Episode 5: Understanding Executive Functioning: An Overview - The Personal Brain Trainer Podcast

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Understanding Executive Functioning: An Overview


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Full Transcript for Episode 5

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?

Last week we said executive function we are, and I thought this is such a huge topic, meaning that it is a very complex topic and there's so much to talk about that.

I thought would probably break it into a number of episodes and we'll just let it unfold as we go.

But the first one I think it's important for us to understand what executive functioning is and just be able to get an overview so that we can wrap our mind around the big picture before you do here at the brain trainer podcast.

We're trying to make all this psychology stuff really practical and make it part of your everyday so that you're personally developing your own mind.

So, could you just share with us just a quick overview of why executive functioning is actually worth paying some attention to?

It's so funny because it's bringing so many aspects of my life together because I'm realizing how important executive functioning skills are.

It's really by being able to control your own cognition, which is this is really it so that we can step in, and we can be the conductor of our own cognitive skills.

It enables us to do these amazing things like mentally juggle ideas, we can think before we act, we can meet unanticipated challenges, we can even resist temptations.

It enables us to, let's see, stay focused and it also helps us to initiate tasks, just to name a few.

Okay, so that's all under the umbrella of executive function skills and this is a little bit of a wakeup call for me, you woke me up to executive function skills and difficulties and so forth.

It's a big growing area of people putting research and attention into.

So, what's behind all of this?

Tell us a little bit about your research.

I think a lot of people are very interested in how can we maximize our cognitive potential and really it lies within executive functioning?

And it's really about being conscious.

So, we all want to be conscious in order to better ourselves and have more grit and be more resilient and have a growth mindset, all of those amazing things that we're hearing about that we want to embrace, we really have to learn how to manage our minds in essence.

And really the blueprint is an executive functioning.

And we talked in our last episode about working memory and working memory is a big piece of executive functioning and I think there's been so much research and a lot of debate and even in the D.



Four which is in the United States it's our way of providing diagnoses for people that are struggling and they don't have one for executive functioning because they're just hasn't really been a consensus on what it is.

But I think we're getting there and what I'm finding in the research is that there is a consensus Harvard University, a lot of different researchers are agreeing that that there really three core executive functioning skills, one is working memory, another one is inhibitory control and another one is cognitive flexibility and they work together and we've used this analogy before like a symphony that they're almost like different areas of music, like the string, the drums, the drums, right?

Or percussion, percussion?

Is it obvious like with executive function simplifying it down.

Is it about being the executive of your own life, about taking charge of the direction of what you're going to do and your life.

Yeah, I mean I think that's why it was called executive functioning.

So executive function is basically being the executive of your own life.

The functions of being in charge.

Like an executive is in charge of a company, You're the executive of your own life.

And there's certain skills you need to be the executive of your own life.

And if you've not got those functions and those skills you can't be the executive of your own life.

You swept along by the flow of society of what other people say and so on.

At some point you need to stop and say actually this is what I'm going to do.

Yes, absolutely.

So, I think that's why they called it executive functions.

And I've heard a lot of metaphors and analogies, I like to call it the conductor of cognitive skills.

Did you not talk about traffic controller at one point?

So, it's about this central control as it were, that there are those that call it an air traffic controller.

And that makes sense too, because I think that they're having to control all these different planes that are coming in and coordinating them taking off and coming in and that I think is another good enough.

I just I really like a multi-sensory symphony.

That analogy works for me.

I've also used the analogy of Grand Central Station, the Grand Central Station of the Brain where I live in New York, so that's going to speak to new Yorkers, but any hub where there's a lot of traffic coming in and there needs to be some kind of coordination so that we don't have a traffic jam or even worse a crash.

So last week we were talking about working memory and thinking of it as this amphitheater where you've got information coming in from the outside sensory information and then you had this phonological loop and this v visual loop that captures the information, you decide what goes on, those sort of boards and it's like the spotlight in the theater where you're focusing your attention and activity on, and that's your sort of working memory and you sort of work through the information and decide where to put it in your long term memory, etcetera.

But then last week you were talking about how this is all part of the executive function.

So, if we combine both analogies of a theater where stuff happens and uh concert, we've basically got a musical, don't we?

That's funny.

Well, and if you think about multi-sensory as well, it's a sound and visual and so on.

If you think about a musical as well as it takes an enormous amount of coordination.

If you take all these actors and you throw them on the stage and you don't give them a script, it's going to be a mess.

And I think that for a lot of people that's what it's like, they're just all of these players and they don't know what to do.

And we have the ability to step into a role where we can manage our cognition and we can really pull it together so we can optimize our potential, basically intentionally conduct this theater that's going on inside of your mind.

You take on the role of being the conductor or the director and you're directing what goes on and you're utilizing different functions that are at your disposal to direct, it's like, what do they do?

And when they're directing a film, they go 321 action or that's a rap or whatever, Right, right.

You're controlling the environment.

So, they're not all these distractions and the same thing with study skills for kids, kids need to be in the present, they need to turn off all of their distractions, turn off all the notifications that need to be sitting at an orderly desk.

They need to be conscious; they need to have an approach, they need to be made, making connections and all of that is that's executive functioning skills.

If you're if you're working in a job or if you want to have a better life, you will have a better body, you have to make a conscious decision that you're going to do something every day about it and that's all executive functions.

Well, I think our listeners understand the nub of executive function and it's a useful phrase to just keep your ear to the ground on.

If someone starts using that phrase listen, because there's a lot of really useful information behind that one phrase.

Okay, so let's zoom in on one last week, we concentrated on working memory.

Okay, can you give us a quick recap of what working memory is and then we maybe are we going to concentrate on the second one which is inhibitory control or we're going to talk about executive function as a whole.

I think we're going to just talk about executive functioning as a whole so everybody can get the big picture just, I want to focus on the big picture and then I think in our future podcasts will zoom in on some of this stuff and tease it out a little bit.

So just to rephrase, we've got working memory inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility and you a few moments ago did offer a nice little summary of working memory but basically it is temporary storage and it's your ability to manage and manipulate just a limited amount of information so that you can reason and comprehend and prepare stuff for long term memory but you're also dipping into long term memory as well and we use two little tools within our mind to make our working memory.

This is where we have, again be conscious most of us can visualize but sometimes we're not conscious and we don't choose to but if we do, we can improve our cognition and we can also learn to control our inner voice and our inner voice too can help us with our cognition.

It can motivate us, it can drive us to new ways of doing things, we can talk things out in our head.

But those are the two tools that enable us to really work our memory.

So then let's move on to inhibitory control.

Which is very interesting because again it's one of the core three executive functions and it involves being able to control your attention, control your behavior, control your thoughts and even control your emotions.

And it's a great way to override temptations.

We all have temptations, but we also have the capacity to override them.

We can also override distractions by making good choices and it really enables us to do what's appropriate or what's needed instead of an impulsive action.

What do you think about inhibitory control?

Yeah, I mean I have to say that I'm very much focused in on working memory myself with regard to my work with dyslexia often dyslexia effects working memory and it has this overlap into executive function difficulties rather than just reading difficulties.

It has working memory challenges.

So, I've been very conscious of working memory but this whole idea of inhibitory control.

I haven't really explored very much in terms of executive function.

I'm intrigued.

Well, what you have because you are very aware of attention and focus right?

That actually is under this umbrella of inhibitory control.

I saw a talk many years ago that really stuck with me where he said that it's not attention deficit disorder, it's attention surplus disorder.

In other words, it's not that you don't have enough attention is that you have too much attention.

He said that our brain creates a chemical that enables us to inhibit thoughts.

Yes, and so you can see inhibitory controls.

All right.

I have to inhibit something.

So really people that have attentional problems or attention deficit disorder, they don't have enough inhibitory control.

I've noticed this with my daughter, for example, who's dyslexic. I think she's got a little bit of A.D.D. as well.

And I'm dyslexic and I've got some A.D.D.

I'm pretty sure of as well.

But one of the phrases that I keep coming up with is in life you need to learn to mute and zoom so you need to learn to mute certain things coming into your world mute, mute, mute, mute.

And then zoom in on the thing you want to concentrate on.

And I think that summarizes inhibitory control.

This muting and zooming and I keep saying that to my daughter.

You need to mute and zoom; you need to choose who you're Going to mute in your life, what you're going to mute in your life and then zoom in on what's important.

She finds that and a lot of people including myself find that hard because for you to say yes to something, you're saying no to 10 other things because there's no way you can do everything that you want to do all at once.

So, whenever you choose to do one thing, you're saying no to other things, whether you're conscious of it or not.

And often some people, especially those with dyslexia or ADD

Often have a much wider sense of the possibilities of what they could do or what's happening.

And so, they've got this wider angled view and more to mute and more to zoom in on.

So, they have to be much more intentional about muting and zooming in whereas other people can be much more naturally focused.

What's your take on that?

I absolutely love what you just said, it simplifies it in such a beautiful way, mute and zoom that that's great because that's actually like a mantra that's that somebody can hold on to, it’s really simple but it's so profound and what are you doing?

I mean that again is it's a way of conducting your cognitive skills muting and zooming and I think that's just a brilliant way of just boiling it down to the core of what inhibitory control is and what it can do for you.

I think you can actually train intentionally train this inhibitory control in a very unusual and unexpected way.

And I didn't realize we were doing this.

But for example, with the students of bullet map academy, just so listeners, what we do is we teach Children with dyslexia a way of taking visual notes, a way of learning how to do mind mapping.

And it's called the bullet map process and the bullet map process, basically what we noticed was that a lot of Children didn't know what the main point was, what the main ideas were.

They were just getting caught up in all of the details.

They would read a piece of text or learn something.

And this is the same for adults.

And if you stop them and you said I would want you to highlight what you think are the keywords.

They'll end up highlighting a phrase or five words and I'm like no, you're only allowed to highlight one word at a time and say there's six words in a sentence.

Let's say its ability to temporarily store a limited amount of information.

Okay, what are the key words there and that the person would say, well they're all important and you would say, well, ability, temporary store information, okay, we'll go for those four out of those eight.

Well, what would be the most let's give an extra underlying to a couple of those four words.

You're not deleting them but you're just up voting them a little bit.

And so, this just this little process is incredibly hard for a lot of people because they're like I don't want to lose this information and there's this fear of losing and often very wide angled thinkers want to keep all of the information and get totally overwhelmed and lose their focus.

And so just that simple process.

Is that not a way of mute and zoom as well?

You're not deleting your muting and zooming on a microscopic level.


And I think that that was a really cool example and basically what you are doing when you're working with kids doing that and I do a lot of activities like that too in my private practice is you are actually teaching them executive functioning skills.


And in that particular would you call that inhibitory control?

It's obscurely inhibitory control because you're controlling one's attention.

This is the thing about executive functioning.

You can't really untangle any one of these from the other way ones because again it's a symphony and a symphony isn't just the strings.

It's just so they really work together.

It's very hard to pull them apart.

But yeah.

So why don't we move on to cognitive flexibility.

So cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt your thought processes in response to an ever-changing environment.

So, it's that constant adapting whenever we are moving through because we can have a goal.

We can have a checklist of things to do.

But life isn't that simple or having to constantly adapt because the phone might ring or something might come up, something might come in them, and you have to constantly adapt and change your approach to moving through the day.

But it's also a wonderful place where we can nurture creativity, that flexibility to be able to say, oh all right, all these different ways that I can do this, and which approach am I going to pick?

And it's really that ability to be as it says flexible.

So basically, for a lot of people, these things just happen, and we just get used to the ability to store and manage some information that someone is sharing with you or that you're seeing, and it goes into some sort of memory, and you control your inhibitions and focus your attention and behavior and you're flexible and so on.

And people naturally intuitively do it to one degree or another, don't they?

And what you're saying is sometimes and maximize it out right well, and there's some people that might have trouble with cognitive flexibility so they might have weaknesses, you could have a weakness and working memory which is going to make it difficult for you to do the executive functioning skills.

Or you might have a hard time with inhibitory control, you might not be able to get started on an assignment Because you're just not able to control your inhibitions and you're doing your homework and you're listening to all the pings from your phone and the different things are happening in your environment that are distracting you.

So, what should take you 20 minutes takes you three hours because you don't have very good inhibitory control.

So, by looking at the students say, they come to me with a neuro psych assessment, I can see what areas of cognitive functions, their weakened and then I can zoom into those areas and teach them the strategies that they need.

But what it is I'm really teaching them meta cognition.

And what meta cognition is the cognition of your own cognition.

So, it's the awareness of your own thought processes.

Thinking about you're thinking, thinking about your thinking.

That is actually another way.

That's that it's defined as well.

So that's really in a way what executive functioning is giving kids and adults the tools to be able to manage their own cognition and that's exactly what we're doing here in the podcast basically.

We're thinking about our thinking. Yes, we are.

So, are you saying we're like a meta cognition podcast?


So, brain training is about thinking about your thinking and taking executive control over your mind and choosing to you to conduct that symphony of your life according to your wishes rather than someone else's.

Well, to me it really means it's a recipe on how we can step into our best selves.

We don't want to be dysregulated. We don't want to be slow; we don't want to be confused, we want to be clear, we want to we want to be moving throughout life in a way where we feel proud of ourselves.

Well regulated.

Dis regulated is a bit of jargon there.

I don't understand this regulated.

Can you explain to us listeners what does this regulated?


That is a piece of executive functioning to which I would probably put under inhibitory control.

Is your ability to manage your emotions.

So, if you're dis regulated it means that you might be upset or grumpy or bitchy.

Just not yourself, you're just in a foul mood or you're just not managing things the way you wish you could. And that's the executive functions can buy hopping on the horse and grabbing the reins of executive function.

You can lead it wherever you want in your life, and we all want to be our best self.

I like the horse analogy; I like the horse analogy Erica.

So, I love analogies.

I only understand things in visual dynamic analogies really.

I have to translate it into something visual for me to properly understand it, but it has to be an accurate analogy.

Help me with this one, right?

How about this?

As an analogy?

I love using the analogy of a car to explain to people.

The difference between slow processing and typical processing is like a slow processer is someone driving a manual car compared to an automatic car doesn't mean the car slow, it's just a manual process.  Executive function is like being the driver of your life.

Like you've got these different functions, you've got the steering wheel, you've got this information coming at you from the road, you're seeing things, you have to respond to them or not respond to them, you know?

Like could you use the analogy of driving a car to really understand this dynamic of executive function in the mind?


But I almost prefer a horse because the horse is alive, and it has a spirit whereas the car isn't alive, and it doesn't have a spirit.

I think our mind is kind can be very much like a wild horse and so yes, we could use the analogy of a car Absolutely, but for some reason today I'm feeling like if there's something nice about the idea of using an analogy of this wild horse, because we're trying to tame it.

Well, I really love that because I use that in the past with my students to try and help them understand what they're doing with their mind and they really relate to the idea that their mind is like a wild horse and that the process of working and taking control of your mind is like, and some people have horses that are very tangible, and some people that, that are just already tame and they do what they accept the bit and the bridal in their mouth and they've got a saddle on them, but then there are some horses that are wild and they will always be wild, but you can still ride on them because, like bareback and you maybe not got the same defined control like a horse and a bit and bridle and saddle.

And so, some, some minds, it's like, the horse will always be my wild and you're not taming it, you’re training it and there's a bit of a difference between taming this mind and training this mind and so taming, it has that quality of complete control and dominance.

Whereas this training is a sort of partnership because sometimes the wild horse wants to go off on one but submits to you and says, Okay, fair enough.

And there's a little bit of a negotiation going on, sometimes there's quite a lot of negotiation going on and I have this with my dog, for example, there's, he's 91 in dog years.

And so, there's a point where he's like, look, I'm 91, I want to be doing this right now, I want to sniff around a little bit longer, and I'm like, Okay, fair enough, you can get five minutes doing that and now we're going to go walk and you're going to walk to hell and so forth.

It's a bit more negotiation.

I think sometimes it's the same with your mind.

And so, the wild horse analogy is an interesting one.

Well, you said some things that triggered something in me, and one thing that we want to do is like a wild horses, we want to befriend the wild horse, we want to befriend our mind, we want to befriend ourselves, and instead of speaking about ourselves in a negative way or controlling way or critical way, we have to befriend ourselves and learn how to use a positive inner voice instead of a negative or critical inner voice.

And that is part of executive functioning, is learning how to treat ourselves well.

And the other thing that you brought up that really triggered something in me is that neural plasticity.

So, we have ways that we have always done things and that's the pathway of the neural pathway that our brain takes.

When something happens, that's similar to the last thing, and part of executive functioning is if we want to grow and changes, we have to look at that we have to analyze is that the pathway I always want to go and we might say, well, no, I don't want to react that way.

When this happens, you have to establish a new neural pathway, which is neural plasticity and that's your ability to consciously choose a different pathway, make a different choice so that you don't make the same mistake over and over again.

So that's about training the horse to do something new and training the horse to instead of taking the path that you've always taken to take a new path.

But it takes a while to do that before they will go there when you're unconscious.

So, in order to really grow and to change in a positive way, in a way that you want to be different, you have to establish this new pathway and you have to follow it enough times that your brain won't follow the old pathway and it was just a thought.

But what we should do is let's move on to one other aspect of executive function that I find really fascinating, which is although we have these three core executive functioning skills, we also have something that I've seen in the research called higher order executive functions.

And again, this is where these three core skills are dancing their intermingling and it enables us to do these higher functions such as planning and prioritizing, such as time management.

When you think of just time management, you think, gosh, yeah, I have to use all of those skills have to be flexible.

I have to control inhibitions, have to control my attention, I have to use my working memory organization is another higher order executive functions, problem solving or reasoning and drawing conclusions.

So, this is where the symphony is working together in a way that it's pleasant and it's pleasing and it's creating an output that we're all happy with and able to move throughout life in a way that we can navigate it in a comfortable way, in a way that we're proud of.

Well Erica I think we've come to the end of this session, and we need to do that in our next podcast.

Yeah, I was thinking that perhaps what we could talk about is going a little bit deeper into cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control.

And we'll see where we go.

Maybe we'll only dig deep into cognitive flexibility and maybe we'll leave inhibitory control for the following week, we'll play by ear, and we'll see where it leads us.

And I like this horse analogy actually because I think there's quite a lot of… it could be a nice mental exercise to see how that would fit into the horse analogy as well.

Just it's a cognitive exercise.

And if you're listening maybe you could come up with some analogies as well because one of the purposes of this podcast is to take the dry intellectual theory and make it something practical.

And sometimes in order to make it practical, you need to be able to visualize it and relate to it in a dynamic way so that you can apply it to your life.

So, it's not just an abstract set of rules and theories.


So well, let's again, let's see how it unfolds and we'll see what metaphors emerge from our discussion, because that's what's so much fun with our conversations.

And while we decided to do this was because we had so much fun with metaphors.

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

This is dr Erica Warren and Darius Namdaran 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.

Bye bye.