Episode 28: Expedition Planning: Lessons in Executive Functioning

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Expedition Planning: Lessons in Executive Functioning

Planning and expedition - lessons in executive functioning





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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.

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Hey Darius, I'm so excited because we actually have not met for a few weeks because you have been on this expedition.  I've been following along because you started this whole WhatsApp group, and you had discussions, videos, and websites. It was really exciting. What I noticed was there was so much executive functioning that was happening in the whole preparation and then throughout the whole expedition. I thought it would be amazing for you to share with us a little bit about this whole experience and how it affected executive functioning for you and what you learned about executive functioning.

Well, I I'd love to do that Erica, and I think I'll learn more by reflecting on it with you here in the podcast because there's conscious competence and then there's unconscious competence and I think there was quite a bit of unconscious competence there when it came to executive function that sometimes useful to make conscious so that you can become much more intentional about applying it to other areas of your life.

So yeah, let's talk about it.

So how about I kick off by telling people what the expedition was first, so they understand what we're talking about.

That sounds perfect.

Did you watch the YouTube videos by the way?

I did, I did All three of them.

I was so amazed, and I was like, how did he have the time to do all of this stuff?

What was so fascinating about it is you brought this whole audience with you on the experience, so you weren't just recording it and then sharing it with them afterwards.

You took us along the preparation, the preparing of the dinghy.

The actual sailing, the camping.

The only thing that you left out was a skinny dipping tell us about what you, because everyone's like, what are they talking about?

Okay, so what I did was I fulfilled a lifetime goal of sailing in a dinghy from Ireland to Scotland in a small open boat and recreating the route of ST Columba in 580 something or 560 something when he sailed from Ireland up to Isla in Scotland and then Dura and then all the way to the island of Iona and landed there and made that the cradle of Christianity for Scotland.

And it's a special kind of Christianity, a Celtic Christianity that is really quite unique within Scotland.

I have so much respect for him as, as a person, one of my heroes.

So I wanted to recreate that with a hand stitched boat under or and sail in the spirit of ST Columba.

So that's what we did.

Me and two other guys took the 16 ft four-millimeter plywood dinghy, which is basically a big kayak with sales basically.

There's a YouTube video about it.

You can see the actual reality of it there.

If you won't put it in the description and we sailed across the open sea open to the Atlantic from Ireland to Scotland, 22 miles there and then we went around and kept hopping from one beach to another.

We camped on the beaches, took all our food with us all our water with us, all of the tools to fix the boat and deal with any problems and eventualities because these are pretty uninhabited beaches and so on around the west coast of Scotland that were landing on and completed the 75-mile trip by water in three days and nights.

So that's pretty much a summary of the facts of the trip in this red sailed sailing dinghy.

So if you could imagine like the size of dinghy that you would go and sail in a sailing club with slightly bigger than that.

Yeah, we managed to get across there safely.

I think a lot of people don't have an understanding of how really challenging this was and how choppy the seas are.

Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yes, so not many people would consider taking such a risky journey across a body of water like the Atlanta, it's only 22 miles of the Atlantic, but nevertheless, you're open to the next landmass on our left-hand side from Scotland is America.

You've got 502,000, basically, 500 to 1000 miles worth of weather building up in waves and it builds up pretty big waves that end up becoming big swells that you can surf on.

You know, hey, we have surfing in Scotland, it's called water, but some good surfing on some of the west coasts in Scotland like Macro Hamish and so on because of the Atlantic swell.

So we would have to sail across that and sometimes it can get up to 15-foot high or higher than the mast of the boat and things like that and it can be a bit freaky, I've been practicing here in the North Sea on the other side of Scotland, and you know, I've dealt with swells that have gone to about 12 ft high.

So if you think of two people standing above them, you know, I'm sitting about 34 inches above the level of the water on the side of my dinghy and you know the waves are above us.

But you know, to be fair there really well spaced apart, they're basically moving up and down gently and we're not going out in winds that would terrify you okay for people who are not used to it, they would be terrified granted and it looks scary and it is scary and you can die and you can get hypothermia and all sorts of I made a spreadsheet of 100 of the top risks 100 top risks that sailing cruising person has to face and what my solutions to each one of those where before I even contemplated doing this trip, had them all written down on the spreadsheet so that my wife and my mother could be at peace.

That's so interesting that you said that because that is a hack that I think is really important for executive functions.

It's also really important for motivation, which is that whole concept of writing out what are all the possible problems that could possibly happen and how am I going to address it?

Do you agree with me on that?

And tell, if so, why do you feel that way I do?

And I think in this podcast we keep talking about the three core elements of executive function which are working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility there.

They're widely understood to be the main factors, main aspects you can break it down into subcategories, seven different subcategories or nine different whatever categories you want to, but those are the three main ones and one of the working memory one is an important one because sometimes when you've got a ton of information in your brain and you're juggling it over and over again, if you're not managing to keep it juggling in your working memory, it becomes stressed.

And so if you're thinking, gosh, this person's told me about, have I dealt with what happens if we get hit by a log that's floating in the water?

What happens if we have a failure of our VHF?

What happens if we feel this this goes wrong or that goes wrong or you know, and there's so many different things that can go wrong and you're juggling your head the best way is to write it down, isn't it?

And that's what I did, and I bit the bullet, it did take about a year to get round to doing it.

But when you know, an experienced sailor that I knew Brian came along and I have deep respect for this man brain, he came along and he said, well Darius, you're a braver man for me doing this trip than I would be, which is a very polite way of saying you're a more foolish man than me for doing this trip because it's bravery.

If you do it and you come back, it's foolishness if you do it and you fail.

So I listened to him, and I said OKAY, I tell you what, just tell me all the things that you think could go wrong.

So he listed them all off And so I wrote them down and I found another 80 that he didn't mention and I decided I am going to write them all down and if I can find a solution to each one of these then I can hand on heart, go ahead and do this trip without being foolhardy Because I've been planning, I've been dreaming about this trip for about 17 years and this is how it all happened 17 years ago.

I didn't know how to sail, and I bought this boat The moment I bought this boat called a mirror 16 I bought it because when I was young, I had a mirror boat which was smaller - that I used to row.

So I bought it to row with my kid and catch fish on the west coast of Scotland, but it came with sales.

So I put the sails up for a bit of fun and then I could not believe it.

Something woke up inside of me and I realized I really wanted to sail, and I had, it wasn't on my radar at all.

And on reflection.

Long story short, I started to sail and 15 years ago I thought to myself, I wonder if someone could take a boat like this and sail it from Ireland to Iona because I really loved column kill Columba was this Scottish version, I wonder if someone could take this modern hand stitched boat, open boat and sail it and do the same journey.

And of course I couldn't do it.

But I wondered if someone else could do it.

Then 10 years ago when I started to win the sailing competitions, I thought to myself, do you know what, I wonder if I could do it.

But it was just a wonder.

And then five years ago I decided I really want to do this.

And then two years ago I decided I am definitely going to do this.

And then a year ago I went into proper training for it.

And then two weeks ago I did it.

So I went through this process of, oh, I wonder, or I wish and then I will do it.

And then it's like I am going to do it.

And then I've done it So in many ways, that's even an expression of executive function as well often is a gradual progression and goal setting is so important as well.

At what point does it go from a wish to a will.

And that's the moment you turn it from a wish to a goal.

And you used to are executing on that goal well, and I think what you did do is you exhibited extraordinary executive functioning skills largely because you wanted to be safe and because you did that, you had a really amazing experience, but you had to deal with that notion of am I going to be foolish or am I going to be really, really safe and really, and really think it out, you know, it's interesting, I heard on the podcast the other day on the Huberman podcast, they were talking about motivation and they reflected upon a situation that the Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps had and he did the same thing.

He would spend a lot of time thinking about every possible thing that could go wrong and then would come up with a solution for each of those possible things.

And this happened in one of the Olympics, where he dove into the water and his glasses filled with water and he couldn't see.

And this was his best, I guess it was the, I forget which one is his best stroke, but it was his best stroke.

And because he had planned for this possible problem, he already knew how many strokes it took him to get to the other side.

And because he had planned that, which was a really amazing executive functioning strategy, he was actually able to swim blind and what it did is it didn't trigger his amygdala.

He stayed calm and he stayed motivated and he won, he won essentially blind, you know, and that's kind of what it's so interesting that I just listened to that and then you're talking about this because I think this is so important for executive functions, that when we are planning something very, very and we're trying to reach this extraordinary goal, it's important for us to consider all of the hurdles that we're going to come up against and manage that.

And it makes me even think of a student that I have that is really struggling with multiplication.

So here's a direct application to academics and every year this comes up, I speak with the teachers and this girl has dysgraphia and they always say she must learn multiplication, but she has such massive anxiety that you know, really, what it comes down to is anxiety is this massive hurdle that shuts her down.

And she's had so many people kind of push multiplication to the point of they wanted to be automatic and it was really interesting talking to our teachers this year and I was like you know, okay, they're like that has to be our number one goal for this year and I was like okay, but you know, we really have to address these hurdles and I've got to work with her on how to cope with those hurdles because otherwise yeah, it's dangerous, it's dangerous whether you're in a dinghy and you could flip over and you could drown or whether you can just be a student that has a sense of academic shutdown, a sense of learned helplessness which then stops learning all together.

So I was like we can navigate this, but we have to navigate it really, really carefully because I don't want to topple over her confidence, capsize her confidence, thank you, capsize her confidence.

What I used to say to myself was death is a possibility but it's not an option.

The fact that I knew that death was possible and it's a real possibility.

You know, we could have got wet, we could have start making bad decisions.

We could have hit an obstacle in the middle of the water, a log in the water and got a whole, we could then have got our safety alert systems might have malfunctioned, we could have then got hypothermia and then died being in the water for too long because it's very cold in the Atlantic et cetera.

So there's a sequence actually came up with a concept after this on reflection where I talked about domino decisions, there are some decisions you make that you can sort it goes wrong, you can sort it and you can fix it and that's it.

There are other decisions though that if you make a bad decision has a domino effect and it hits onto other bad decisions and it has a tendency, especially in a sailing scenario or an outdoor scenario where you've got the non-negotiable reality of nature that gives you unconditional feedback and is often very brutal in it, that it just cascades into a catastrophe of problems.

And often in my experience, observing people who end up in catastrophic situations and disasters, it's normally a consequence of a sequence of small bad decisions.

And they often start off with a domino decision, which is a very small bad decision.

But it's the domino decision as a tendency to hit another little domino that is another little bad decision hits another little bad decision that's slightly bigger and then that hits the big domino of disaster or death.

You know, it's interesting because you're bringing up emotional regulation in essence because these little things can trigger our amygdala and we don't want to go into that fight flight or freeze, which is another piece.

It's the inhibitory control.

We want to be able to manage our meta cognition and not let our emotions hijack our best decisions.

Yes, yes.

And it was quite hard with the crew because Tim and Reuben are just absolutely incredibly capable individuals.

I mean they're very competent in their own worlds in their own lives.

These are the kind of men that can start off businesses be successful.

They're adventurous, they deal with risk in multiple different ways in their life and they can sail etcetera and so they can solve our problems, however, they're not used to sailing on a very small dinghy like I am, they're more used to yachts and bigger ships and things like that.

Now on a dinghy there are a lot of domino decisions if you stand up on a dinghy and no one else knows that you're about to stand up, it can topple the boat and then it cannot just topple the boat, it can distract the helm from something quite important.

And then that distraction means you change your course slightly and then you go closer to a rock or, and then it creates cascading effects.

Do you see what I mean?

And so often in that environment there can be a lot of domino decisions and I have a confession to make.

I was a bit like a first-time mom with her baby where everything I'm super precious about everything.

You know, it's like, oh no, no, no, you can't do that, you can't change this, you can't do this.

And then you get your second baby and you're like, yeah, I know what's important and what's less important and I can be a bit more relaxed about it.

But first time everything seems super, super important and I was a bit like that with the crew where everything felt like a domino decision, nothing can go put this expedition at risk.

And so I was a bit of a party pooper in many ways, you know, well let's look at that through the lens of executive functioning.

So basically what you're describing to me is that you weren't being cognitively flexible in one way, that's one way to look at it.

The other way to look at it is you were the most prepared.


And so you were really, you needed to kind of be the captain and perhaps that was maybe that was an issue that you had had you ever really established who was in control?

Oh, absolutely.

I mean the moment you get on a boat; these are the rules.

The moment that person who's the helm as the captain, that's it.

They are legally responsible for the consequences to every single person on that vessel.

They are personally and legally responsible.

If anything goes wrong, I am personally legally responsible.

Even if someone else did it.

And it wasn't me, I am still responsible.

That's just the rules of the sea.

And so it's one of the few areas you get given absolute responsibility and also absolute authority, legally speaking as well.

So there were times I had to swear very hard at my co one of my crew saying stop everything doing that.

You know, because and they're like, why?

What's the problem?

No problem.

And I'm like, no, you can't even do that.

This is not the right place to do that.

We're at risk.

And they're like, what?

We're not risk, this is fine.

And I'm like, you don't understand.

And then in the end, instead of having to discuss it, I said, look, here's the deal.

You do what I say, and then I'll explain it afterwards because we don't have time to explain it to you before, because we'll be on the rocks by the time, we do that and you'll have had the explanation, but our trip will be over.

So there were moments like that, and we established that situation and we got into the flow after the second day, etcetera.

But I still have to say, I think I was a little bit over the top because of my nervousness with regard to the risk.

It's even worse when you've got 100 people who are watching you live on WhatsApp as friends and family.

There are so many things that can go wrong with a four-millimeter-thick boat.

You think about it?

It's thinner than your pinky.

My boat is thinner than your pinky.

So You know, you can put a foot through the boat, you can put a knee through the boat and you’re through the boat.

It can crack, it can smash it can anything.

And you know, you're 20 miles out to sea and open c you know, there's a lot there.

Do you know what I mean?

So most boats don't go further than half a mile away from the shore.

And there's some, you know, motorboat as a safety vessel there to come and pull you back or fish you out the boat if it sinks or whatever, you know, we don't have any of those options and I just have to say, you know, I I've sailed, I learned when I was in camp and I have a sailing boat and I live on a lake and I have to say that there have been times where I go out on the lake which is really calm and it's a little windy and it just blows this blows me right over, but it's not a dinghy, that's that, that has all those issues with all that stuff in it.

You know, I can just flip it back over.

So I'm just thinking how easy it is.

I don't know if people know this, but when you're sailing it's just so easy for the wind to get a wind gust and it just knocks you right over and you didn't have that as an option.

I did, I could deal with that.

That's not a problem.

Yeah, yeah, no problem.

I can correct the boat, I can make it go back up right within 90 seconds And I practice that, and I know that if the boat goes over, I can put her back up within 90 seconds, you can watch the video for it as well.

I did a demonstration of writing this boat in 90 seconds.

So yeah, that was one of the 100 possible problem scenarios.

And ironically, actually, that is the least problematic of the whole thing.

It is the scariest of the whole thing, but it's the least problematic because at least when that happens, the whole world slows down and you're not being battered or anything, you're bobbing along with this little hump whale of a boat and you just get onto it, you write it, you get back in - your soaked and you clear the boat of water.

The riskier things that the more troublesome things are things you would never really think about.

It's often the things that you discount that are the worst things that could happen.

You know, for example, you're sailing along instead of capsizing a screw comes out of the fitting that holds your tiller onto the boat, your rudder onto the boat.

And if that happens, your brother suddenly becomes loose, you start, there's a huge amount of force on your rudder, you're finding it hard to hold into the wind and you're like, what do I do here?

You know, you've not capsized, but you could still capsize, but you've got something that could potentially get much worse.

And what on earth do you do?

Do you know what I mean?

And so one little screw can cause you more problem than actually being hit by a gust and turning upside down or being hit by the gust and turning upside down could pull that one little screw out.

Once you've turned it back over and that little screw becomes the domino that you're like, oh my goodness, we don't have a rudder anymore.

Or we've got the rudder, but we've got this fixing that's pulled out.

How do we fix it in the middle of the, of the ocean, you know, or middle of the sea?

It's not an ocean, it's just the beginning of the ocean.

But those are all of the things that I was thinking about within the 100 things that could go wrong.

And so my solution to that particular problem was two weeks before and this is a bit A.D.H.D.

Okay, this is so A.D.H.D.

Erica terrible.

My wife was mortified at this.

I took the boat, and I stripped every metal piece off of the boat two weeks before the expedition and I started to strip off all of our varnish and everything like you would do during the three months of winter.

But I only had two weeks to go until the expedition.

I stripped her all back down to wood and took all of the screws out and everything.

And the one reason why the core reason that motivated was I want to take every screw out of that boat so that screw hall can dry out and then I can glue that screw back in with epoxy.

So that rudder doesn't accidentally come off or that shroud doesn't accidentally pull out because of a rotten screw or that mass doesn't fall over because one of the shrouds gives way because of where it was screwed in or a roll lock or whatever, you know, because normally the highest risk on an expedition like this is equipment failure.

And that's what my friend said to me.

Equipment failure is your biggest risk areas Brian said you're out on the water, you've got a four-millimeter-thick dinghy, you've got all this equipment that could go wrong, what's going to go wrong when this piece goes?

If that piece goes, if this piece goes, if that piece goes and I had to have an answer for every single one of them.

And my first answer was I have to stop the first domino and the first domino is always, oh that will do.

You see the screws in the bottom of something or it's slightly wobbly or whatever you all that will do.

And at this point, death isn't a possibility but it's not an option because that will not do.

And I'm going to sort that problem out right now.

But it's not such a big deal, but it's a small domino decision to leave that undone.

And so I systematically went through every single one of those small domino decisions with the, with the boat including taking the screws out and re epoxy ng them so that they were all dealt with, and we didn't have one equipment failure on the whole three-day expedition.

That's really interesting.

Yeah, you are meticulous.

What you did is you use higher level executive functions.

You use planning.

Use time management, you use organization.

You used reasoning.

You use creative problem solving which are all uniting those three pieces of working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.

You considered all the possibilities like Michael Phelps.

You prepared yourself for every possible problem.

And it's funny because we usually say, all right, we're talking about executive functioning and learning and all of this stuff.

And then we're saying - what's the metaphor?


We were in the metaphor.

And how does that apply to?

Let's say, academics.

What did this teach you about?

Working with students with learning disabilities, that domino decision.

How could we apply that to academics?

That use of the meta cognition.

The use of the outstanding planning time management organization, reasoning.

What do you think?

Well, I've been thinking about that quite a lot.

I'm not sure.

I've actually figured out how it would help me with my students.

I think I'm still at the stage of how it would help me with me because I am not a natural meticulous planner.

I'm an improviser.

I'm the kind of guy who's like, look, let's just get on the boat, let's go out there and we'll deal with whatever throws at us, and we'll figure it out.

And I have been that guy for the last 17 years and every time I do that, I learn something and then I start realizing this is the point where I have to be a bit more.

I need to know what our dominoes and what are not, so that is probably the key thing that I would bring to students.

Okay, it's like is it a domino decision not to be able to do your multiplication tables?

Or is it a domino decision not to be able to use your school timetable.

If you can't use your school timetable, you are going to be late to lessons be thought of badly by your teacher, thought of lazy, careless and things like that.

That's a domino decision.

Whereas learning your timetables may not be a domino decision, it's not helpful, it's suboptimal, okay, maybe.

But is it a domino decision, is this an actual crucial critical skill or thing that you need on the boat of your life, or can you delete it?


And it was interesting when I was talking to the students’ teachers, they felt that it was an absolute necessity, and it was interesting because as far as I'm concerned, it's not going to work unless the student feels that it's an absolute necessity.

So I think bringing the students into this and having them consider, okay, what is your goal?

What are the consequences to not to not learning that skill?

Are there ways to work around it, all of those things so that they're really part of the process so that we're not triggering anxiety so that they're not feeling micromanaged so that they're really a part of that decision making and we're not just triggering their amygdala because guess what?

They're the one that has to learn it.

Nobody else.

Yeah, I don't normally choose your Children on maths, but one parent begged me to do to just do what I could with mind mapping and maths.

And so I said look you're going to have to pay me my full rate on this one because I'm going to have to do this 1-1 not one of my coaches because this is really not straightforward.

And so they said whatever it takes so they just paid it, and I said fine okay we'll go do this anyway with this one student.

What was interesting was with regard to that math and the multiplication.

What I did with her was I asked her to guess what the answer was before she did the formula.


And so we were looking at mathematical geometric patterns and corners and angles and parallel a grams and formulas for calculating things and so on.

And because she had dyslexia and some dysgraphia, her orientation of where things were going.

She was finding it really very hard, and she was tripping on certain things.

She actually knew the math.

But what really tipped it over for her was I said look can you just guess roughly what the answer to this multiplication thing is roughly.

Are we talking 303,060, what is it?

Where would you guess?

And she would look at and she would go, I don't know, 420, you know, we go, and do it and we do the formula, and it would be 405 and I'm like brilliant.

And so but then sometimes she'd be way out, and I go, well why are you so way out here?

Oh, I muddled up.


And what happens is that the ability to estimate the ability to project?

The ability, that higher level meta skill, that isn't just this little technical skill of what's seven times seven, but this matter skill of estimation starts to really kick in, which often people who are different thinkers have a higher-level meta cognition on this, but very low technical ability on the details, they can start to employ that for example, do you know what I mean?

And then that becomes a counterbalance to their lower-level skill where they go, oh, it doesn't sound quite right, but in the higher level is judging it roughly about right?

And so they're kind of like they get to realize with my natural skills, I've got 90% of the way there and I'm just going to have that extra motivation to hone it to the 100% rather than feel like you're always 100% away from getting the answer.

You know, you're using one of your strengths and then that motivates you to work on maybe something you're weaker at to get you the last little leg, does that make sense?

It absolutely does.

And the research also shows that you don't want to be looking at for this goal, which is maybe to learn multiplication, you have to have these micro goals because if the goal is too big, it's overwhelming and it creates that shutdown.

So you want to have those micro goals to address it and then also consider all the dominoes right, what could get in our way and how can we manage that?

How can we stay on top of our executive functioning skills so that we don't get triggered into that feel I can’t, and I won’t, and you know that shut down.

But you know, the other thing that I've been doing in my practice lately with my students is if there's a real roadblock, there's a real, maybe the student is very anxious and they're having anxiety about a test or they're just having anxiety about school in general or whatever.

They're having an emotional and a body reaction to school that what I often do is part of our brain that has to do with senses that is the largest is the visual cortex.

So vision is a great way for us to motivate.

And the research actually shows that.

So what I get my students to do is we go into Canada, and we honor how they feel.

So a student may be feeling metaphorically like they're in a cloud or one of my students said, I feel like a tsunami is coming.

So then we, we actually find an image of a tsunami and we create a collage of words and images and how they're feeling and what's bothering them and what's looming and what are the obstacles and what are the things that are really bothering them that are getting in the way we actually make them concrete images so that they can really see what are all the obstacles and what are all the feelings and what are all the and really wrap their mind around it.

Because many times when I first start there, like I don't know and it takes us a while and then they create these extraordinary images and then I say, okay, let's do another image.

How do you choose to handle this?

So we look at each of the hurdles, maybe one of the hurdles is that they feel ungrounded.

I'm like, okay, well what's the opposite?

Oh, I want to be grounded or maybe and we look at creating opposite words in the next image opposite images.

So for example what's going to replace the tsunami?

What's going to replace the clouds?

Maybe the sun will replace the clouds may become waters will replace the tsunami and help them to realize what their actual goal is and give them that visual.

I download it.

I send them the, the positive image.

I send them both and I say it's at times we need to honor our negative feelings and you can look at that but I want you to shift it to your positive feelings and just by having that image, sometimes they put it on the backdrop of their phone or they'll put it on the backdrop of their computer so that when they're starting to feel that tsunami coming, they can go to that other image which helps them to visualize or to envision how to manage those hurdles and also keep their eye on the prize.

But we want to manage those kind of micro hurdles so we want all those little hurdles in the image and then we want that counter image that helps them remember, oh that's to write one way to counter the anxiety I'm feeling is to breathe ha okay, I can do this now I can move through it even when my amygdala gets triggered because I have this image that I can either look at or I can visualize because when they really create the image, it really embeds it in their visual cortex so that they can access it a little bit better because they've really kind of created it.

It's funny, I I've been really working with imagery a lot lately largely because I've been reading in the research that it is are the best sensory area to hit largely because it's so big in the brain and so believable, right?

We really believe what we hear more than we believe, what we feel with our hands or what we here because we can misinterpret things.

But we rarely misinterpret what we see or at least we think we rarely misinterpret what we see.

We really trust what we see we do.

Yeah, wow, that is brilliant.

How do you say that before?

But I think what really hits home to me whenever I talk to you about executive function is maybe it's because I'm so I'm very pragmatic, but I often take it from a very pragmatic tool orientated approach.

Whereas you you're constantly making me aware of how important our emotions are with executive function and you're so right.

And it reminds me of going back to your question of What did I learn and what would I teach to Children from this.

First of all, I had this one place that I wanted to go, Iona Ireland to Iona.

It was just so simple.

I need to get to that tiny little island that was either 100 miles away or 75 miles away.

Depending on what route I had one simple, uncomplicated go and I think I really need that I so need that.

I envy those people who can juggle so many different things all at once.

But I just love the purity, the simplicity, the clarity of having one place I'm going to.

One thing that I'm doing one mission, one boat, one team, one problem etcetera to solve after the other.

The oneness of it is very, very helpful for me and I wish I would be able to give that to the adults and the Children that I'm working with more adults now.

What's your Iona?

And for me I'm thinking to myself right now, what is my Iona?

You know, because I remember when I hitchhiked to Istanbul, I hitchhiked from Glasgow to Istanbul which was 1000 miles or more when I was 19.

And I read lots of books in preparation for that expedition.

That was a big one too.

And the thing that struck me the most was to enjoy your freedom.

You must limit it.

And so often when people traveled around Europe and they've got this unlimited into rail pass, they go from one town to another town to another town, they go from Paris to Milan to Florence to Vienna and that they're just a different city every night of the week virtually.

And actually they don't end up enjoying their freedom, they exercise their freedom but to really enjoy it.

Sometimes you need to limit it.

And so that's really struck me and that that whole aspect of goal setting sometimes you have to say no to certain things in order to really enjoy the freedom you have and the choice you have and what you have and that ties in with inhibitory control.

Of course we've talked about this Erica, you know, you choose to mute certain things and zoom in on certain things.

and so I think this element of Iona, what is my destination?

Iona was my destination.

It was my dream, my hope for my wonder for 15 years, my wish for 10 years, my will for five years and my decision for that this final year and my accomplishment two weeks ago now, having said that with regard to the emotions when you go out into the sea, your emotions can really be the biggest threat to you because when you're out at sea and you've got this lovely wind and you're flying along and then all of a sudden actually it's no longer a lovely wind, it's a bit stronger than you can cope with and the boat is going faster than you can cope with.

The boat is starting to heal over, it's starting to flap.

Things are wobbling around the place and you, that's kind of like often for me an expression of what my emotions feel like when I'm getting overwhelmed by the pace of life of, of things that are going on and you're suddenly like, oh my God, I'm going fast but this is way too fast, or I am just overwhelmed.

I'm just about to be literally overwhelmed by wind and water if I don't do something about this now, it's fascinating to observe what happens inside of my emotions when that happens normally.

What happens for me is it's like right now we can do this, we'll keep going and so on and we'll just change a few things, and we'll just keep going and it gets bigger and bigger and worse and worse and then fear starts coming in and like oh I can't cope with this, or I can't do this and I'm not a good enough sailor and I don't think I can cope with this and so on.

And then it's like, oh and what you're doing is you're driving yourself into crisis.

Things definitely will turn into a disaster in that scenario.

And you're actually willing yourself into a disaster.

Your emotions are like that when just driving you further into a disaster.

And for me, what's the answer?

I have to just stop. I go Darius, you've got to stop the boat right now.

Head to wind and make your sales smaller and I go okay right, and you just decide right, I make myself smaller and I put them up and I just go slower for the stronger wind.

I have smaller sales for the stronger wind.

I can't go as fast as I wanted to go.

But I'm under control.

And I think that's a metaphor for emotions as well.

Oh and students so need that.

They need to learn how to manage their emotions because everything you were describing.

I could think of a dozen different students that go through that that whole metaphor of what you described, or you could turn that description into a metaphor of them leaving an assignment to the last minute and the anxiety and the shutdown and the panic and whether it's yeah whether it's time management, whether it's organization but just feeling like an assignment is too big too unmanageable.

I have that with my students almost on a daily basis of just that panic of being overwhelmed too much homework.

Too little time.

I don't get it all of that stuff.

And the poor kids are dealing with that sense of crisis in school all the time.

And it's really debilitating.

So helping them learn how to manage those emotions and talk themselves down or to get out of that speed.

Like you're talking about like how you were speeding and going too fast and getting out of control.


How can they turn it into the wind?

How can they contact the teacher and say I'm in crisis.

I'm in crisis.

I need help and here's what's going on inside my head or maybe their head within this metaphor.

Let's use this metaphor of the dinghy as the metaphor for the dinghy for me is me and my life and my responsibilities.

The metaphor of the wind.

Is that all the outside forces that are there that can help me.

And also resist me.

Sometimes I have to work with them.

The sales are my decision making.

You know what decisions that I make, how I adjust the cognitive flexibility adjust to the forces and powers and the expectations there are of me.

How do I just and then the destination is you know the shore.

I want to get to the harbor.

I want to get to that destination, and I want that grade.

I want that.

I want to do well I want I want to be recognized.

I want to graduate.

I want to make my mom and dad happy or my teacher happy myself happy or prove myself to other people or feel good about myself.

Except there's lots of motivations in that in that destination.

I'm not quite sure what the C.

Is in this metaphor.

Because maybe in this metaphor you could regard the sea as your emotions.

It could be the sea could be your emotions.

It could also be the lesson the terrain you're trying to cross maybe.

But, nevertheless.

Oh how about this?

The C could be the subject or the area of challenge, the terrain.

But then the wind is your emotions and the winds interaction with the C can sometimes be just so sublime and gentle and perfect.

And other times it can turn up the whole sea and it can become a real threat to you.

You know.



And then you've always got tidal forces.

You've got all sorts of other little things.

But those are the different senses.

We could even think about the senses that you're trying to manage and let's we've set the scene of this metaphor, Okay, but one of the most powerful things that can happen while you're in that boat is your expectations.

You know, our expectations are unconscious expectations and our conscious expectations.

It can reveal certain expectations.

Sometimes you can be on that boat, and you go, oh well the sea is dangerous, I just expect this to become a disaster, and I expect that the rescue boat is going to have to come and pick me up and sort me out and we unconsciously sabotage our own dreams.

And I think I don't know how many other people feel like they're unconsciously sabotaging their own dreams, but I think I do that quite regularly without realizing it and I sometimes have to catch myself doing it.

And I think one of the few areas where I've caught myself unconsciously sabotaging my own dreams where I've actually managed to overcome, that has been in the very practical realms of woodwork and sailing and so on, where you can actually see when things are going wrong and you can actually stop yourself and go, oh my goodness!

Like for instance, I used to be a woodwork teacher and you're chiseling and sometimes you can be hacking away at something and hoping you hit that line, or you can be experiencing just gently chisel one little point and you've sharpened it, and you know exactly where it's going, exactly what it's going to do and you're going to get that line exactly right.

I have that absolute confidence and expectation.

I'm going to get it Exactly right, because I've decided it, I've practiced it and I'm going to do it.

But beginners often have this expectation of failure by default.

Remember that episode, we talked about me learning how to juggle and it revealed that expectation of dropping a ball and the guy said, whoa, this is your imagination.

Imagine doing it perfectly before you even practice it so that you can overcome that expectation of failure.

And you see that in the sea, the moment your emotions get stirred up like that, you're looking at these massive waves, your boat bashing straight into waves, their spray going everywhere, the winds flapping in the sales, you're starting to feel things starting to throb and shake and, and vibrate and you're starting to worry about when things are going to start breaking and when you're maybe going to make a stupid decision and all of these things are starting to be stirred up by the external circumstances.

But really inside it's your emotions that's making all of that happen and underneath your emotions, it's your expectation of failure.

Yeah, yeah.

It's so important to work with kids on that expectation and also that inner voice too because we don't want our negative inner voice to be conducting us.

We want calmer, more manageable inner voice and I think, you know, it's really interesting because you talked about how you really prepared the dinghy so that you knew the dinghy was secure that you did it yourself, you added the epoxy and the metaphor for that for me is really helping kids to understand executive functioning, helping them understand what is working memory.

What is your inner voice that's your tool?

The inner voice and your visualization are your tools.  You know, how can they become more cognitively flexible if they don't know what it is?

So it's really getting to know your dinghy, right?

Get to know your digging and then learn study strategies.

What are the study strategies and the tools that I can use to help me get through any of these hurdles that might happen.

So I mean really the moral of the story is we have to get our kids to understand their brains, understand that they have something called meta cognition what it is and how to use it, understand that they can regulate their emotions right?

Understand that they can be cognitive flexibility and show them how absolutely Erica let's just add that into this another layer on top of this metaphor of the boat, you know?

So if we think about the sales as our cognitive flexibility, we're adjusting to the wind that is there were maybe thinking about I wonder that's an obvious one.

We've got working memory and we've got inhibitory control in many ways; inhibitory control is the rudder of our boat.

It's that this constant decision making, this is the route, we're going to stick to, this is the point, this is the course, okay, we need to adjust our sails according to it, but this is the course we're setting working memory, I'm not quite sure where that would fit in the metaphor, do you know?

Well let's break it down.

Working memory is made up of your inner voice and visualization, so let's just use let's be concrete with it.

So working memories, that inner voice, are we managing that inner voice?

Are we using our managing information coming into us, how we're managing information coming into us, right, and then how we're visualizing our path, how we're managing those micro hurdles, right, so that we're keeping our eye on the prize, eye on the prize.

What's the next thing you know, runners?

This was also discussed in that podcast, the Huberman lab podcast.

The best runners, they don't visualize the end line.

They also don't look all around them themselves, they stay focused on what's right in front of them.

So the one of the best Olympic runners, what she does is she focuses on the shorts of the person in front of her and as soon as she's past that then she focuses on the next thing that's right in front of her, what is that Gogol micro goal because if you look too far and I see that with my students all the time where they get that sense of overwhelmed, They look at the big picture and I'm like don't look at the big picture, keep that, keep that in your mind as your goal, but don't look for it.

Look for what's the next piece?

What's that next micro step?

Okay, I'm going to apply that in my way for my circumstance.

I don't know if this is universal, but let's say so in a boat there are tell tales that show you where the wind is coming from and they're absolutely critical to sailing well and most amateurs ignore them, and most professionals pay exceedingly close attention to tail tails.

Okay, I have a big yellow bit of ribbon on my mast shroud that tells me where the wind comes from, and I pay a lot of attention to that.

There's also tell tales on my sales that I pay a lot of attention to if they're lifting up, I change direction microscopically if they're dropping down, I change direction, I keep doing that and it means I go fast and I'm super-efficient at sailing, which is why I win sailing races.

But it also means that my boat is constantly um on point all the time.

And for me that's working memory in a way you're looking at the information that's coming in and deciding what that spotlight of focus is going to be, what information is critical to your inhibitory control the rudder and your cognitive flexibility, adjusting the sails another one is my map.

I need to know where I am on the map and my GPS coordinates on the map.

These are key things that I need to know on my map.

So this is working memory as well.

It's a visual spatial sketch pad.

It is that is absolutely the visual spatial sketchpad is my GPS map, you know, to see where I am, where I'm going etcetera.

Okay, so we set this scene of executive function and sailing, but I want to share something with you that I think might be a bit of an Aha moment for both of us and the listeners here and that is accepting the boat you have.

Oh, I'm so glad you said that, love your vehicle.

Yeah, yeah.

And you know, we all have a brain that life has given us.

You know, we can start criticizing our boat, criticizing, you know, we've used the analogy of are you a stick shift thinker or an automatic thinker?

In terms of processing for dyslexia?

Are you, have you got a manual gear box in your car or an automatic gearbox?

You might still have a Ferrari but it's a manual gearbox.

Don't beat yourself up that you've got a manual gearbox and you have to intentionally go up the gears to process information, like reading writing, moving whatever it is, you might have to intentionally go up that but don't beat yourself up for the vehicle you've been given.

Now this is a clear application to my scenario where most people would come to me like Brian and would say, when are you going to get a yacht?

Because you'll be much safer in a yacht.

Just get a yacht and sail it.

I've got my yacht master's license.

You know, I can sail a yacht.

I can, I can do it but I'm not going to, I've made a decision.

I hate yachts.

I dislike yachts.

I am not a yacht person.

I like sailing.

I don't, I'm not really that interested in yacht cruising.

I'm interested in sailing.

I like being close to the water.

I like my boat being level in the water not healed over all the time.

I like the feeling of being able to adjust the sails beautifully and perfectly and the speed and, and feeling the salt in my face and the air I want, I want to feel that that's what sailing is for me when I'm in a yacht, I feel like I'm in an RV, driving, driving down the highway and I want to be cycling or walking up the hills, feeling the environment I'm in and okay, I've chosen to be in a dinghy.

But actually that dinghy chose me in a way, you know, because they dinghy matches who I am.

So I've accepted.

I'm a dinghy sailor.

I've accepted the risks that go with it and the limits I can't, I can't sail in anything that's stronger than the force five gusting six because it might turn into a four or six gusting 78 sometimes, but a yacht can.

So I have limits on what I can do.

But actually compare me to a yacht.

A yacht is always thinking about where the safe Anchorage is.

I don't care.

I sail to a beach, I get to the beach, I stand on the beach, and I've got huge inflatable rollers.

I can roll that boat right up to the top of the beach and that's me.

Every single beach I choose can be a place for me and my boat to land if I wish not ever, but nearly a lot more than the anchorages.

So I think more like a kayaker would sailing kayaking from beach to beach than a yachtsman in a small boat.

I'm more like a kayaker with a big kayak than a yachtsman with a small boat.

So I've made peace with the vehicle, my boat and I would suggest every single one of you accept who you are and the way you think and start to make your boat hard.

Now, the difference between a soft boat and a hard boat, a soft boat is the kind of boat that, oh, that screws screwed into some soft wood or that's, you know, a bit wobbly here, but a hard boat is where everything's been toughened up.

The screws have been epoxy to the boat's been varnished.

Everything is, you know, properly hard and tight and, and works doesn't mean it needs to be perfect, but the important things are hardened up so you can trust them and rely on them.

And those three things for every single person are their executive function skills, their ability to take in information, maintain their attention and focus and adapt to the world round about them.

Those are three elements of working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility that every person has within their mind.

But we think differently.

If you find you think differently, then you probably get things done differently and you don't get things done the way everyone else gets things done.

And if you try and get things done the way everything everyone else gets things done often you will fail because often everyone else has got yachts.

You know, they're like, oh, we always do it like this and I'm like, I can't do it like that.

You know, what's wrong with me?

Well, there's nothing wrong with me.

I just need to sail on the sea in a different way.

That's right, that's right.

So yeah, it's, it's so interesting cause that's, that's one of my mantras is love your vehicle because, you know, I think so many so many Children living in a capitalistic society where they're constantly trying to make you feel like you don't, you're not enough.

You know, it's so important that we just, we take care of our bodies, we take care of our brains, we develop our strategies, and we are comfortable with who we are and how we sail through life.


And whether it's whether we choose a sailboat or a dinghy or a kayak or we just choose to swim right?

Whatever it is, let's be the best that you can be and find your passions and or change the scale a little bit.

Or you become a yacht, or you become a motor cruiser, or you become a fishing boat, or you become a battleship, or you become a cruise liner.

You know, there's a whole range of different vehicles that can go on the sea and each one of them have got their benefits and drawbacks and there's a whole range of different minds all doing exactly the same thing, which is navigating through water in some way, navigating through life in some way.

And I think it's important that you understand what this invisible vessel is inside your mind, to have that self-awareness of how you think and how you feel and then how you do.

And it often starts with the way your brain and your emotions are wired, you know, like understanding whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, whether all sorts of different aspects in addition to what we talked about in this podcast about executive function.

You know, there's a whole lot more to a human being than just executive function.

But often executive function are those crucial functions of the rudder, your map, and your direction and how you adjust your sales, you know, and use metaphors, metaphors are so helpful and if it's if it's not a car and it's not about, it might be a horse, it could be so many different things.

But you know, finding that metaphor and even doing drawings going onto canvas and you can bring in your own metaphors and you can have multiple metaphors, whatever it takes for you to be aware of your vehicle, what you have, what your challenges are, what your strengths are so that you can navigate life as smoothly as possible.

I'd like to share a closing thought on this.

That's a practical call to action.

I wonder what our loose screw or softness in our boat is right now for you.

What is yours as a listener?


Right now, is there something in your life that you're saying, oh well that that's fine, that'll do, that'll be okay.

But is it a domino decision?

Is it something that if it pops out, it can cause another problem that then causes another problem that you've seen in other people's lives that ends in a disaster?

If it is, then why don't you stop and decide over the next week or in the next hour or the next day that you're just going to stop, stop the boat, drop the sails and just say, I'm just going to tighten that thing up or screw that thing in a little bit or just make sure that that sorted or I just have a backup plan if that does go pear shaped because my backup plan for losing the tiller or breaking the tiller was I had a loop of rope that was tied around the back of my boat in a key place That if my tiller broke or got weak or whatever, I would put one of my chores straight through it and I would steer my boat like the Vikings did with a big roar, which I practiced doing and it works perfectly well.

So I had a little backup plan in case that little thing went pear shaped and I wonder what that is for your life right now.

And I'm not looking for a big thing.

I'm thinking something that you can solve in less than 25 minutes.

You know, you know if you had less than 25 minutes to go and tighten up that screw or fix that little thing or I don't know what it is.

It could be just tidying your desk.


You know, getting rid of the clutter it could be that or it could be like emptying the data on your phone.

Maybe you've got to your full data usage on your phone for example, which I find with students a lot they get close to the data for, and you know what that experience is like where you're just about to take this amazing video and then it pops up and it says your phone storage is full and then your phone freezes on you and you've lost that moment and that value.

That's a domino decision.

So what do you do in that situation?

You just know, I know that's going to get in my way at some crucial point.

Go and delete a few big video files or some file or podcasts that you downloaded onto your phone that you're never going to use.

That's going to get in the way of a beautiful moment with someone, you know, for example.


I just this morning I had to re upload the operating system on my computer and I'm so glad I did because it's now moving so much faster.

So there's another example.

So thank you so much Darius, this was such a fun discussion real life and it's so funny because we kind of hit it the other direction.

Normally we're talking about executive functioning and we're looking for a metaphor.

Now we actually went into the metaphor and applied it to executive functioning.

We did.

That was great.

Thank you, Erica, for being that kind of talking board and listening board and bouncing ideas off and directing the flow of things.

That's been great.

Excellent until next time until next time.

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

This is dr Erica Warren and this is Darius Namdaran.

You can check out our show notes for links to resources, mention the podcast, and please leave us a review and share us on social media.

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