Improving executive function
Chances are you've recently heard or read about the importance of "executive function"—the set of higher-order mental skills that allow us to plan and organize, make considered decisions, manage our time and focus our attention. (The famous "marshmallow experiment" was all about executive function.) No matter how smart or talented we—or our kids or our employees—are, not much will get done well without these key capacities.
The problem is that researchers don't yet know much about how to strengthen executive functioning. A review from cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham reports that certain parental behaviors—"meaningful praise, affection, sensitivity to the child’s needs, and encouragement," along with intellectual stimulation, support for autonomy, and well-structured and consistent rules—can help kids develop robust executive function skills over the long run. Shorter-term interventions, such as the school-based program Tools of the Mind, have shown mixed or disappointing results, and computerized "brain training" exercises have generally failed to show that improvements in executive function produced by such exercises transfer to real-life tasks.
one surprising but well-supported way to improve executive function in both children and adults, however: aerobic exercise. A just-published review of the relevant research, appearing in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review
, concludes that "ample evidence indicates that regular engagement in aerobic exercise can provide a simple means for healthy people to optimize a range of executive functions." Drawing on that article, here are some of the benefits of exercise for executive function, as found in three different populations:
Studies of kids have found that regular aerobic exercise can expand their working memory—the capacity that allows us to mentally manipulate facts and ideas to solve problems—as well as improve their selective attention and their ability to inhibit disruptive impulses. Regular exercise and overall physical fitness have been linked to academic achievement, as well as to success on specific tasks like safely crossing a busy street while talking on a cell phone (note to concerned readers: the street in the experiment was virtual).
Executive functioning reaches its peak levels in young adults, and yet it can be improved still further with aerobic exercise. Studies on young adults find that those who exercise regularly post quicker reaction times, give more accurate responses, and are more effective at detecting errors when they engage in fast-paced tasks in the lab.
Research on older adults has found that regular aerobic exercise can boost the executive functions that typically deteriorate with age, including the ability to pay focused attention, to switch among tasks, and to hold multiple items in working memory. One such study assigned older adults to three one-hour sessions of exercise a week for six months, scanning participants' brains before and after the six-month period; the scans showed "significant increases in gray and white matter volumes" in areas of the brain associated with executive control. (A group of older adults who engaged in strength and flexibility training for the same six months showed no such brain growth.) Abstracts of all the studies cited here are on my blog
(Want to read past issues of The Brilliant Report? You'll find them here.)
This Week's Top Blog PostS 1. Why You Treat Your Device Like A Person
2. Forget Consistent And Fair. Try Random.
3. A Vivid Example Of The Importance Of Praise
4. Why Your Child Wants To Hear The Same Book Again And Again
5. What Kind Of Beast Is A MOOC?
6. Why Libraries Are The Best Places To Learn
7. Can Video Games Make Us Better People?
8. Make Sure Your Questions Are "Juicy"
9. Teens Are Choosing Books That Are Too Easy For Them
10. The "Testing Effect" Works For Older Adults, Too
Articles and Blog posts About . . . the importance of sleep1. You'll Do Fine When You're Sleepy . . . Until Something Unexpected Happens
2. Starting The School Day Later Could Help Poor Performers
3. Why We Sleep: To Keep Our Brains Plastic
4. Learning Continues While You Sleep
5. How Much Sleep Does Your Brain Need?
6. Don't Pull An All-Nighter—Sleep!
7. How Can We Make Sure That Teens Get The Sleep They Need?
8. Just A Little More Sleep Makes Kids Ready To Learn
9. Want More Mental Bandwith? Take A Nap
10. To Lock In New Vocabulary Words, Kids Need To Sleep
If you have comments or questions, I'd love to hear from you by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you'd like to read even more about learning, you can visit my website, follow me on Twitter, and join the conversation on Facebook. Be brilliant!
All my best,
This Week's Brilliant Quote"Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and social studies in Sacramento's largest inner-city high school. 'As teachers, we want to move people,' Ferlazzo told me. 'The challenge is that, to move people a large distance and for the long term, we have to create the conditions where they can move themselves.' Ferlazzo makes a distinction between 'irritation' and 'agitation.' Irritation, he says, is 'challenging people to do something that we want them to do.' By contrast, 'agitation is challenging them to do something that they want to do.' What he has discovered throughout his career is that 'irritation doesn't work.' It might be effective in the short term. But to move people fully and deeply requires something more—not looking at the student as a pawn on a chessboard but as a full participant in the game."—Daniel H. Pink, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others