Research shows that brain’s executive function has a profound impact on your life – it correlates with academic achievement, mental and physical health, making money and saving money, and even staying out of jail. In this informative talk, Psychologist Sabine Doebel explores the factors that affect executive function — and how you can use it to break bad habits and achieve your goals.
Sabine Doebel – Psychologist
So, I have a confession to make.
I only recently learned how to drive. And it was really hard. Now, this wasn’t an older brain thing.
Do you remember what it was like when you first learned how to drive, when every decision you made was so conscious and deliberate? I’d come home from my lessons completely wiped out mentally.
Now, as a cognitive scientist, I know that this is because I was using a lot of something called “executive function.”
Executive function is our amazing ability to consciously control our thoughts, emotions and actions in order to achieve goals, like learning how to drive. It’s what we use when we need to break away from habit, inhibit our impulses and plan ahead.
But we can see it most clearly when things go wrong. Like, have you ever accidentally poured orange juice on your cereal? Or ever start scrolling on Facebook and suddenly realize you’ve missed a meeting?
Or maybe this one is more familiar: Ever planned to stop at the store on the way home from work and then drive all the way home instead, on autopilot?
These things happen to everyone. And we usually call it “absentmindedness.”
But what’s really happening is we’re experiencing a lapse in executive function. So we use executive function every day in all aspects of our lives.
And over the past 30 years, researchers have found that it predicts all kinds of good things, in childhood and beyond, like social skills, academic achievement, mental and physical health, making money, saving money and even staying out of jail. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
So it’s no surprise that researchers like me are so interested in understanding it and figuring out ways to improve it. But lately, executive function has become a huge self-improvement buzz word. People think you can improve it through brain-training iPhone apps and computer games or by practicing it in a specific way, like playing chess.
And researchers are trying to train it in the lab in hopes of improving it and other things related to it, like intelligence.
Well, I’m here to tell you that this way of thinking about executive function is all wrong. Brain training won’t improve executive function in a broad sense because it involves exercising it in a narrow way, outside of the real-world context in which we actually use it.
So you can master that executive-function app on your phone, but that’s not going to help you stop pouring OJ on your Cheerios twice a week.
If you really want to improve your executive function in a way that matters for your life, you have to understand how it’s influenced by context. Let me show you what I mean.
There is a great task that we use in the lab to measure executive function in young children, called the dimensional change card sort. In this task, kids have to sort cards in one way, like by shape, over and over, until they build up a habit. And then they’re asked to switch and sort the same cards in another way, like by color.