Full PreFrontal

Ep. 100: 10 Takeaways from 100 Conversations on the Science of Learning

February 07, 2020 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 100
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 100: 10 Takeaways from 100 Conversations on the Science of Learning
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Full PreFrontal
Ep. 100: 10 Takeaways from 100 Conversations on the Science of Learning
Feb 07, 2020 Season 1 Episode 100
Sucheta Kamath

Randomly scattered stars light up the night sky, but it is human inventiveness and imagination that has connected these cosmic dots into the constellations we know so well. As the podcast Full PreFrontal: Exposing the Mysteries of Executive Function celebrates its 100th episode, we have the same pleasure of connecting the scattered ideas that experts have shared with us over the past two years into a meaningful constellations of Executive Function concepts. We’ll explore these concepts and their impact on learning, education, self-efficacy, interpersonal connectivity, and the human story of personal progress.

Here are 10 lessons learned from 100 interviews with researchers, psychologists, neuroscientists, educators, authors, journalists, and thought leaders who believe that the power of the brain is a gift to us all – a gift we must take the time to unwrap with careful attention to details, mindfulness, and tremendous self-control.

10 Things Learned:

Success stems from the complex balance between talent, effort, and effective orchestration of future-forward thinking. Such skills are known as Executive Function, which allow us to map out our thoughts, behaviors, and actions in order to yield favorable outcomes that benefit the future-self. Here are the 10 takeaways:

  1. At the heart of human evolution is the ability to inhibit, which means saying no to the impulsive thoughts, ideas, and desires that lead to actions that only benefit us in the now.
  2. Executive Function skills allow us to become intentional, reflective, and problem solvers. But in order to activate the prefrontal system that accomplishes this, we have to get off “autopilot.”
  3. Executive Function systems are brought online when we learn new things because novel information requires novel adaptive responses.
  4. The brain is the most advanced future simulator. It allows us to envision the future and provides us with the tools to imagine the self through the continuity of time. We must extend compassion towards that “future self” who is hopelessly dependent on the mercy of the current self.
  5. Student success depends largely on the mastery of Executive Function because academic skills including reading comprehension, completing projects, conducting research, and writing papers all requires highly engaged Executive Function skills.
  6. There are innumerable barriers in attaining self-actualization; primarily, our self-blindness. We are often erroneously guided by our false confidence in our ability to be rational, fair, and consistent.
  7. Executive Function skills are extremely critical for transitions as they help us with the adaptive adjustment needed as we exit one area of our life and enter another. But we are not always fully prepared to handle such adjustments with resilience and grace.
  8. Executive Function skills are directly related to the maturation of the brain—delayed development, brain injury, and aging all impact the growth of these skills, especially decision making, problem solving, and adaptive and emotional adjustment.
  9. While stress often feels undesirable, it turns on adaptive flexibility and engages Executive Function. Stress in small to moderate doses is an essential ingredient to sharpening our self-regulation and critical self-directed problem solving.
  10. The most hopeful message from experts is that Executive Function can be cultivated, nurtured, and strengthened through practice and coaching. These skills can be put to test with carefully crafted activities by parents and educators alike.

Even though life has many moving parts, including those that create utter chaos as well as those that bring sheer joy, this podcast hopes that you will find a message of hope and guidance from our guests so that you can keep up with these moving parts, and so that the puzzle that is life will slowly start to come together!

Show Notes Transcript

Randomly scattered stars light up the night sky, but it is human inventiveness and imagination that has connected these cosmic dots into the constellations we know so well. As the podcast Full PreFrontal: Exposing the Mysteries of Executive Function celebrates its 100th episode, we have the same pleasure of connecting the scattered ideas that experts have shared with us over the past two years into a meaningful constellations of Executive Function concepts. We’ll explore these concepts and their impact on learning, education, self-efficacy, interpersonal connectivity, and the human story of personal progress.

Here are 10 lessons learned from 100 interviews with researchers, psychologists, neuroscientists, educators, authors, journalists, and thought leaders who believe that the power of the brain is a gift to us all – a gift we must take the time to unwrap with careful attention to details, mindfulness, and tremendous self-control.

10 Things Learned:

Success stems from the complex balance between talent, effort, and effective orchestration of future-forward thinking. Such skills are known as Executive Function, which allow us to map out our thoughts, behaviors, and actions in order to yield favorable outcomes that benefit the future-self. Here are the 10 takeaways:

  1. At the heart of human evolution is the ability to inhibit, which means saying no to the impulsive thoughts, ideas, and desires that lead to actions that only benefit us in the now.
  2. Executive Function skills allow us to become intentional, reflective, and problem solvers. But in order to activate the prefrontal system that accomplishes this, we have to get off “autopilot.”
  3. Executive Function systems are brought online when we learn new things because novel information requires novel adaptive responses.
  4. The brain is the most advanced future simulator. It allows us to envision the future and provides us with the tools to imagine the self through the continuity of time. We must extend compassion towards that “future self” who is hopelessly dependent on the mercy of the current self.
  5. Student success depends largely on the mastery of Executive Function because academic skills including reading comprehension, completing projects, conducting research, and writing papers all requires highly engaged Executive Function skills.
  6. There are innumerable barriers in attaining self-actualization; primarily, our self-blindness. We are often erroneously guided by our false confidence in our ability to be rational, fair, and consistent.
  7. Executive Function skills are extremely critical for transitions as they help us with the adaptive adjustment needed as we exit one area of our life and enter another. But we are not always fully prepared to handle such adjustments with resilience and grace.
  8. Executive Function skills are directly related to the maturation of the brain—delayed development, brain injury, and aging all impact the growth of these skills, especially decision making, problem solving, and adaptive and emotional adjustment.
  9. While stress often feels undesirable, it turns on adaptive flexibility and engages Executive Function. Stress in small to moderate doses is an essential ingredient to sharpening our self-regulation and critical self-directed problem solving.
  10. The most hopeful message from experts is that Executive Function can be cultivated, nurtured, and strengthened through practice and coaching. These skills can be put to test with carefully crafted activities by parents and educators alike.

Even though life has many moving parts, including those that create utter chaos as well as those that bring sheer joy, this podcast hopes that you will find a message

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Producer: Alright, welcome back to this Big Picture special edition of Full PreFrontal. I am here with our host, Sucheta Kamath. Good morning, my dear friend, wow, this is our 100th episode of this great podcast, congratulations, good to be with you.

Sucheta Kamath: We did it! I feel like we are celebrating one of the landmark anniversaries, I guess. Great to be with you for 100 episodes, Todd.

Producer: Yeah. Well, and let me just lead off and say on behalf of all of us here on my side of the team, we’re so grateful to be a part of this with you and it has been a real joy to bring this thing out to the world.

Sucheta: Me too. I went to a school yesterday and my heart was just full of joy because as I was meeting with this group of 11 people and I said to them, you know, I have a podcast in case you wanted to know more about, and the lead teacher, the director said, “Well, we have you listed as a resource on our school’s website,” and I said, “Really?”

Producer: Nice.

Sucheta: How wonderful is that?

Producer: That’s great.

Sucheta: So, that’s been really, really rewarding, and I thought as we look back, kind of reminisce, there are so many wonderful thoughts that come, I remember we started our journey when, actually, Gareth Young had me come on his episode and I met you and I loved getting to know you and I thought, well, let’s see what that looks like, and here we are, two and a half years later, I guess.

Producer: Has it been two and a half years? I mean, goodness gracious, I mean, that’s amazing, a real testament to the work and love that you’ve put into this project. I guess I’m not curious because it’s been an interesting path, how we’re producing and conducting this show for the 100th episode was so different than when we launched this thing, so I guess I’m just curious, so why did you even do this to begin with? What was the mission and purpose of launching the show? This is a lot of work that goes into this.

Sucheta: It really does. You’re so sweet to recognize that and you have seen me sweating and postponing the date, so I really, really appreciate you putting up with me, but yeah, so let’s start with the name itself, the idea of the Full PreFrontal was a little tongue-in-cheek based on Samantha B’s show Full Frontal, and one of the striking things about that show, she was one of the repeat guests on Jon Stewart’s show and Full Frontal was talking about censoring or talking about things that you’re not allowed to talk about, and I kind of thought about that a little bit, Full PreFrontal to me, here we are talking about education, learning, people wanting to live full and robust lives, and what was not in the conversation was the role of the prefrontal cortex, so that’s what I thought, let’s talk about the very thing we are not talking about. And then, the second part was that exposing the mysteries of executive function. I’ve always thought about executive function as, I don’t know, you’ll know the folklore of seven blind men and the elephants. I grew up with that story. Have you heard of that story, Todd?

Producer: Actually, I have.

Sucheta: Okay, so you know, and at least in my household when I was growing up as a child, that story was always emblematic of rigidity and not taking a perspective of the other and always thinking from many, many points of views, and maybe you’re missing something, always alerting to your personal blind spots. So, I thought when people talked about executive function, people we’re talking about different things based on where they were standing in reference to the elephant, so for example, if you’re standing next to the tail, you’re calling it a rope. If you’re standing next to the leg, you’re calling it a pillar, and I feel like the perception of executive function in school versus in a clinical setting based on what researchers are talking about, and it depends on who you are as a researcher, they were using different language. In education, we called it self-regulation. With adults, we called it executive function, and then people in the corporate world thought we are talking about leadership, and it was a hot mess.

Producer: Yes. Well, I thought it was about corporate leadership when I first heard the phrase, I mean, so I think that’s probably a common tale, I mean, and what’s been so striking to be about these 100 episodes is how much I’ve learned and how I never realized how pervasive this idea of executive function is and how its tentacles spread to virtually every element of one’s life, from your childhood, your education, to your relationships, to your health, to having to make your way in the world. I mean, it’s just, I’m so grateful that we’re doing this project because it’s made me completely reassess how I look and view, and act in the world. I mean, it’s been really powerful.

Sucheta: Well, thank you for saying that. I think that was the mission. Pretty much, when I started, I was really trying to — Adele Diamond, a very well-known child executive function researcher, and she will be a guest in coming episodes but she wrote this wonderful article that kind of summarized the transitions we have seen in the literature itself and she has all the list of researchers that its impact is seen in mental health, physical health, school readiness, job success, marital harmony, staying away from criminality, and then overall quality of life, and so if we are talking about such profound impact of these skills on so many aspects of life, and if we don’t create a little hub where all these issues are discussed under one umbrella, it would be not wise, and that was my initial thought.

And the second thing I was thinking about, Todd, is that when people tuned in, I wanted them to come to one place where they could hear researchers, neuroscientists, educators, learning experts, thought leaders, speech language pathologists, and clients, I wanted everybody’s part of the story to be heard, and then I could be the curator, so to speak. So, I saw myself as somebody at MOMA as a curator and bringing the best artists, and so that you get to hear from their perspective, what does the story look like? And so, once a cognitive educational social psychologist or social anthropologist, we have had a primatologist on this show, a psychiatrist, neurobiologist, behavioral economist, a special educational expert — special educator, I guess, reading specialist, what part are they seeing and where is their impact or pressure point, and what makes them tell the story in that particular way was very interesting to me, and what I feel having been a clinician in practice, ultimately, I was the front-facing person; I saw a client walk in and when the client walks in, all the research is in the background and me interacting with the client and listening to their story, and kind of designing solutions was literally based on where do you sit? So, if you need a new chair, yes, you need a little bit of knowledge of physics and you need to have the knowledge of gravity, but ultimately, you’re solving a problem for somebody who wants a comfortable place to sit. So, that’s the way, I wanted this to be a resource which bridges the ideas and its application. So, I hope you saw that being actualized in a way.

Producer: Well, I saw that absolutely being actualized that way. I mean, in the guest roster that you’ve had, is staggering in terms of the quality of the individuals, the talent, the knowledge, the resources that they bring to bear, their standing in the world, and this particular community is just an amazing collection. Kudos to you for curating all this amazing talent. I mean, there’s been some names that you do know, like Dan Pink, and then there’s names that none of us have ever heard of before but we’re so grateful to you for bringing them to our lives because they have taught us so much.

The show, one could argue the show is very deep and it takes work to really dive into the wealth of knowledge and the content, and what you could learn here, but if you invest that time, it really is a game-changer for people.

Sucheta: And I have heard, I get emails and when I go to present, people tell me, I was at the CHADD Conference in September and an educator came and told me how profoundly impactful this was for him who deals with adolescent boys, and so that was very, very rewarding for me to know that this is being used as a resource which is exactly what it means to be, but one of the things that, Todd, was really important to me, that here we are, every single person on this earth is trying to lead a successful life which is nothing but this intricate balance of orchestrating talent and effort, and what becomes a barrier for people to live this balanced life is their inability to uncover their inner strengths and weaknesses, and then mobilize their inner tools and strategies to bring themselves back on the path of self-actualization, whatever that means to them, and what my experience has been, those who do not understand executive function have often, I go to parties or I go for lunches and I’m hanging out with people and they often very casually dismiss their difficulties as a personality problem, they call themselves, “Oh, well, that’s who I am,” and their relationship to their personal nature comes from a lens of rigidity that “I am wired this way and nothing can be done about it,” and I want to change that. Executive functions single-handedly allow you to change you based on your knowledge of you, and if you even had developed that mindset, how powerful would that be? So, the question that remains is, how does one go about tweaking one’s thoughts, habits, and attitudes to enhance one’s outcomes for a better future? And the missing piece there is not having enough self-knowledge and self-efficacy, so that’s the big picture of this podcast was.

Producer: It’s been amazing to me how many times in all of these episodes I’ve been listening to you have a conversation with some thought leader and you and I will discuss something and I would say, “Oh, that’s why I do that,” or “That’s why that happens,” or “That’s why that person acts that way,” so it’s been quite revealing. I really learned a lot about human beings and how they make their way to the world and understanding why they do some of the silly things they do.

Sucheta: It’s funny you say that which is kind of understandable because you don’t have the field experience, but I myself would say the same, like one of the things that I have discovered after being in this field for 20 years, my biggest mistake was this eternal optimism that you can change people, and people have complete access to their inner lives and that has been something that has opened my eyes, that no, we are predictably irrational, so even when we may have high hopes and high agenda to help people, just show the rationality of the value of self-change and they will just change because they’re like, “Thank you, Sucheta, for bringing me on board. I am so motivated to change myself,” and whenever people didn’t change, I used to get frustrated with them or I used to think I’m failing them, and this journey itself has been very rewarding to understand that no, these processes, we operate from bias, we have blind spots, we have a  complete lack of knowledge about how to stay psych-wise, and as more and more contemplative studies and literature I have been influenced by, I have realized that unless you’re mindful and really, really begin to be present in this moment, you may have great, lofty goals for yourself, like good intentions, but your follow-through is always going to be weak, simple because of the way the brain is designed, not even because of executive dysfunction.

Producer: Yup, yup. Well, knowing that we were doing this retrospective of the first 100 episodes, I was looking back in my files, and I was reviewing the original scope of work of the project as we were initially thinking and it’s evolved so dramatically different than we originally envisioned. So, you think about it, I mean, our initial, so if you’ve been with us from the beginning, you’ll follow along this, but initially, we would interview an individual twice, it’d be two long deep dives, and then you and I would do an extensive conversation about the key takeaways. We evolved into our current format where it’s just one good solid conversation with an individual, then we brought in the ExFiles where you have conversations, and [00:13:18] conversations with former clients and those were so powerful, and these are real human beings here with real issues, but also, it was empowering because they had fought through and were leading happy, successful lives, and then you brought in the Big Picture Series which has been a lot of fun, for me obviously, because I got to be much more involved in that production, and that’s always fun, but I think you’ve gotten some good feedback on that. That’s a great opportunity for people to learn a lot more about these issues through that segment of the show, so it’s been fun to see how this thing has evolved.

Sucheta: Yes, and I really have to give you a shoutout because you have always been so encouraging. I mean, I know you run a whole company in podcasting — I don’t even know the right word for it, but you have seen different formats, you work with different styles, and you have always been very encouraging, and one of the things that really got inspired by you is you said, “Sucheta, you lead a very complex life, make it easier on yourself,” and that was so helpful because I was very ambitious, the way we did is we got the guest, we did two episodes and my idea there was to let’s introduce the topic about what it is and keep explaining to people what executive function means, and then takeaways — I mean, the second part was, how do we manage it? So, I wanted people to have access to the how to manage as a separate little place that they could find it, and then I would individually do the takeaways. The idea there was kind of again, acting as a curator, just like taking the example of MOMA, what do we make of it, as if that was needed, and now, I think what’s successful, as I have grown confident that I know enough, I do lots and lots of preparation as you know, my reading list is endless, I in fact have maybe three books a week that I read which don’t ask me how I manage that, then I do a lot of note-keeping. What has come handy, really, really handy is I’ve had relationships with people over decades, at least a decade, people, experts in the community where I have gone and seen, heard them speak, I have always said hello to them, introduced myself, and this is a simple little tidbit that my parents taught that has come handy, be social, be engaging, and if you love something, say it, don’t keep it to yourself, and because of that, I’ve been able to say to a guest, “Hey, I met you in 2001 and I heard you speak, and you signed my book, and I challenged you about that. You said executive function cannot be treated,” or something like that, and then I’m able to reference to that effect, and that has been very helpful, but the other two points that you brought, the idea behind Big Picture was that as a clinician, I think another thing you did and this was something I got feedback from my fellow SLPs, that they wanted to know more about what I do and how I do what I do, and what my thoughts are, and they said, “Can you be interviewed, like can we hear you talk?” and then that gave me the idea about the Big Picture that yeah, maybe we should tell people a little bit more about my perspective on a person who has expertise in executive function.

And then, the second part, you mentioned ExFiles. I never thought my clients would agree because of confidentiality and all the work that we do is always private, and people see me at their most vulnerable states, and how comfortable would they feel? And I’ve been blown away by their courage and a genuine desire to just say, “Sure, I mean, if this will help somebody, I want to tell the story,” and so that’s what got the idea, and again, this is a very dated reference, but Ex, because we talk about executive function, Ex is a common theme, and my software that I’ve desired also has ExQ, so Ex was also referencing to the old show called X-Files.

Producer: I know, I love it.

Sucheta: Which was supposed to be a horror show but this is not.

Producer: Well, the fact that your prior clients have agreed to come right on, they’re kept anonymous so we’re not divulging a lot of personal stuff about them publicly, but the fact that they participate shows their trust in you, and what the audience doesn’t get to hear which I do is when we’re done with the interview and we’ve turned off the mics and we just have that casual post-show banter, Sucheta’s guests are always so complementary and almost impressed by wow, those were really intriguing questions and I’m impressed by your knowledge and impressed by your outlook on things, and so the feedback has always been almost one of really pleasant surprise about how engaging — they’ve probably done 1000 podcast interviews, but they’ve never had one with the Sucheta who’s just a whole different element. It’s been fun to kind of see that post-show feedback.

Sucheta: Thank you, that means a lot. Yeah, I think particularly when they get an email from a speech language pathologist, and if you are a researcher who doesn’t even know that field, for example, or if you are a primatologist or you’re a behavior economist, they say, “I have never seen a patient in my life,” or “I don’t do that kind of work.” They expect different types of questions, and so my questions often tend to be application-centric which is how do I take what you do and bring it into my life? How can I help clients understand themselves based on what you study? And this always is very rewarding for them because they see that somebody on the other side is thinking, how can I better? And some, as you and I have heard those experts talk, they say, “I really don’t know if this is something you can apply right away,” because it’s such a theoretical concept or this is a concept that is a framework of thought, and I really like when I get an opportunity to be in that place because there’s an opportunity, it’s a two-way street, then our conversations can influence the researchers to think about who is the recipient of this information and what value can I add to their lives as well?

Producer: Yeah, yeah, no, that’s great stuff, Sucheta. So, if you’re listening, you heard us address an early part of the show where we had these key takeaways, and so what I think Sucheta is going to do now is share with us her 10 big ideas, 10 key things, 10 key takeaways that she’s learned and gleaned from these 100 conversations that were done today, so why don’t you lead us off?

Sucheta: Yes! So, for starters, my first big takeaway, the big idea that I have gathered from this experience is that executive function skills are those skills we use to control ourselves, to control our outcomes for the future, so it is what we do to ourselves so that life is better for us in the future, and this concept, the connectivity between the current self with the future self is a really critical element of executive function and this ability is really unique to humans, and something that we should be very proud of and something that is always in a state of evolution. Primarily because I like to imagine our future is like the Polaroid, in the iPhone context, many people who were born, I guess, before 2000 may know, but Polaroid has this unique quality of slowly developing in front of your eyes, and until it fully develops, you have to just patiently wait to see what the image looks like, not like the iPhone that you take a picture and instantaneously, you check it, you don’t like it, you take another picture. Remember how carefully we used to take pictures?

Producer: Oh, yeah.

Sucheta: And only take one picture because it was an expensive affair? So, I think it is the Polaroid of the brain, that it is one time, you get one shot to like, what you do is going to become your past and what you’re about to do for the future is shaped by your knowledge of the past and your current self-control, so that’s one idea that people need to think about when they think about executive function. We had Russell Barkley who talk about this, that executive function is your ability to control yourself, what you think, what you say, what you do to get your goals taken care of, and these goals are always serving the future self.

And another important thing as we talk about the future self, that executive brain is a social brain and the social brain is not kind of pursuing goal in isolation; we are really thinking about our future self in the context of the future with other people in it, and so the regulation that happens, the control that we exercise, the guidance we give ourselves has people in that as well, and if those who don’t have, in extreme cases, sociopathic or psychopathic, but in extreme cases of disability, it is autism, so not having consideration for other people in your future goals can lead to a very isolated life, and so ultimately, what we need is in order to accomplish that, we need to have a good process whereby we prompt ourselves, prompt to make the connection of the future to the current self. Peg Dawson talked about this, that executive function skills allow you to execute and they slowly merge and it takes a long time to master, so not only should they be connected to the future, but they need to be kept in mind from the lens of developmental trajectory, so one of the disadvantages in the hyperconnected technocentric world that I have talked about a lot on my podcast is that the lack of executive function or self-control can really lead to not taking good decisions for yourself in the moment.

Last night, in order to prepare for this, I didn’t even get to this because I had so many other things. I just was not able to take care of those so many other things because they felt equally important, so even somebody like me who brags about her great executive function may not be able to exercise the greatness of those skills if I am stretched, stressed, or don’t have sleep resources, haven’t rejuvenated myself.

And the last thing I will talk about this first takeaway was that we heard time and again from experts including Sam Goldstein that executive function system is hard to define, but essentially, it is not a singular construct. It is a collective orchestration of skills. That means how do you do what you do is executive function, and the most critical part about this is it’s only evident when it’s disrupted. So, when you show up on time, nobody is standing in line to applaud you. If you send an email with great thoughtfulness or nobody’s saying, “Wow, what a wonderful person you are!” It’s only when somebody sends you a nasty text or somebody is impulsive, and somebody’s inappropriate, somebody shoots themselves in the foot, or chops the nose to spite the face, then you say, what’s wrong with them, right? So, there’s that element of not having all the things orchestrated together that becomes a problem, so just to think about it has to be taking care of you and benefiting your outcomes, benefiting the outcomes for that future self is really the first important takeaway.

The second takeaway that the brain has two systems: the top down and bottom up, and it’s the meaningful relationship between these two systems that makes us highly self-regulated, and so we have had experts talk about the wizard brain and the lizard brain, the impulsive, you’re shooting from the hip, and then the thoughtful reflective, and the most important message here is let’s have the top down and bottom up system talk to each other, and Phil Zelazo explains this, that if we keep attention at the center of this top down, bottom up system, then executive function can be taught as a way of directing and managing, and regulating our attention and intention together. So, we have had experts talk about the sweet spot where we are mindful and future-centric and whatever we are doing is very intentional. That’s when the top up and bottom up systems are communicating well with each other.

The third big takeaway for me was at the heart of human evolution is the ability to inhibit. That means saying no more often than saying yes, and what I mean by that, not this positive movement that we have: just say yes to every opportunity, don’t be a naysayer — I’m not talking about that. It’s the brain’s yes system imbalanced with the no system, so the no system in the brain is that inhibitory system, and Frans de Waal, the primatologist we had an our show, talked about that with grace and humility, only humans can inhibit the selfish and self-serving thoughts that they have, and that’s what makes us aware that the whole universe is one family, all the differences between the two individuals are imaginary, and where do these thought processes come from, is through this inhibitory system, and Frans de Waal also talked about that morality is not a human invention. Rather, it’s an old pre-existing capacity with which we express our empathy and concern, and we carefully take care of each other, but we wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t inhibit selfish ways.

Producer: Yeah, learning to say no was one of the most important skills I’d learned to develop that changed my life and made it bearable to get through it in a good way, so that’s a really important takeaway.

Sucheta: And quickly, what I’ll add to that is learning to say no, learning to say not now, and learning to say never, these are the variations of that theme, and so that’s when we say no to the doughnut, that’s when we say no to our interruptive thought when you bombard another person with an idea — if you just patiently waited, they could have said that idea themselves. It is also kind of asking an open-ended question and then meeting somebody who just not is a talkative person, and since they didn’t answer, jumping into another question, so this is what makes us very patient, kind, loving, and as you said, in the greater scheme of life, it makes us better human beings because we are taking good decisions.

The next idea that I have kind of come to recognize is executive systems are brought online during new learning, and the inherent nature of the open-ended tasks in learning and education is such that if you haven’t seen it before, if you haven’t known about it before, then it’s learning. So, you can’t really talk about something you already know and expect children to learn, so if we’re talking about learning, then it is the unknown, unseen, and unexperienced content and processes that lead to learning, but during that time, the executive system is brought online through this process of getting off your autopilot, right? And so, bright and capable kids who suffer from executive function difficulties, they’re not able to manage their system and bring onboard because they literally are not able to activate that system during new learning, so they’re either not paying attention and comparing the current information or knowledge and saying, “Oh, I don’t know this. I should be paying attention,” or they’re saying, “Oh, this is too hard, I can’t do it,” so giving up, or they are finding that information irrelevant, so when you run into a lot of those roadblocks there, you can have problems.

Lynn Meltzer talked about this, that educators need to recognize that working with the open-ended aspects of planning a task and completing new learning process by yourself is really, really hard and it requires students to adapt and catch up with their own shortcomings and bridge those shortcomings with skills and strategies, so if that doesn’t happen, then you’re not going to progress.

And, finally, we had Mary Ann Brittingham who talked about that when you are doing new learning, you are learning also to deal with difficult people and challenges, and it is learning to do something with or without those roadblocks, and working in collaboration with other people is also part of new learning because you are working with the unknown of how people react, how people behave, how people think, so that is also an aspect of that novel learning.

The next big idea, Todd, is that brain is a future simulator. We had Hal Hershfield talk about the idea of the simulator which allows you to see, envision the future, imagine self through the continuation of time, and the prospect of bringing ease and comfort to that future, a pitiful self is having mercy on that future pitiful self by doing something for that future self now. So, kind of creating some kind of pathway so that the future self is more successful and comforted and taken care of is done through simulation, so simulation allows us to kind of imagine, am I doing this right? Is this going to help me in the future? Is this wise? All those filters that we apply to the future simulator allows us to see a disastrous outcomes or helps us see, oh, my God, that will look really bad. If I don’t have my poster ready, how would that look? And then, you’re imagining yourself standing in front of the classroom, showing your poster that has one picture and that doesn’t look good when the previous student had an amazing, colorful, bright poster, so that simulator really sets the tone for changing actions.

The sixth idea that I thought was really, really important is that academic skills, that includes writing, require highly engaged executive function. So, Bonnie Singer talked about tat writing requires incredible coordination of idea generation, idea mapping, sequencing ideas, and formulating cohesive written units such as sentences, and then building paragraphs, and then presenting ideas that are comprehensible and something that makes a case on behalf of your point of view, and doing all that requires lots of powerful mind tools, and some of us have them, but some of us need to cultivate them, so executive function will not automatically translate into good writing skills, because writing is a very learned, intentionally learned skill.

The next big idea was this idea of importance of transition and how they call upon executive function. Transitions really require adjusting, adapting, and repurposing into a novel context, and we need bridging skills which is nothing but executive function skills that allow us to exit the current situation and enter a new situation. So, Nancy Beane, for example, talked about these students leaving high school which is a programmed life, so to speak, much more choreographed life, supervised life, life where parents are playing a very, very important role in keeping or helping students keep track of life, but when you enter college, it is a completely new ball game, and what kind of readiness you bring to and what does the no-excuse motto for yourself look like as you’re transitioning? And how do you advocate for yourself? How do you continue to use habits that you did deploy but they were supervised by somebody else, such as parents and teachers, and how do you bring those good habits into your own work and form a good work-life balance? And such transitions require strong executive function.

The next idea here is that there are tons of barriers in self-actualizing including self-blindness and incredible faith in our own ability to be rational and stay rational, and this has been an important part of my journey through this podcast, by having so many social psychologists, psychologists, clinical psychologists, I learned a lot about the psychosocial components that as part of a cognitive retraining or my rehabilitation model was not fully informed by this research.

So, Carol Tavris talked about cognitive dissonance. One of the most amazing takeaways there is very powerful and speaks to my heart, that she said we don’t know ourselves as much as we think we know, and a lot of people have talked about this. This is called being predicatably unpredictable or consistently irrational, and so this mechanism of dissonance or the trap of self-justification works in a way that in spite of us thinking that we are rational and reasonable people, we have good ability to take sound decisions, we actually are mobilized by inner forces that we are blind to and we are completely irrational and go rogue on ourselves, and Frans de Waal kind of supported that myth. He said humans brag and they think that they are far more superior than animals because of their rational capacity, but what they have completely no knowledge is how irrational they are, and then we have had Chris Chabris talk about six types of blind spots that we have to navigate on a daily basis.

So, finally, the takeaway there is that a part of our journey in self-awareness is to completely come to terms that we will never be fully self-aware and we will not have access to our ways and our motivations that drive us to take certain decisions, and hence, what we need to do is kind of lean into the fact that yeah, I was irrational, and so somebody says, that makes no sense, we must say, “Oh, I thought it made sense to me, but now that I see from your point of view, it certainly sounds like it doesn’t make as much sense.”

And so, the ninth takeaway here is that stress shapes our adaptive flexibility and a little stress is always, always welcome, and we had many guests talking about resilience. Blair talked about executive function and self-regulation bring balance to our life. These are self-directing skills that guide and direct emotions, thoughts and influence learning and thinking as we are taking care of students, and we have heard a lot of speech pathologists on my show talking about children growing up in poverty or underprivileged backgrounds and poor background, and having incredible disadvantages, whether they are learning disadvantages or sociopsychological, or emotional disadvantages. They tend to have incredible difficulty in kind of staying in balance because the very skills that go into bringing balance which is resilience is good to test every time we are talking about a challenge or setback, or incredible roadblocks to personal actualization, and one point there, Ron Siegel we had who talks about that, we humans need the validation and we have a deep need to feel accepted, and because we are social beings, we are deeply concerned or invested in the concept of self-comparisons and social ranking, and we are extremely sensitive to where we stand on that invisible social hierarchy, and we are constantly trying to one-up somebody. I was listening to Conan O’Brien, John Mulaney — I mean, he was interviewing John Mulaney and they both were saying we as comedians, I go — John said that, “I was in Ali Wong’s show and I heard her speak, and I said, ‘Oh, I want to be a comedian like her,’ and then I had to remind myself, no, I am a comedian, maybe not like her, but I too am a comedian,” and then Conan O’Brien said as he was listening to John and he was in the audience and he says, “Ooh, I want to become a comedian like you!” So, this idea that when we meet excellence, when we see incredible skills and gifts of other people, we are deeply motivated for striving but that striving, if it’s not kept in check can become root of envy and deep sorrow and sadness, and loneliness, and in that vein, we must master resilience and gather tools to become stress hardy, and we have heard many, many experts talk about that. Robert Brooks talked about this concept of being resilient doesn’t mean eradicating negative experiences and blocking adversities, but in fact, it means having a very powerful attitude and adjustment skills that will kind of bring the impact of stress, minimize the impact of the stress and make us stress hardy.

And finally, there’s the idea that he also referred, he refers in his talks, as well as in his writing that Julia Seagal’s concept of the charismatic adult, so those who are in charge of other people, how can we become those people who are positively influencing the children that we’re responsible for through this incredible acceptance, unconditional acceptance? So, parents and teachers must first and foremost recognize and appreciate the extent to which their interactions, their behaviors influence children that they’re in charge of, and I think really, we need to kind of master this ability.

And finally, we cannot really talk about executive function without this wonderful and amazing hopeful message that executive function skills can be cultivated, nurtured, strengthened and put to test with carefully crafted activities by parents and educators on a daily basis, and Phil Zelazo talks about this a lot. He was the scientist who studies the reflection science, so executive function skills are not just a by-product of living a life but they can be shaped into whatever we want them to be, and he describes this as a sweet spot where we get of the autopilot and bring in the intentionality without the neuroticism associated with it, but we are deliberate and careful, and mindful as we execute our daily tasks, and we can be incredibly profoundly impactful on our lives. With that respect of how things can get better, we had a lot of experts talk about impact of practice, intentional learning, strategic thinking. Sam Goldstein talked about that educating children through schooling is only a modern phenomenon. Learning, however, a lot that children will not learn how to learn simply by being exposed to education opportunities, so we have to strategically teach how to be effective in learning and managing information, managing emotions as you’re learning complex topics and managing this desire to let go effort when things look boring or annoying, and those kinds of skills are going to be the foundation of a self-realized self-actualized individual who is in harmony with the world, and has wonderful tools and attitude towards one’s self’s capacity to be fully actualized as a wonderful decent human being.

And in closing, I’ll say this, Todd, that for me, one of the biggest messages is we all need to be come psych-wise. Dealing with people [00:40:17] one must understand human psychology and we must deploy one’s own psych-wise decision making process, and psychologically wise, being that way means understanding that people are motivated by different things and so are you, and do not have this complete bias towards yourself that you are amazing and you have good intentions and other people are misunderstanding you — no. What if you are blind to you? And that’s my biggest takeaway, that we have to really, really work on solutions for the self-blind, and I am getting ready to present at the Leadership Atlanta here in Atlanta. I finished — I was one of the graduates of the best class ever, 2015, and it’s been five years, and as I look back, I have learned a lot from that about getting out of my own professional silo and being a contributing member to the larger society, and they’re celebrating the 50th anniversary since the inception of this organization and they invited people to submit one big idea that might transform the world or your community, and mine was chosen in the field of education and my big idea is that we need to really, really draft tools and create support systems and methods, and systems to help every learner to find a solution for self-blindness.

So, that’s kind of the big takeaway for me, that intentional practices can actualize into intentional educational process.

Producer: Wow, that was two and a half years and 100 episodes encapsulated in just under 30 minutes. What a recap and yes, I would agree, those are the 10 big ideas of the show. You know, it was interesting that you said executive function is a skill that can be cultivated, and I feel like that you can almost group human beings into three buckets. There are those that do in fact work and concentrate and focus, and do self-reflection, and cultivate their executive function skills, thinking about their future self. There are those that do not and then they wonder why they struggle through school, through work, through relationships, through life, and then there’s the third grouping of those that cannot do it for some psychological reason, and that’s why they come to people like you. Is that a fair way to group the human race in terms of executive function?

Sucheta: Yes, that’s such a beautiful way to think about that, Todd, that truly.

Producer: Alright, wow, that left me breathless. What great material, and unfortunately, Sucheta, that’s about all the time we have for today. I just want to say one last time, we’re so grateful to be a part of this with you, and I’m grateful to be on the team here and to help bring these important learnings to our community into your audience, and we’re very much looking forward to the next 100.

Sucheta: Thank you, Todd, this was a journey worth traveling and I cannot believe we will continue, and I cannot wait to see what the future looks like, thank you so much.

Producer: We as well.

Alright, again, all the time we have for today. On behalf of our host, Sucheta Kamath and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for tuning in and listening, and thank you for being with us through 100 episodes, and we’ll look forward to seeing you again right here as usual next week. We’ll see you then.