Get Your Exec Function On

by F.

SciAm has an interesting piece on executive control, including the following exercise to help improve it:

…some tests of executive function can be used as training tools. A “backward digit span” test is a case in point: Person A recites a string of numbers, like 3, 6, 10, and person B has to respond with the same string, only in reverse order: 10, 6, 3. This task requires one to restrain his or her automatic inclination to mimic person A (inhibitory control), but also requires keeping the actual numbers in mind (working memory).

Here’s the context:

Turns out that sheer intelligence is not enough to become a young math whiz. It also takes a good attention span and training your mind to “self regulate” or focus on the task at hand.

The measure for academic success for decades has been a person’s intelligence quotient, or IQ. But new research published in the journal Child Development says that a thought process called “executive functioning,” which governs the ability to reason and mentally focus, also plays a critical role in learning, especially when it comes to math skills.

“It’s often thought that kids don’t do well because they’re dumb, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” says lead study author Clancy Blair, associate professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. “But not only is executive function pivotal for academic success, it’s amenable to training, and this training might make a big difference in a child?s ability.”

In Blair’s study, the parts of the brain’s so-called executive function, which is linked to math ability in preschoolers, are “working memory” and “inhibitory control.” Working memory is the ability to keep information or rules in mind while performing mental tasks. For instance, when children first learn arithmetic, they have to keep the rules of addition in mind when they add numbers together.

Inhibitory control is the ability to halt automatic impulses and focus on the problem at hand. For example, people use inhibitory control when they decide to take different routes to their jobs, because they have to make a conscious effort to override the regular route they otherwise would almost automatically follow. Although the researchers found a correlation between inhibitory control and math skills, they have yet to discover exactly how it works.

Addendum: here is a digit span exercise that’s pretty painless. It’s not reverse digit span, but whaddya gonna do. It wouldn’t be too hard to write maybe ten lines of Perl that would do something like this in reverse, it seems to me.