Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia has been a critically important pioneer in studying what scientists call the executive functions of the brain.
These are the brain functions we use to manage our attention, our emotions, and our behavior in pursuit of our goals. Diamond finds that executive functions predict children’s success as well as — if not better than — IQ tests, as she explains:
Typical traditional IQ tests measure what’s called crystallized intelligence, which is mostly your recall of what you’ve already learned — like what’s the meaning of this word, or what’s the capital of that country? What executive functions tap is your ability to use what you already know — to be creative with it, to problem-solve with it — so it’s very related to fluid intelligence, because that requires reasoning and using information.
Executive functions emerge during the early years and don’t fully mature until early adulthood. They have a strong bearing on school success, too. Diamond says:
If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions — working memory and inhibition — actually predict success better than IQ tests.
Diamond never expected to be in the place where she is now — as a leading expert in executive functions. As she thinks back on her life, she says:
I wasn’t expecting to have a career. I was going to have children and stay at home. I went to college just because I enjoyed learning and I was going to indulge myself and then settle down.
But all of that changed when she went to Swarthmore College and got very interested in “people, in society and culture.” She decided to go to graduate school to continue these pursuits. At Harvard, she worked with psychologist Jerry Kagan, a well-known expert on temperament. She says:
Jerry Kagan was jumping up and down about all the changes you see in baby’s behavior in the first year of life. He said, you see the same changes in children who are staying at home, who are in foster care, who are in day care, who are in the kibbutz — you see them in Africa, in Europe, and South America. It can’t be all learning and experience because [these children’s] experience is too different. There has to be a maturational component.
That led Diamond to become interested in the brain:
If there’s a maturational component, the maturation is in the brain. So it meant that I had to start studying the brain.
And she did, at Yale. It meant entering a whole new field of study. At that time, as she puts in, it was unheard of to work in both neuroscience and child development — the researchers in these fields “didn’t use the same vocabularies.” They didn’t even “talk to each other.” Her studies of the brain led her to an interest in inhibition. She says:
People talked a lot about the role of acquisition [in] acquiring more knowledge, acquiring more skills. What I realized is that’s important but what’s also important is being able to inhibit reactions that get in the way [of learning something new].
This journey led her to the concept of executive functions.
Just What Are Executive Functions?
Philip David Zelazo of the University of Minnesota, also a leading expert in executive functions, defines them as “the deliberate, goal-directed control of behavior.”
All of these functions take place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain in concert with other parts of the brains. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of our brains to develop and is responsible for our ability to exchange information across the high-level areas of the brain so that our behavior can be guided by our accumulated knowledge.
That’s the beauty and the purpose of executive functions: they enable us to control ourselves, to reflect deeply, and to consider things from multiple points of view. As such, they involve paying attention, remembering what we need to remember to pursue our goals, thinking flexibly and not going on automatic, exercising inhibition.
1. Paying Attention or Focus
Focusing is obviously central to achieving our goals. If we are so distracted that we can’t pay attention, we can’t concentrate.
2. Working Memory
Adele Diamond defines working memory as holding information in our minds while mentally working with it or updating it, such as relating what you’re reading now to what you just read or relating what you are learning now to what you learned earlier.
3. Cognitive Flexibility
Diamond defines cognitive flexibility as being able to flexibly switch perspectives or the focus of attention and flexibly adjust to changed demands or priorities.
4. Inhibitory Control
According to Diamond, this is “the ability to resist a strong inclination to do one thing and instead do what is most appropriate.” It means sticking with something you are doing after you’ve had an initial failure — inhibiting the strong inclination to give up or continuing to work on something even when you’re bored.
An Experiment Testing Executive Functions
Perhaps this is best exemplified by showing one of Diamond’s experiments to measure executive functions — the Day-Night Task. When shown a picture of a black background with a yellow moon and stars, children are supposed to say “day.” When shown a picture of a white background with a yellow sun, they’re supposed to say “night.”
You can see from the video that children have to pay attention, remember the rules, think flexibly and not go on automatic.
Even more amazing is that something so simple can help children thrive now and in the future. These are things we can do everyday with our children while waiting for dinner, for example, such as Simon Says or Red/Light Green Light, or Freeze Tag.
Adele Diamond cautions:
I think that we should be focusing on helping children get better at these skills early. I’m hesitant to use the word teach, because when you say teach, people have this image of children sitting like little college students in their seats with somebody lecturing at them.
Promoting these skills should involve weaving them naturally into everyday activities in school and at home in playful and fun ways!