Episode 1: Unraveling Human Self-Regulation

Episode 1: Unraveling Human Self-Regulation

Anyone struggling with inattention or distractibility, general impulsivity, and poor motivation is going struggle with learning. However, conventional wisdom trivializes underachievement related to these struggles and there’s a risk that the sufferers may not get proper help they need. On today’s Podcast, Dr. Russell Barkley will discuss how the brain’s Executive Function brings behaviors under its control and directs actions towards successful learning.

About Russell Barkley, Ph.D.

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Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D., is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina. He is a Diplomate (board certified) in three specialties, Clinical Psychology (ABPP), Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, and Clinical Neuropsychology (ABCN,ABPP). Dr. Barkley is a clinical scientist, educator, and practitioner who has published 23 books, rating scales, and clinical manuals numbering 41 editions. He has also published more than 270 scientific articles and book chapters related to the nature, assessment, and treatment of ADHD and related disorders. He is the founder and Editor of the bimonthly clinical newsletter, The ADHD Report, now in its 25th year of publication. Dr. Barkley has presented more than 800 invited addresses internationally and appeared on nationally televised programs such as 60 Minutes, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN, and many other programs on behalf of those with ADHD. He has received awards from the American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Board of Professional Psychology, Association for the Advancement of Applied and Preventive Psychology, American Professional Society for ADHD and Related Disorders, New England Educational Institute, the Wisconsin Psychological Association, and Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD) for his career accomplishments, contributions to research in ADHD, to clinical practice, and for the dissemination of science.

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Find out how #ExecutiveFunction controls behaviors & directs actions towards desirable future Click To Tweet #RussellBarkley says #ExecutiveFunction is your ability to control yourself to meet your goals Click To Tweet #RussellBarkley says #ADHD is a disorder of #self-regulation and not a disorder of #attention Click To Tweet Who’s in charge of reining in behaviors and actions? Find out on #FullPreFrontal Click To Tweet

 Transcript

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Todd Schnick: Alright, welcome back to Full PreFrontal. I am here with our host Sucheta Kamath. Good morning, my friend. Great inaugural episode last week. Today, we get into our first interview with a very intriguing gentleman. I’m very much looking forward to it, so why don’t you lead us off?

Sucheta Kamath: Thank you, Todd. I’m going to tell you a story. Pepsi hired a reputable ad agency to do their next commercial. The ad execs came up with a brilliant plan. They wanted to stay current and relevant. They wanted their commercial to be full of fun and frolic and yet deliver a message and a message of hope. The idea they wanted to depict was that when you see injustice or unfairness, the consumers of Pepsi don’t just sit around; they act. Brilliant, right? When they were done, Pepsi called it a short film about moments when we decide to let go, choose to act, follow our passion, and nothing holds us back. Boom! They were ready to launch. In April 2017, they released this brand-spanking new commercial. Unfortunately, it bombed. It had exactly the opposite effect than intended. The results were just the opposite. Pepsi was criticized for being insensitive and reckless and it was accused of trivializing the matters of protest on behalf of social justice, and obviously, you can imagine, to save themselves from any further embarrassment, Pepsi withdrew the ad within 24 hours.

So brain’s prefrontal cortex helps in organizing ideas, planning, problem solving, and analyzing outcomes. The most important thing they do is to make sure that ideas are socially acceptable and collaborative. With success, we repeat those actions. However, during the moments of failure, we redirect. We have the central executive that helps us to do that. In our mental toolbox, we have a fast forward, rewind, and pause button, and the selection makes us traveling to the future and visiting our past a very important mental process and this is how we change our behaviors, change our actions, change our thinking, and because of that, of course, Pepsi had the wisdom to withdraw the ad in 24 hours.

This is exactly what we’re going to talk about. In order to understand executive functions, what better than to have this framework of planning, organizing, thinking, and acting? And when it doesn’t work, we don’t have the best outcomes that we want. And we have phenomenal guest who’s going to talk about that.

Todd: Alright, well, this promises to be very intriguing inaugural interview on this new show. I appreciate you sharing this story, so let’s get to it. Here is Sucheta’s conversation with Dr. Russell Barkley.

 

Sucheta: Our guest today is an internationally recognized authority on the subject of ADHD. Dr. Russell Barkley is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children and the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia. He has published 23 books, many of them have been bestsellers, rating scales and clinical manuals, and 270 different articles and books’ chapters related to the nature, assessment, and treatment of ADHD and related disorders.

Dr. Barkley is the founder and editor of the bi-monthly clinical newsletter, The ADHD Report, now in its 25th year of publication. Dr. Barkley has presented more than 800 invited addresses internationally and has appeared on nationally televised programs such as 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and CBS Sunday Morning. He has created seven professional video tapes on ADHD and define children, three of which have won national awards, including the 1992 and 1994 Golden Apple Award for Educational Video from the National Education Association. Dr. Barkley has received numerous awards over his career and his work in ADHD and the field of psychology. In 2002, he received the Dissemination Award from the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology, division 12 of the American Psychological Association for his career-long effort to dispel misconceptions about ADHD and to educate the public and other professionals about the science of this disorder. In 2012, Dr. Barkley was given the distinguished career award from the Division of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology of the American Psychological Associations. Personally, Dr. Barkley’s work had a significant impact on my understanding of development of prefrontal system and the disorder of ADHD.

Welcome to the show, Russ. Thank you so much for agreeing to come on the show.

Dr. Russell Barkley: Thank you, Sucheta. I appreciate the invitation to be on the program.

Sucheta: I don’t know if you remember, Russ. We first met in 1998 and I have your signed copy from the book that you published in 1998, and I hope I don’t embarrass you by telling our listeners that I have always considered you as my professional superhero, so this is such an honor for me to have you on the show.

Dr. Barkley: Wow. That’s wonderful, thank you so much for that honor, yeah.

Sucheta: So let’s get started with this very, very interesting and complex topic. Your career, as you mentioned, spans over 37, 40 years and your research has had a profound impact on understanding of the neuropsychology of ADHD. Can you give us the history of the term ‘Executive Function,’ and how did we begin to use that term, and how has that understanding changed over time, you think?

Dr. Barkley: Well, the history of the term itself, it actually goes back to Karl Pribram in the 1970s when he was looking for a term to describe the global purpose or functions of the prefrontal cortex in humans, and it had also been used though not quite in that was by Luria in his earlier papers and books dealing with brain-injured populations, particularly injuries to the prefrontal cortex, but it’s actually Pribram who gets the credit for the development of the term, though strangely enough, he never defined it. He just refers to it as what the frontal lobes do. Subsequently, a number of people have continued to use the term, and currently, we have reached a point where there’s probably more than 20 to 25 different definitions, a number of different ways of conceptualizing it as well, and it’s led to quite a mess in my opinion. There’s been a lot of confusion in the field, even though this has become a very, very popular term in neuroscience, neuropsychology, education, and elsewhere. The fact is, you have to be very careful because not everyone is using the same definition when they refer to this term.

Sucheta: Yes, so what is the best way to really capture the essence of executive functions?

Dr. Barkley: Well, obviously, I’ve had my own theoretical point of view, so I’m a bit biased on that but there would have been no need for me to develop a theory had there been prior theories or concepts that had proven themselves to be useful both clinically and scientifically at moving the field forward. So for instance, if you don’t have a consensus definition, then when it comes to assessing people for executive functioning or intervening with it, anything goes. Just about every measure I can think of, at least 40 or 50 or more have at one time or another been referred to as evaluating executive functioning and that’s because nobody can agree on exactly what it is, and similarly, when it comes to trying to intervene with people who might have EF deficits, then we have the same problem again, so I’ll boil it down to this simple point: if there’s no operational definition, then there’s no way of going through the list of several hundred human psychological abilities and determining which of those cognitive abilities are executive and which aren’t, and that’s really where the field stands right now. Some people refer to executive functioning as those cognitive abilities needed for goal-directed behavior; that’s helpful but still vague, other people define it as simply the ability to hold information in mind and mentally manipulate it but that’s confusing because that’s also used as the definition of working memory which is thought to be one of the executive functions. Several reviewers have simply skipped defining the term, admitted that it’s a global, vague term and have just moved on to simply create a list of its components in the hopes that maybe the field could move forward that way. But that’s just kicking the can down the road conceptually because you still can’t reach a consensus and what is and is not an executive function. So for instance, why is holding information in mind an executive function but walking or speech, or imagery not an executive function? And no one seems to be able to answer that even though all of them are used in pursuing a goal, and the fact is, some are and some aren’t.

So that’s where the field has been and why in 1994 and again in ’97, I began publishing articles and books on trying to formulate a new theory of executive functioning that would be more useful and would be operational, and the of course, if you know, in 2012, I updated that model in my book Executive Functions where I not only reviewed the prior theory but began to try to connect it out with everyday life activities, in human major life activities, and that’s what I call the ‘extended phenotype,’ borrowing that term from Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionist and biologist. So we can continue to go over, if you’d like, these different points of view, or I think maybe it might be more useful to tell you about my own theory and how that—

Sucheta: Yes, I would like to hear the way you describe it and let’s use that as a reference point for our conversation today because I find that the definitions use a lot of professional lingo and that makes it really hard for a layman. So if I can ask you to, this is a little weird exercise, but if you are sitting on a plane and a man next to you asked you a question and he has no background in psychology or neuroscience, how would you describe executive functions to him?

Dr. Barkley: I think that’s a great start because if we can’t do that, then the field isn’t going to move any further; it’s just going to become more obfuscating and pedantic, and uninterpretable at times. So I fear your skepticism about the way professionals use the term so as if everyone knows what they’re talking about and they don’t. So I think a good starting for people is, virtually, all neuropsychologists that I have spoken to and who have been surveyed on this, would agree that the executive functions are needed for human self-regulation. They’re the basis of our ability to control our own behavior, and surveys have shown that that’s the one thing we can agree on, and also, that this self-regulation that we engage in is to try and alter our future. It is future-directed; it has to do with our long-term goals and our long-term welfare. And so if we begin with that, then the way I explain it to laypeople is that executive function is your ability to control yourself and to get to your goals. It is your future-directed behavior.

Now, what are the things that you are doing to try to control yourself? And there are at least seven of these executive functions and we can go through them in a moment, but the point is this: what defines each of them as an executive function is it’s something you are doing to yourself to change your behavior from what it automatically or otherwise have been and you’re trying to change your behavior because you’re hoping that it will change your future. It will improve your lot in life, whether it’s pursuing your own goals or following up on the request or demands of others that you may be working with such as teachers or employers. The fact is, these are the things you are doing to yourself to try to accomplish those goals to improve your welfare, and of course, to avoid any hazards in life.

And so what are these things you’re doing to yourself? Neuropsychologists can agree that there are at least seven executive functions. Many have added on up to 33 but there’s the basic seven that just about everyone agrees are the principal executive abilities, and so I prefer to think of them as things you’re doing to yourself, and I borrowed this from Vygotsky, the famous Russian neurologist, neuropsychologist, actually, because he talked about how we talk to ourselves, how we use self-speech as a form of self-control.

So back in the layman’s explanation. Executive functioning is self-regulation toward the future, and it involves at least seven different abilities or things you’re doing to yourself to change yourself, to get to the future. Now, what are these seven mind tools that we employ mentally to try to accomplish our goals, to try to improve ourselves and to regulate ourselves? And very quickly, they are self-awareness, in addition, or self-restraint; visual imagery, you see to yourself; self-speech or verbal working memory, you talk to yourself; the ability to manipulate your feelings and emotions, so emotional self-control, and you use the first four to accomplish that, and then from there, self-motivation, you have ways of motivating yourself when there’s no immediate rewards or consequences for your work, and then finally, the pinnacle of executive function is planning and problem solving which I think of as self-play. We play mentally with information, very much like a child plays manually with the world around them in order to take it apart and recombine it and see how it does, and it’s not just my opinion; many developmental psychologists have argued that adult problem solving is based on the extensive period of children’s play across their development. So those would be the seven mind tools, the seven things you do to yourself to manage yourself to improve your future, and they develop in a sequence; you don’t get them all at once but by adulthood, by your late 20’s to early 30’s, all seven have matured and we use them pretty much like a symphony or orchestra, or very much like an executive would run a business that has multiple components that work together, and that’s my view of executive function.

Sucheta: Thank you so much for a detailed outline. I think our listeners can begin to grasp how difficult the concept is. And the way you simplify it really appeals to me because I see that it’s directed towards self, so making changes in yourself towards accomplishing a better outcome for future you. This is the confusing part that I find that people need a lot of explanation, particularly in the field of education that when they deal with smart children who are good problem solvers, I always bring their attention back to the fact that, are they solving problems for self? And if they don’t, then they’re not using their executive process.

Dr. Barkley: That’s right.

Sucheta: So I wanted to share a definition that I have come up with. My airplane line, somebody who’s sitting on the plane with me is, it’s your inability to show what you know and affect your life for better outcomes, but the way I kind of define this is, executive functions refer to the choreographed ability to make yourself do, using the capacity and vision for self, to yield outcome that are socially, emotionally desirable, appropriate, and future-centered. What do you think about this definition?

Dr. Barkley: I think it’s very good because I think it certainly, our views are quite consistent with each other because I would just broaden that to say that the purpose of your frontal lobe is to improve your long-term welfare, and that includes your ability to live and interact peacefully and constructively with other people, and to engage in cooperative ventures with them, to engage in reciprocal exchange with them which we do all the time: obviously, two things like shopping and work, and trade and economics, and things. So your frontal lobes, your executive brain is your ability to manage yourself to improve that long-term welfare, and it often includes other people and certainly, as you pointed out, includes planning and problem solving among other things. But it’s a social brain and I want to come back to that point. I think it’s very important for people to realize, this part of the brain did not evolve in order to do some lab tasks like a continuous performance test or play chess. Even though we can use it for those purposes, that’s not its evolutionary origins. It’s there because we are a social group-living species and we require a very special nervous system in order to allow us to do that with other people that we’re not genetically related to, and that’s very rare in the animal kingdom, that people cooperate with each other even though they’re not relatives of each other, and that’s what the frontal lobe allows us to do. So I would just want to emphasize the social nature of this brain. Even though we can use it for physics and science, and other things, that’s not its original purpose.

Sucheta: Yes, it’s to regulate yourself in the context of your social environment where you are forming relationships and [00:19:20] collaboration yields you better future outcome for yourself. Otherwise, you can be ostracized or excluded.

Dr. Barkley: Yes. Yes, that’s right. So now you can see that we can take that list of several hundred mental abilities and we could go through anybody’s list and decide what’s an executive function and what isn’t, and it’s simply this: if it’s something you’re doing to yourself to modify your behavior, to change your future, it’s an executive function. If it isn’t, then it’s not, and now we can separate things like talking from talking to yourself. Talking to yourself in your mind is an executive function. You’re trying to guide your own behavior using self-speech. Talking to another person may not necessarily meet that definition because it’s not self-directed and you’re not trying to alter yourself in any way, and we can go down the list and develop others. You see to yourself in order to guide yourself over time like a GPS, and so visual imagery, that is being used to change your behavior or guide your behavior is an executive function and that’s non-verbal working memory according to some people. So that’s another way of doing it, but if I simply draw pictures using my visual imagery then that’s not an executive function because it’s not self-directed.

Sucheta: Exactly.

Dr. Barkley: Its intent isn’t to change your guide my behavior.

Sucheta: I completely understand. So can you help us, as we come to the end, to look at the two parts of this executive process? Help us understand what’s normal and can an individual wake up with strong executive functions and can they deteriorate over time during the period of 24 hours for themselves? And second, how can one understand, how do you help people separate malfunction, dysfunction versus disorder with respect to executive function?

Dr. Barkley: Sure, sure. Okay, I’m going to take a second, but first because I think it’s a little easier and a little shorter, but there is a bell-shaped distribution, a normal curve, if you will, of executive functioning in the population, actually, I would say that there’s a bell-shaped curve of each for the seven executive abilities, and just like there’s a bell curve for human intelligence and language, and for human artistic ability and other mental abilities, and so we have to ask: given that executive functioning is dimensional in nature and that we all vary in how much of it and how much of each of the seven we have, because each of us may be using one more than the other, then at what point along this dimension do we determine that somebody is disabled or disordered? And simply put, for me and for many others, it’s when it is so deficient that you cannot function effectively in some major life activity such as school, work, peer relations, or family function. So at a point where your functioning becomes so ineffective that the environment kicks back, there starts to be harmful consequences that occur to you, adverse events, then you are impaired and that is where a disorder is defined. Up until that point, it’s simply normal human variation in inability but if that variation becomes so deficient that you can’t function effectively and harm is occurring to you because of that, you now have a disorder, a disability and you’re impaired, and that’s the dividing line for me. Just as it is with intelligence or language, there is a point where low intelligence results in harm to the individual, and of course, we think of that as intellectual disability or what used to be called mental retardation.

The same is true with other mental abilities. So it’s a little arbitrary where you draw a line but it’s not meaningless. When harm occurs to a person in a major life activity, that is where a disorder has arisen.

Sucheta: So is it a good idea for me to, when educators and parents ask me this question, I always describe that there are two factors to consider. One is, if there’s a need and if your child is not performing, then there’s a definite problem, and if the peers are functioning at that level and your child is not in that social context, then there’s a problem. I have not necessarily get their attention to, is this a disorder? But when should you intervene? When these two scenarios come up, you should intervene, is that a fair way to approach it?

Dr. Barkley: Yes, I think so because my next thing would be to say to those people, is the child being harmed by their inability to perform in that situation? Is something happening, are they being rejected by their peers, are their grades falling? Are you considering after-school tutoring? Are you thinking of holding them back in that grade, or thinking of shifting them to a different class or school, by virtue of their inability to perform effectively? And if those harms are on the horizon or already occurring, then yes, by all means, we need to intervene.

Sucheta: So you’re using the—sorry, you’re using the term ‘harm’, more so harm to their future, not necessarily physical harm.

Dr. Barkley: Well, it can be physical, but generally, the term ‘harm’ according to Wakefield would be three things: is there an increased likelihood of death in an ADHD? There is. Is there an increased likelihood of morbidity, physical injury? And in disorders like ADHD, there is. But it doesn’t have to be those two which are quite severe. Is there adverse social consequences occurring to the individual by virtue of their lack of ability to perform? In other words, I mentioned a few of them. Are your grades falling? Are you being retained in school? Have you lost a job? Have friends rejected you? Have you been abused by other people or taken advantage of by them, for instance, in sexual victimization by virtue of your poor impulse control? So I look for, what is the environmental event, the consequence that is coming back at you because you can’t perform in this situation as well as others? And when there is an adverse event that is happening to you in that environment, then you crossed the line. If the fact that you may not be happy with your performance but there is no other harm demonstrated other than your happiness or lack of it, may simply be due to the fact that you’ve chosen the wrong environment to be in. You may not have the ability to be a physician or be a lawyer, or be a physicist, and that’s when we might guide you into a different profession but there’s no harm occurring to you other than your own distress and unhappiness—

Sucheta: Or dissatisfaction.

Dr. Barkley: Yeah, dissatisfaction, so sometimes, we’re dissatisfied by our performance but it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong; it just means we have to reevaluate our sense of our self and have a more realistic impression of our abilities, and then maybe move to an environment or occupation or vocation in which are more suitable, or have better aptitude.

So to sort of summarize, we both agree that executive functions related to controlling ourselves, self-regulation toward improving our future, we agree that these are things we do to ourselves, including self-awareness and self-restraint, visual imagery, and self-speech, and things like that, and that we’re doing this to improve our social functioning as well as our personal function, and I think that would be a good way to conceptualize this for a lay person.

Sucheta: Thank you so much, Russ. This was terrific. This is going to help every listener who has been wanting a much more clear and simpler explanation of this complex matter. So before I let you go, should anyone have any questions or want to learn more about your work, where do they go?

Dr. Barkley: I think the best starting point would be my website which is russellbarkley.org, so if they go there, they will see a great deal of information, free information on ADHD and my books and so on, and they can use the contact button to reach me if they need to, and that I have a second website in which I’ve posted 35 hours of free lectures for viewing, and that is adhdlectures.com.

Sucheta: And I highly recommend to all our listeners to explore that. That’s where I get most of my understanding of your thoughts and ideas, and particularly, the theory that you have proposed.

Thank you, Russ, for making the time to join me on my podcast.

Dr. Barkley: My pleasure.

 

Todd: Alright, wow, Sucheta, what a great conversation with Dr. Russell Barkley. What an incredibly impressive gentleman. 23 books and published 250 times in different journals and books, and educational videos, keynote speeches all around the world. What an amazing guy.

Sucheta: He truly is. I liked the way how Russell Barkley first gave a brief history and an overview for our listeners because executive functions are a new hot topic and not everybody understands it, but not everybody is able to explain it as well as he does. Even though it started in a highly research and theoretical area, the term ‘executive function’ has now cross the threshold and has entered into more application fields, such as cognitive training, education, or even job readiness.

What’s interesting is yet the average person still doesn’t know what executive functions are all about, and the confusion, as he mentioned, comes from there being 20 or 30 definitions that have been floating around over the past 30 years, and sort of a lack of a unified view amongst the researchers. And that’s why Russell’s theoretical framework is really, really helpful, I think.

Todd: Yeah, I agree. That framework that he walked us through was very impressive, the framework that he’s developed to help everyone understand executive functions. Walk us through some of the real key takeaways from that.

Sucheta: So here’s the first takeaway: Russ says, simply put, executive function is your ability to control yourself; what you think, what you say, how you do, to get to your goals. They are the key ingredients of human self-regulation and a reason to stop yourself, to redirect yourself, and to do it now to change what happens to you in the future. So this is kind of that interplay between the current moment and the break button or break in that you put or the prospect that you press, so that you have a better outcome later on, and you have heard the term ‘delayed gratification,’ that marshmallow experiment, so that’s kind of a classic example of how people exercise their executive function.

In other words, executive functions are things that you are doing to yourself, to your behaviors, in hopes for a better tomorrow, to either improve your welfare or to improve results, or to avoid inconvenience, or even in worst-case scenarios, hazards or damage to yourself.

Todd: Well, Russ was talking about, and listening to this works he’s done, other neuropsychologists and researchers all agree that there are basically seven skills combined to make your executive functions. Walk us through that.

Sucheta: And that’s the second very, very important takeaway, and that in his theoretical model, Russ explains that executive functions having seven set of skills that we do to ourselves to change our current behaviors, thoughts, and actions. And the first is, self-awareness which is also kind of known as self-directed attention or self-directed awareness. Second is impulse control, this is more like a self-restraint. Sometimes, the term ‘inhibition’ is used in this context. But inhibition to me doesn’t do justice as much as, or self-control doesn’t do as much justice because any time you think about impulse control, you are thinking about a two-year old who’s touching, opening cabinets and pulling things that he’s not supposed to get into, but more self-restraint, which as an adult, you and I can relate to. The third is visual imagery. This is the pictures that mentally you see. It’s almost like a mental GPS that help us navigate. Sometimes, it’s also called ‘non-verbal working memory.’ The fourth part he talked about was self-speech which is also sometimes called ‘inner speech.’ I use this term ‘sub-vocal rehearsal’ to help my patients to use this idea of talking to themselves quietly. Again, using the talk as a tool to guide your actions and emotions internally. The fifth component he talked about was emotional self-control. This is your ability to manipulate your own emotions or your emotional state. The greatest example comes to my mind is when Miss Universe, Steve Harvey, in one of the shows declared somebody to be the winner of the pageant and turns out he had announced the wrong person, and then the new winner was announced and she had to quickly regain her composure and hide her disappointment, and devastating news, and she had to just pretend that she was just happy for the person. That kind of emotional control is also kind of regulated by our executive function. The sixth part he talked about was self-motivation which is activating your own self with the future in mind. And the final but the pinnacle executive function that he talked about was planning and problem solving. He uses a very interesting term called ‘self-play’ which is playing with the ideas or you playing with the ideas by yourself to kind of doing hypothetical problem solving to ultimately help yourself to solve a problem with which you are sitting.

Todd: Well, those are indeed an amazing and powerful set of skills, and I can certainly understand why they guide us and help us change our future, and that’s what it’s all about, right?

Sucheta: Yes, that’s the fascinating thing about these executive functions and the mind tools that go with it.

The third takeaway he kind of talked about, these seven mind tools make a better future possible for us. So even though these seven mind tools are essential for personal success, they don’t, unfortunately, develop simultaneously. They rather cascade; they develop in that particular order that I just described. And the seven tools continue to grow and develop as we get older and our brain matures, and pretty much by later 20’s, all seven set of skills come onboard. So you can imagine, we are giving keys to a 16-year old whose prefrontal system and his planning and reasoning skills are not sorted out, or he doesn’t have the visual imagery polished where he can see himself getting in trouble. If he doesn’t wear a seatbelt or doesn’t follow traffic rules, or gets on his phone while he’s talking, so that’s the kind of tricky part of the tangle that developing brain does with helping us manage our tools.

The best-case scenario is when all the seven executive function skills are present: our work, our behaviors, our presentation, our appearance, our attitude, our relatability in a social context, they all work like a well-rehearsed orchestra—beautiful, just seamless. And we, unfortunately, all of us have different variability in our skills and abilities and that’s why certain people are more skilled and able and some people are not.

Todd: Yeah, I know, I agree with you. Are there any other takeaways we should be paying attention to from this conversation?

Sucheta: Yes, so the next takeaway he talked about was, the executive brain being a social brain. Russ talked about this evolutionary perspective that the main reason why the prefrontal lobes were developed is so that the humans could improve their long-term welfare, and how could they do that? They could do that by creating these mental checks and mental breaks, but precisely, these tools were developed in the context of operating in groups. They were designed for social navigation. Humans were better off if they work together in a group and with others, so to secure their future, if they cooperated and controlled their impulses, they were more likely to be included in a group setting, and that’s how they came onboard.

So in short, the prefrontal cortex came into being to help us live together, interact peacefully, and to solve challenges constructively by really keeping your own future in mind.

Todd: Well, Russ was also talking about that there’s this wide variability in the developing brain. I have to think that has a certain impact on the way people’s executive function shows themselves, yeah?

Sucheta: Oh, absolutely. The fifth takeaway is that there is a wide variability in the developing brain, and as we discussed earlier, the seven mind tools don’t develop simultaneously, and sometimes, they don’t develop well at all and Russ says, the best way to think about a problematic executive function, when there is some kind of adverse effect or some sort of harm that occurs, and he gives some examples of that, that for example, if you take a student in the learning context, if he has failing grades in spite of talent and capacity, or he has answered all the questions in the classroom but when it came time to test, he was never prepared for the test or he was not focused. That can really lead to bad grades. There’s a situation where parents are considering shifting the child to a new classroom or requesting a different teacher, or is even considering a new school altogether. And a real kind of red-shirting effect that we talk a lot about, is that the parents are considering to holding the child back a whole year so that he gains a little maturation and a little leg-up where he is not as impulsive and destructive in a social context. So that’s kind of the key important point that I think everybody needs to keep in mind, that executive functions are judged in the context of executive functions of other people. So if you are in a classroom and there are 30 kids or 20 kids, and there are two kids or five kids that always get in trouble, then those kids stand out because their peers have somehow shown that they have a handle on it.

So in conclusion, let’s just remember that executive functions are a collected group of skills that help us change today to bring better future. We do that by using mental tools of self-awareness, effortful focus, stopping ourselves and redirecting our attention, visualizing the future, rehearsing what we are about to say or do, and all that to get the goal that we want for self. When this happens well, we are focused, we are motivated, we are effective, and we are efficient. Most importantly, when executive functions work well, we are socially successful. Our likability factor goes up, we appear more cooperative, we are less confrontational, we don’t argue, we don’t challenge, we are cooperatively able to come to a joint solution, and this is not to say that we are submissive and we are weak; this is actually being we are savvy and we are deeply understanding the song and dance goes into being a part of bigger society. And a most zen way, I can say, when your executive functions work superbly well, you’re extremely helpful and you’re less selfish. I hope that makes sense for all our listeners.

Todd: It makes an awful lot of sense and it was indeed a great conversation with Dr. Russell Barkley.

That’s all the time we have for today, so on behalf of our host, Sucheta Kamath and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks again for listening and we look forward to seeing you next week on Full PreFrontal.

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Sucheta Kamath
Executive Function Specialist at Cerebral Matters
Sucheta Kamath, founder of private practice (Cerebral Matters), is an expert in brain training & Executive Function development. She is a TEDx speaker and a recent graduate of the Leadership Atlanta class of 2015. Sucheta will be launching ExQ, an educational software company that offers accessible, web-based learning management tools for all in Fall of 2017.

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