Episode 8: What are Higher Level Executive Functions? The Personal Brain Trainer Podcast

Below you can view or listen to Episode 8 of The Personal Brain Trainer Podcast.

What are Higher Level Executive Functions?



Mentioned Links:

Brought to you by:

Full Transcript for Episode 8 

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?

We are going to be talking about higher level executive functions.

Okay so higher-level executive functions, we've been talking about executive functions.

The three parts of it.

Working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility.

What is higher level executive functions then?

Well higher-level executive functions unite the three sub-domains that you just mentioned.

Working memory inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility and these work together in many activities.

So, kind of like a sound engineer and a recording studio.

higher level executive functioning can enable us to mindfully arrange balance, adjust kind of our mental input or perceptions into a composition and it requires a concert of reasoning, creativity, planning, pattern recognition, timing, and sequencing skills.

So, I thought this would be a really cool thing for us to go into in depth.

Okay, so you're basically kind of saying that the working memory, the inhibitory control, and the cognitive flexibility are three separate skill sets or separate inputs into a mixing desk.

Like you've got a drum kit, you've got a guitar and you've got a vocal and your kind of mixing them together about the levels, adjusting them.

So, you create a composition out of them.


So, we can talk about each of these things individually.

But realistically the brain doesn't really do it that way right, it's far more complex.

They're always happening in unison or in sequence or a certain way that we're not really doing one without the other or very rarely.

I mean if you have a student for example or an adult that is struggling with say working memory you can create activities to strengthen working memory that really hone in on that and you try to pull it away from everything else because you really want to strengthen that core cognitive skill but in life, we really are uniting these three principles most of the time.

Okay, so in episode four we talked about working memory and in episode six we talked about inhibitory control and in episode seven we talked about cognitive flexibility for those of you need a recap let's recap those three things together, shall we?

You know what is working memory again?

Working memory is the ability to store, manage and manipulate a limited amount of information for reasoning, comprehension and really preparing information for long term memory.

And that was that kind of spotlight thing in the middle of an amphitheater.

You've got this little working space that is you're in the center of the stage and you're working on that and that's front and center inhibitory control.

And also, just to help the people that are listening to it for the first time we love to speak in metaphors and we were using the metaphor of an amphitheater to kind of describe working memory because we've got all the information coming in that we're processing through visualization and through our inner voice and it kind of takes place in the spotlight which is really the episodic buffer.

But we like to call it our amphitheater.

Yes, so the amphitheater is the context of our minds as it were and what's happening.

But the working memory is that small space that is limited like that, the spotlight where all that stuff happens.

And if you don't do it inside that spotlight, you start losing it.

And so, we talked quite a bit about the importance of working memory and keeping your working memory clear and all that sort of thing.


So, we've got working memory the spotlight in the amphitheater inhibitory control permits an individual to really block or inhibit their impulses and as well as their habitual behavioral responses in order to select really more inappropriate behavior that is consistent with completing a task or a goal.

Can we block off certain things and can we focus?

So, this really gets into attention here?


And we talked about the horse with the blinders on to stop the distractions at the side and it's kind of like driving and putting the brakes on and that whole sort of stopping and inhibiting and what was it?

It was mute the area round about and zoom in right mutant zoom.

I loved that.

That was a really cool.

So yeah, we really go into a deep discussion, we use quite a few metaphors, and we also encourage people to create their own metaphor that works for them.

And then we've got cognitive flexibility which is the last one and this helps us switch gears based on the changing of demand priorities and perspectives.

So, this is this kind of constant switching that we need to do in life.

And so really as you can see these three do tend to almost mix like in a big salad, you know, we don't eat just the lettuce, but we like to mix it all together when we do we get something far more complex, and it allows the brain to do activities that are quite complicated.


And the cognitive flexibility metaphor we settled in on was like sailing and adjusting your sails to the wind and tacking rather than the motorboat just powering through to where it wants to go.

You have to adjust to the realities of the world round about you and choose your own metaphor whether it's golfing or whatever natural environment you've got in and you can't negotiate with nature, you just have to adapt.

That was cognitive flexibility.

Okay so higher-level executive functions bringing all these three things together.

Working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.

What happens there?

That's the higher level?

So, you know basically there are many different higher level executive functions.

Whenever we're uniting these three areas, these three sub domains I like to call them of executive functions were doing higher level.

So, I just decided to pick four really prominent ones.

And those are real time management organization and identifying patterns.

So, we're just going to dive into each one of those Erica before we do.

Where are you coming from with all of this?

Are you just kind of I know you're not just making this up as you're going along.

I mean that's why you're here, you're synthesizing the research and the reading you've been doing, could you just say a little bit about higher level executive functions and that sort of research and background side of it and the psychology side of it a little bit there's quite a bit of research on this.

I think that executive functions are a difficult one because there isn't a ton of consensus on what it is.

What I have noticed in the research is that there does seem to be a significant amount of consensus about those three sub domains I'm seeing in the research that people are saying okay we agree that there's working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.

Some people use slightly different terms.

But even Harvard University's come out and said, okay these are the three sub domains and higher-level executive functions is really just uniting those.

I see that in some of the research I see it in some discussions but it's really just the idea of uniting them that's helpful.

So, there's real clarity on those three sub domains as being the real areas of people's research and attention to understand the fundamental building blocks of higher-level executive function.

And in a way that's often what you're trying to do is go drill down deeper to the core component parts because often if one is weak, it knocks off the higher-level ones.

And I think that sometimes what's quite interesting in the conversation we're about to have I think is when you're dealing with people with dyslexia or A.




Or other neuro divergent thinking patterns you've got unique patterns of thinking.

Often some people are really strong in one of these areas but quite low on the other and it can really knock off the higher-level executive funk.




So, I mean I have some students that are extremely strong in perhaps working memory and inhibitory control, but their cognitive flexibility is really poor or might be that their working memory is really poor.

Some of them they're kind of pour across all of them and you really just need to do some cognitive remediation that helps to strengthen each area.

And a lot of it is just getting you to be mindful.


The only way to really strengthen executive function is to be mindful of your thinking and going back to the analogy of the manual car.

Some people are very automatic at working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.

They're just very automatic at it.

And other people have to be quite intentional and go through the gears of it the throat process of it much more intentionally.

And some people even have to learn about the parts for example you know two parts to working memory the inner voice and visualization.

What if you don't really know what visualization is?

I've had people come into my office and I'll say do you visualize, and they'll say what's that and I'll explain it to them and they're like what are you talking about?

I have no idea what you're talking about.

So, and that in case they don't even know what the steering wheel is if you're going to Yes, it's like they haven't noticed the steering wheel, they're blind to it but you point out and they go, oh right okay, that's what that thing is.



So, it's really interesting work because it's fascinating how each person that I work with in this this area really has a unique way of processing even though we all have these components or at least we've defined it this way.

It's amazing and fascinating to me how people really mix their cognition and their strengths and weaknesses in such unique ways that they often blow my mind.

You can do that or wow you can't do that well that that's quite a good segue into these higher level executive functions because when you're talking about reasoning, time management organization and identifying patterns, I can immediately think about areas because I've got difficulties in working memory personally and you know, I've had it measured and you know, I've got problems with it and I've got limited working memory, it's a very tight spotlight and if it moves too quickly I can blank out certain things etcetera and they get lost and so it affects organization and time management.

However, I'm very good at identifying patterns and reasoning which are often more of the cognitive flexibility side of things and more of the inhibitory control, I can stop, step back have some flexibility dynamically but with working memory being smaller it can create gaps with time management organization.

So, I'm just using that as an example that it's not automatic that if your higher-level executive functions are significantly affected by your kind of combination of working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility, aren't they?

And of course, you know, it even goes back to how our senses, our perceiving the world around us.

You walk down the street of New York city or in crowded locations and it's amazing to me how everybody looks different from one another.

We only have a limited number of facial features, but everyone looks so different.

The brain is just so much more complex than the features of the face.

Yet we assume that we're more alike because we can't see it.

But in fact, we are so different from each other.

After all the work that I've done, I'm amazed that we're able to communicate as well as we do, although I have a funny feeling that people misinterpret each other all the time driving a car that we all seem to follow these rules and we're all able to abide by these similar and we don't crash more.

It's amazing because we all really do have very, very different ways of processing the world and when I work with families, the parents will often come in and say, well my daughter isn't doing this, she should be doing this and should be doing that and why aren't they doing it this way And I have to explain that may not be the way that she processes.

I understand that that works for you.

But those strategies may not work for your son or your daughter because they may process the world in a completely different way.

Let's go into the practical examples then reasoning.


So reasoning is really the act of drawing conclusions or solving problems and making decisions and reasoning can really help to make information memorable, where really, it's almost like chewing on the cut.

Yeah, it really does unite.

You've got to bring the information into working memory.

You've got to hold on to it.

You've got to inhibit other thoughts and you've got to have enough flexibility that you can look at things from different perspectives.

That's what reasoning is, right.


Can I go off on a slight tangent on this that is associated?

I was listening to someone giving a talk on dyslexia and one of the things she said it was the British dyslexia association.

She said that one of the advantages of dyslexia is procrastination.

Creative procrastination.

I don't know if you've ever heard that phrase, but what she was saying is often people with dyslexia procrastinate and one of the reasons they're procrastinating is because they are reasoning through something.

They're mentally processing it.

They're chewing the cut as it were.

They're kind of trying to solve the problem.

You're talking about drawing conclusions, solving problems, making decisions.

Often people with dyslexia have got such a wide angled view on things that they're taking diverse information, putting it together, stitching it together, processing it, getting rid of stuff, re processing and getting rid of stuff.

And they're actually procrastinating on the outside.

But creative procrastination can be the end result that they come up with something and they go, I've got the answer here and it could be like a week later or hours later when someone else is sort of expected a decision in five minutes.

What are your thoughts on that?

Well, I think you're right.

I think internally their reason and externally they're seen as zoning out.

It takes them for some and not all.

So, some of them do have this slower processing speed.

Which is really and it's so funny, I get so angry when people come to me, and they've been told that they have a slow processing speed.

And I see immediately that that is not true across all areas.

What I tell them is that perhaps you don't process slowly.

Maybe you're just being careful.

And they often say like, oh thank you, thank you for saying that because it's always really bothered me that you know, I'm slow.

Well, no, can we change that and just say that you're careful or perhaps you are reasoning perhaps you are thinking perhaps.

And there are those people that are that are very, very pensive there, those that pause, and they zone out there.

Those that are pensive and they're making connections, their reasoning and that's what you should be doing because it makes it more memorable.

Go under the hood for us when reasoning is happening.

Okay, this higher-level functioning.

The act of drawing conclusions, solving problems, and making decisions, working memory, inhibitory control, caulking to flexibility.

How are they being mixed?

What's happening with the mixer?

To work with reasoning?

Could you?

Yeah, I think you know with reasoning you have to be in your working memory, you have to have the spotlight on right inhibitory control.

You also have to have the horses have the blinkers on to maintain their attention so they're not too distracted.

And then you have to have the cognitive flexibility to reason with stuff and to come up with new ideas that kind of creativity.

So, whenever you're reasoning you're really open, you're open to suggestion and you're pulling them all in and you're processing them and it's very much of a higher order function that really unites all three of these sub domains.

So, what about time management, time management?

I love time management.

Time management is so interesting because there are those people that really don't have a sense of time.

They often are those that have difficulty with attention.

Well, it's very interesting to learn that for some people, that sense of time is slowed down when they're interested or not interested, and it's fed up when they're interested.

So, you can think of times where you were like, wow where did that our go?

Because we were so kind of lost in thought.

But I would say generally I'm really good with time.

I'll often say I think it's 3 32 and then I will look at my watch or the clock and I'm often right on unless I'm in a flow then I have no sense of time.

And for those people that have a difficult time with planning and prioritizing, then they really struggle to get to places on time to plan out their future.

They often leave things to the last minute and then they run out of time.

They may have trouble making predictions or forecasting something about the future.

Well, this is something that has puzzled me.

Okay, I have difficulty with time and couldn't tell the time when I was young.

It took me ages to learn I was eight years old before I could tell the time.

And I remember my dad being so angry with me that I couldn't they spent so much time trying to teach me to tell the time bought me special clocks incentivized it when friends had managed to do it by the time they were five and six.

That's quite a big deal when you're young.

And I've seen it with my Children.

I've seen it with other Children, especially those with dyslexia or ADD - not being able to judge the flow of time and also judge how long something will take.

Okay it's a perennial human challenge.

You estimate it will take an hour to do something and it takes 22 hours or three hours.

But sometimes it can go to another extreme where I'll put two to dos on my to do list that are like build the shed today and that's going to take three days.

And so, it doesn't get done because I haven't broken it down into manageable levels such as order concrete order slabs by would you know and it's not chunk down and what is happening there with working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility which part of executive functions?

Three sub domains are time management influenced the most by.

That's a really good question.

I mean we're just we're exploring that question together in the moment really.

Let's think about it.

So being able to manage your time and time is really something outside of working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.

But I guess it's those sub domains that allow us to make sense of it.

So inhibitory control could be in charge of impulses but what does that have to do with time?


Could it be cognitive flexibility if you think of time as a natural phenomenon like the wind or the waves or something?

And it's moving and changing.

You've got nights and days and mornings and afternoons.

There's a rhythm.

There's a flow.

It's like a dynamic environment, it's not just slots on a calendar, it's a dynamic flow, cognitive flexibility is about adapting to that dynamic flow.

And the reason why I'm saying that is I'm very good at time management when I can see the chunks, I can see the flow but when it's invisible to me and it's just we're talking time like I'll give you an example, my wife will say Right we're on the 23rd, we're meeting dad for Christmas and then on the 25th that were meat, we're going there and then on this we're doing that and then and I've got all these dates and it's very hard for me to see them but the moment it goes up on a board and they're chunked off and so on, I can see the flow of time.

I can chew.

Does that make sense?


And you've actually just brought working memory and inhibitory control into it, inhibitory control being the attention, right, attention to time and working memory being your ability to kind of visualize those chunks and then we've got our inner voice which is also working memory which can help us with time.

One of the exercises I do, I have something that's called a bullet map planner, okay that I teach people to use to chunk their time.

So it's basically in very simple terms you is three parts to it, You write a bullet point list of all your ideas random and then you map all of those ideas in a mind map in main chunks and branches and doodles, and then you break down those little branches that you've got of information into a half hour chunks that are like a little sticky, I take a post it note and I cut it into about a finger thickness that represents half an hour, and then I've got all these little half hour chunks and I move them around until I can see them within a sequence.

And I can visually proportionately visualize the chunks of time.

And that's an exercise.

I don't do all the time, but whenever I have to get something done really effectively and really deliver and it's quite intense.

I break it down like that because that forces me to, well, you know, it's so interesting because this takes us to number three Organization helps you with time management is the organization piece, because it enables you to mentally arrange and order information into meaningful digestible patterns.

It's interesting.

It's really a strategy.

So, time doesn't come naturally to you.

So, some people just comes naturally and for you to be able to wrap your mind and train your mind on time management.

And just time in general is you visualize you organize, you look at patterns, so you're actually using some of these other higher level executive functions to help you wrap your mind around time.

So, you're using a little bit of the identifying patterns and a little bit of the organization.

So, you can see the fascinating thing.

Even with these higher-level executive functions, we kind of use all of these, we use the reasoning we use the time management, use the organization.

We identify patterns not in isolation but together.

And when we learn to do this together, that's when we can really improve our cognition.

Because these are all tools to help us to manage, really conduct our cognitive skills.

Going right back to executive functions at large, you know, don't we want to conduct our own cognitive skills?

Absolutely right.

Well, yeah, it goes back down to the core of the term executive function being the executive of your own life, you know, the executive being in charge of a company, you're in charge of your own life, your mind, your time organization, etcetera.

And an executive has to be excellent at reasoning at time management with organization and identifying patterns.

So, it's really interesting how it pulls it all together.

Do you have any other thoughts on organization to take us back to that?

Well, okay, so the third higher level we've talked about mind maps and obviously I'm addicted to mind maps.

I have a love hate relationship with mind mapping.

Actually, there's a part of me that just wants stuff to happen, you know, let's just get on and build the thing.

Let's just get on and do the thing, let's just get on and write that essay, let's just get on and make that, that shed.

But like every craftsman knows, they have to stop, they have to make a blueprint, they have to make a cutting list of things that they've got to make and so on so they can go and build it.

And I learned that early on when I learned to be a joiner and I think that's my love hate relationship with mind mapping because often I'm kind of like, oh, I'll just, I'll just get on and do it.

But then it goes off the rails so quickly my essay goes on and on forever and never finishes it apart into pieces and red tape it back together because it's on order.

That's right.

And there's no structure to it.

I go off the rails, I go off the rails with time management or whatever and I end up saying I need to map this out and then I map it and I've got some organization, I can see what I'm talking about.

I can see the parts sometimes it's like building a jigsaw puzzle.

Imagine you had your jigsaw puzzle in front of you and you had the box of pieces underneath the table.


And you went to the box, and you pulled out one piece and you go right, where does that go?

Well, I think it might go there, another piece.

I think it might go there, that's not how people do jigsaw puzzles, they empty all the pieces out, they flip them the right way round, they kind of cluster them in the rough colors, they find the corners, they find the edges they start putting in and those people who know how to get the job done have a process to do it and my processes mind mapping because that's actually bullet mapping is the way I do it now because for me with the dyslexic mind I can't go often, I can't go straight into a map which is completely disorganized.

I have to take time to flip all the words and pieces, write them down as a bullet list, identify what the corners and the edges are and then draw my map.

So, it's actually organized like outlines, and I like outlines in a way so that you don't have to for example for writing so that you don't have to write in a sequence.

So, if you get out your topic sentences and you know what each paragraph is going to be, then you can kind of color code all the research or the information in the same color as each of those paragraphs.

So, I like to use color.

I like to use outlines.

I love timelines.

If I was ever a history teacher, I would tell my students that they had one assignment, only one assignment and that assignment was to create a timeline of the whole course and make it as detailed as possible with lots of colors and lots of images.

Love it.

Wouldn't, that just be awesome.

So, you would end up, you would have the timeline, you'd have the end, you know, exam and then there would be an essay due then and then we're going to study this as a block, and you have some pictures of the blocks, and you just fill it all out and see exactly what you're going to learn.

Well, I would, I would really give them a really, really long.

You can get these really long things.

Paper roll, a paper roll.


Everybody gets a paper roll, and you start here, and you just keep going until we get to the end of the end of the class, and you just add as many details as possible.

And so, would you do it so that every week you would add to the timeline, or would you do as an overview?

I would add every day they had a class you would have to add to that.

I would have to present it in a, in a way.

Well, you have two options, I could say draw out the whole timeline we're going to start on this day, we're going to go to this date and then they could fill it in randomly, but I would probably present it from the earliest to the latest.

Every history teacher is different, some like to look at patterns across time and others like to work in a sequence.

But I just thought that would be the coolest assignment for a history teacher and then you know, we've also got planners and agendas which really help us to organize information and it's going back to time management again.

You know those planners and agendas; agendas are a way for us to see or visualize or be able to organize time.

Well, they're scaffolds like teachers often talk about scaffolding and essay like for example in Australia they use the acronym peel point evidence explanation and link.

And in Scotland and England they use teal topic evidence, explanation link.

And so, they've got this sort of little pattern structure.

And the way an essay should be structured is introduction, .1.2.3 and conclusion and .1 is always appeal point evidence explanation link.

So, they've got this sort of organizational structure as a scaffold and even I found it really useful in storytelling.

I've got a scaffold for storytelling, which is the story star, It's a five-pointed star.

The top is a face which is all the characters.

The second branch is an eye, which is what does the hero have their eye on?

What do they want?

Do they want to fall in love?

Do they want to get rich?

Do they want to be popular?

What do they want?

You've got to know what the hero one so that you can tell the audience when they get it and that's when the story is finished, but the hero doesn't get what they want straight away.

There's always a foot third thing that trips you up and that that's an enemy or some problem.

And then the next one is always a hand.

There's always someone like a guide or something that stretches out and helps you, gives you a magic wand or some advice or something and then you get to the crown, which is the reward which you had your eye on.

And it's often a reward that isn't what you actually wanted, but it's better.

But that's a scaffold that organizes information and that's really helpful, isn't it?

It is well and you just took us beautifully into identifying patterns.

So that's another thing that the brain does in this higher-level executive functioning.

Is that what it looks for patterns and that pattern that you created that star really enabled your cognition in a deep way.

It helps you to really memorize it and then you're able to execute it or remember it or teach it easily because you have that pattern that you have established and you can even visualize it and then that way whenever you're presenting it, you don't need your notes, you don't have to look at anything, you just know it.

You know it deeply because you have identified that pattern.

And so, patterns really, really improved memory.

And a lot of memory champions.

They use patterns, patterns help us patterns and sequences and it also improves attention and helps you to focus as well.

So, it's really interesting.

So, when we look across these four higher level executive function that we talked about today and again, I'm sure there are many more, it's just all about any time we are looking across these core sub domains of working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibilities, we don't really use them in isolation, we unite them in order to think and to manage our minds.

Okay, it's interesting hearing these higher levels and you have got some strategies to help improving executive functions that we're going to talk about in the next episode, aren't we?

Yes, I'm really looking forward to it.

So, we've spent quite a few weeks pulling apart executive functions and now this week we're pulling them all back together but the is if we have weaknesses and executive functions or we just want to take it up a notch strategy that we can employ to improve this skill.


So next episode strategies.

Alright, I look forward to it.

Thank you so much for joining us in this episode.

Yeah, thank you Erica, I mean Erica spends a lot of time planning and preparing for these episodes and I'm learning so much and so thank you very much and hope you guys are enjoying it.

See you next time.

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

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

Bye bye.