How your brain’s executive function works — and how to improve it | Sabine Doebel


Translator: Leslie Gauthier
Reviewer: Joanna Pietrulewicz 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? (Laughter) Or, ever start scrolling on Facebook and suddenly realize
you’ve missed a meeting? (Laughter) Or maybe this one’s more familiar: Ever plan to stop at the store
on the way home from work and then drive all the way home
instead on autopilot? (Laughter) 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 buzzword. 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 the 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 contexts
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 Cheeerios twice a week. (Laughter) 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’s a great test
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. Now, really young kids struggle with this. Three- and four-year-olds will usually
keep sorting the cards in the old way no matter how many times you remind
them of what they should be doing. (Video) Woman: If it’s blue, put it here.
If it’s red, put it here. Here’s a blue one. OK, so now we’re going to play
a different game. We’re not going to play
the color game anymore. Now we’re going to play the shape game, and in the shape game, all the stars go here
and all the trucks go here, OK? Stars go here, trucks go here. Where do the stars go? And where do the trucks go? Excellent. OK, stars go here, trucks go here. Here’s a truck. (Laughter) Stars go here, trucks go here. Here’s a star. (Laughter) SB: So it’s really compelling, and it’s really obvious when she fails
to use her executive function. But here’s the thing: we could train her on this task
and others like it and eventually she’d improve, but does that mean that she would’ve improved
her executive function outside of the lab? No, because in the real world,
she’ll need to use executive function to do a lot more than switching
between shape and color. She’ll need to switch
from adding to multiplying or from playing to tidying up or from thinking about her own feelings
to thinking about her friend. And success in real-world situations
depends on things like how motivated you are
and what your peers are doing. And it also depends
on the strategies that you execute when you’re using executive function
in a particular situation. So what I’m saying is
that context really matters. Now let me give you an example
from my research. I recently brought in a bunch of kids
to do the classic marshmallow test, which is a measure
of delay of gratification that also likely requires
a lot of executive function. So you may have heard about this test, but basically, kids are given a choice. They can have one marshmallow right away, or if they can wait for me
to go to the other room and get more marshmallows, they can have two instead. Now, most kids really want
that second marshmallow, but the key question is:
How long can they wait? (Laughter) Now, I added a twist
to look at the effects of context. I told each kid that they were in a group, like the green group, and I even gave them
a green T-shirt to wear. And I said, “Your group
waited for two marshmallows, and this other group, the orange group, did not.” Or I said the opposite: “Your group didn’t wait
for two marshmallows and this other group did.” And then I left the kid alone in the room and I watched on a webcam
to see how long they waited. (Laughter) So what I found was that kids who believed that their group waited
for two marshmallows were themselves more likely to wait. So they were influenced by a peer group
that they’d never even met. (Laughter) Pretty cool, isn’t it? Well, so with this result
I still didn’t know if they were just copying their group
or if it was something deeper than that. So I brought in some more kids, and after the marshmallow test,
I showed them pictures of pairs of kids, and I told them, “One of these kids
likes to have things right away, like cookies and stickers. And the other kid likes to wait so that they can have
more of these things.” And then I asked them, “Which one of these two kids
do you like more and who would you want to play with?” And what I found was that kids
who believed that their group waited tended to prefer other kids
who liked to wait for things. So learning what their group did
made them value waiting more. And not only that, these kids likely used executive function to generate strategies
to help themselves wait, like sitting on their hands
or turning away from the marshmallow or singing a song to distract themselves. (Laughter) So what this all shows
is just how much context matters. It’s not that these kids
had good executive function or bad, it’s that the context
helped them use it better. So what does this mean
for you and for your kids? Well, let’s say that you want
to learn Spanish. You could try changing your context and surrounding yourself
with other people who also want to learn, and even better if these are people
that you really like. That way you’ll be more motivated
to use executive function. Or let’s say that you want to help
your child do better on her math homework. You could teach her strategies
to use executive function in that particular context, like putting her phone away
before she starts studying or planning to reward herself
after studying for an hour. Now, I don’t want to make it sound
like context is everything. Executive function is really complex,
and it’s shaped by numerous factors. But what I want you to remember is if you want to improve
your executive function in some aspect of your life, don’t look for quick fixes. Think about the context and how you can make
your goals matter more to you, and how you can use strategies to help yourself
in that particular situation. I think the ancient Greeks said it best
when they said, “Know thyself.” And a key part of this is knowing
how context shapes your behavior and how you can use that knowledge
to change for the better. Thank you. (Applause)

100 comments

  1. Know Thyself! Knowing which move to make comes with insight
    and knowledge, and by learning the lessons that are accumulated along the way

  2. I love that star and truck game but there are adults that would do the same as the little girl.

  3. I failed so hard at executive function, that I can't even finish the video without turning to other tabs.

  4. I'm glad it's not another pro pedophile or pro, trans gender kid video from TED. They took intelligence and turned it into garbage.

  5. Its strange ADHD was not mentioned at all! Where is my orange juice? Executive function runs my life. #adhd

  6. There's a breakdown when those "symbols of waiting" in society can be faked: neck deep in car/home loans and credit, doctored social media photos, liposuction, plastic surgery all to fake a brand/image to everyone. We see it it my city all the time and people open up in certain support groups (to keep it private) about their debt or relational problems because of the pressure to fabricate an image of high social status. I have 2 cars: a new car and a 2006 car that looks fair but it is fully paid off and runs great. I see a huge difference in how people behave around me when I drive the older one so the pressure by peers to fake it is there.

  7. The little girl at 4:27 received v. good verbal instructions, but during execution she was mislead – already in process when she received the card, should have been reminded & second card handed over the wrong box with no pause

  8. I know a kid, around 18 or 19 years old, who works with an Executive Function Coach. Apparently, he has some issues with his executive function, and his coach is with an organization that works with people with these issues. I felt bad for the kid because even with the help of his coach, he was unable to pass a college course he enrolled in. He didn't show up to class 50% of the time and rarely did his homework. He's a bright kid, too.

  9. I waited about the half of the speech so she can get to the point, and then she sad something that everyone already knows. I think that they(scientists) barely know anything about executive functions just the obvious.

  10. "The vast majority of Argentine Jews are descended from immigrants who arrived from Europe. These ashkenazic Jews migrated from small towns or shtetels of Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Germany, Romania or Ukraine, leaving behind most of their Jewish relatives. After two or three generations, those Jewish families lost track of their relatives, having been saved from the war, emigrated to other countries like USA, England or Australia."

  11. I skipped to the last two minutes of this, and that is all you need to know about my executive function #adhd

  12. Conforming isn't for everyone. Adhd and depression effect executive function. Society makes our brains sick and unable to endure the punishments of not falling in line with everyone else. If your executive functioning is malfunctioning, you'll likely need medication to help you conform.

    Not all of us are lucky enough to like the people we must go to school and work with. Poverty doesn't do much but hinder the ability to think ahead. Stress is a thief of planning and motivation.

    Good luck changing the context of everyday life.

  13. Executive or cognitive function is how engaged our brain is in the current task. Context matters. We try to improve executive function in the wrong ways. #TEDTalk https://twitter.com/tedstalkin

  14. Executive function is the obedience function–it leads to success only so far. The greatest achievers in their fields tend to pursue what they love, without waiting, even impulsively.

  15. Interesting talk :)) its taking me a while to complete my drivers license too… I put it off for grad school but now that I completed my studies and will be working full-time next month, I should focus on continuing driving lessons in my free time and finally getting that license lol.

  16. How to train slaves. Obey marketing brainwash machine, take the long run for a loan, work for big companies, repeat.

  17. Most people think they control their brains. As if their brain could control their brains. Maybe they think the brain has a brain that itself has a brain, and so on. No, there is software (more or less) master in the brain that tries to control certain mental functions after acquiring them or that tries to improve them. This master software is the one that makes us say "I", and that is itself a feature acquired, and that changes constantly, is improving, or is disintegrating, or is dividing, or … any multiple others opportunities.

  18. Um, is this a re-upload? I feel like I've watched this before…
    I also think that what "executive function" is wasn't explained very well or thoroughly enough…

  19. This talk is all over the place. What's the take away? Our environment and peer group influences our thinking and behaviour? Wow, what a revolutionary insight.

  20. This is all covered In the book "thinking, fast and slow" by Daniel kahneman . I believe the term executive function is actually what Daniel refers to as System 2. He spoke about similar experiments too.

  21. I’m liking this but the pacing/deliver whilst crystal clear seems a tad paediatric to me… maybe I just need to “know myself” better 🥴😉

  22. Great talk. But I have to say I was put off by the presentation. Why does she have some…"subtle thing" in her expression that sort of makes her sound retarded? I've occasionally noticed this is people who think THEY are speaking to people who might be a little retarded, lol. So…I don't know — but it was excellent info presented in a manner I found distracting. Maybe she was just nervous…??

  23. In the real world will have to make decisions like where you going to waste time or plan a garden do something positive unlike this scientist

  24. I'm confused. Wouldn't the strategies you use to help yourself in a certain context be more of a cognition hack than an improvement of executive functioning? I don't see how this would actually help improve executive functioning at all, just make you more capable with the executive functioning you already have.

  25. I wonder how these types of tests could help those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. They may seem simple to those who don't have it but for those who do and struggle with the function of multitasking, it can be very difficult.

  26. I'm horrible at this kind of task switching and extremely absent-minded, forgetting all my meetings and such, all those things. Being distracted all the time, not remembering any facts like people's names and such. All of it. But I have extremely strong willpower. I'm like one of those people who could saw off their own leg if it got stuck under something in a forest for several days. (this didn't happen) I can delay gratification indefinitely if I decided it so. I can push myself to the levels of stress where I get physically sick. I can push myself to do things that give me emotional scarring without even noticing that I'm pushing myself too hard (These things have been happening since my childhood) So I am quite doubtful that executive function is responsible for both aspects. Otherwise, how could I be at such opposite extremes in these things?

  27. Against Google/YouTube the D o J has opened up an anti-trust investigation in an attempt to constrain political information/analysis/strategy/opinion in the 2020 primary & general election. FYI

  28. ♦️ I wish in all coming videos approval Arabic in translation please ♥️

    🔷 * small notice * : the Arab world ( we .. 😁) … Owend internet and technology example your country

    and thanks you on your efforts ♥️🌹

  29. Orange juice on cereal!!
    This is a common practice in rest homes for those who can’t drink milk.

  30. Wait. Wait. Wait.
    Executive function is your ability to think outside of habit and simplicity, and yet the best way of fostering it in people is to play on an inherent need for social conformity? Something which in the long run is known as one of the major reasons why people don't think for themselves?
    That is messed up.

  31. Years of college, experiments and time… Then that's all you can come up with…Who gave this lady a Ted talk

  32. Learn to drive a car to improve your executive function.
    Wow self driving cars and other automated devices will make us damn really damn

  33. I feel like she missed the real point of her own experiments. It’s not that context matters. It’s that IDENTITY matters. That’s really what she was manipulating.

  34. As someone who is great at games like colour/shape sorting and still sucks at executive functioning, yeah that tells you nothing.

  35. It is not fair to have different levels of executive function among humans if there is God! I am writing this because I am supposed to have adhd inattentive.

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