Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not.
The ‘Executive Functions’ (EFs) of inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility enable us to think before we act, resist temptations or impulsive reactions, stay focused, reason, problem-solve, flexibly adjust to changed demands or priorities, and see things from new and different perspectives. These skills are critical for success in all life’s aspects and are sometimes more predictive than even IQ or socioeconomic status. Understandably, there is great interest in improving EFs. It’s now clear they can be improved at any age through training and practice, much as physical exercise hones physical fitness.
However, despite claims to the contrary, wide transfer does not seem to occur and ‘mindless’ aerobic exercise does little to improve EFs. Important questions remain: How much can EFs be improved (are benefits only superficial) and how long can benefits be sustained? What are the best methods for improving EFs? What about an approach accounts for its success? Do the answers to these differ by individual characteristics such as age or gender? Since stress, sadness, loneliness, or poor health impair EFs, and the reverse enhances EFs, we predict that besides directly train EFs, the most successful approaches for improving EFs will also address emotional, social, and physical needs.
There has been great interest in improving executive functions (EFs), accelerating their development, stopping or slowing their decline, and/or remediating deficits. Many different methods have been tried including diverse types of computerized cognitive training (especially working memory training), diverse physical activities (such as aerobic exercise, resistance training, coordinative exercise, yoga, and martial arts) as well as other things such as certain school curricula (including Montessori, Tools of the Mind, Chicago School Readiness Program, and PATHS). Before discussing the pros and cons of different methods that attempt to improve EFs, it would be helpful to briefly explain what is meant by the term, EFs.
Executive functions explained
Executive functions (EFs) consist of a family of three, interrelated core skills (inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility; Miyake et al., 2000, Diamond, 2013). From those, higher-order EFs are built such as reasoning, problem-solving, and planning (Collins and Koechlin, 2012, Lunt et al., 2012). Inhibitory control involves resisting one’s initial impulse or a strong pull to do one thing, and instead act more wisely. Without inhibitory control we would be at the mercy of external stimuli, internal impulses, and habits of thought or action that pull us this way or that. Inhibitory control thus makes it possible for us to choose how we react and to change how we behave rather than being “unthinking” creatures of habit or impulse (Diamond, 2013). It is critical for avoiding social faux pas and for a civil society where people abide by rules and norms. It is difficult to think of any aspect of life where having the presence of mind to wait before speaking or acting, giving a considered response rather than an impulsive one, being able to stay focused despite distraction, and resisting temptations to do inappropriate, ill-advised, self-destructive or illegal things would not be beneficial.
Working memory (WM) involves more than holding information in mind. It involves doing that while performing one or more mental operations. It is needed, for example, for re-ordering the items you are holding in mind or seeing how they relate to one another (‘working with’ the information you are holding in mind; Baddeley and Hitch, 1994, Smith and Jonides, 1999) and also for remembering your question or comment while following an ongoing discussion or for holding in mind what you were about to do when something arises that must be dealt with first (D’Esposito and Postle, 2015). WM is critical for reasoning and problem-solving for they require holding lots of information in mind, exploring their interrelations, and then perhaps dis-assembling those combinations and re-combining the elements in new ways. WM is necessary for making sense of anything that unfolds over time for that always requires holding in mind what happened earlier and relating that to what is happening now (e.g., following a lecture or conversation, relating what you are reading now to what you read earlier, or understanding the relation between a later effect and an earlier cause).
Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to flexibly adjust to changed demands or priorities, to look at the same thing in different ways or from different perspectives (as required for set shifting or task switching; Allport and Wylie, 2000, Kiesel et al., 2010, Monsell, 2003, Vandierendonck et al., 2010). If one way of solving a problem isn’t working, one needs cognitive flexibility to “think outside the box,” that is, to find other ways of conceiving of the problem or of attacking it. Such flexibility is needed for meeting novel, unanticipated challenges and for seizing opportunities when they unexpectedly arise.
EFs are predictive of achievement, health, wealth, and quality of life throughout life, often more so than IQ or socioeconomic status (SES; e.g., Moffitt et al., 2011, Moffitt, 2012). They are more critical for school readiness than IQ or entry-level reading or math (Alloway et al., 2005, Blair, 2002, Blair and Razza, 2007, Carlson and Moses, 2001, Hughes and Ensor, 2008, Morrison et al., 2010). They are predictive of success throughout the school years from preschool through university (often more so than IQ [Duckworth and Seligman, 2005, Alloway and Alloway, 2010, Borella et al., 2010, Duncan et al., 2007, Fiebach et al., 2007, Gathercole et al., 2004, Loosli et al., 2012, McClelland et al., 2007, Nicholson, 2007, Savage et al., 2006]).
The importance of strong EFs does not stop in childhood. There is abundant evidence that EFs are crucial for success in getting and keeping a job as well as career advancement (Bailey, 2007, Leslie, 1995), making and keeping friends (Hughes and Dunn, 1998), marital harmony (Eakin et al., 2004), weight control (Crescioni et al., 2011), staying out of jail (Moffitt et al., 2011), and resisting substance abuse (Miller et al., 2011). Adults with better EFs also report they are happier and have a better quality of life (Moffitt, 2012).