relationship to long term memory and how important effortful mental transformation is and how you can see it even in marking schemes and in the way you teach in the classroom and so on.

This was a brilliant discussion.

I really appreciate it and thank you so much for sharing.

And we will also put information in the show notes about the dyslexia friendly approach and many of the things that you talked about today.

Great, well, until next time.


Thank you for joining our conversation here at the personal brain trainer podcast.

This is dr Erica Warren and Darius Namdar on check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the podcast.

And please leave us a review and shares on social media until next time.