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Ep. 155: Sabine Doebel, PhD - Making the Case for Self-Control

July 06, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 155
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 155: Sabine Doebel, PhD - Making the Case for Self-Control
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Full PreFrontal
Ep. 155: Sabine Doebel, PhD - Making the Case for Self-Control
Jul 06, 2021 Season 1 Episode 155
Sucheta Kamath

Not now, later! These are three words we have come to value. The Marshmallow experiment from the 1960s popularized the idea of self-control and brought it into cultural consciousness; however, sometimes it has mislead us to think that kids who don’t wait for two marshmallows at the age of 4 might be destined to lead less fruitful lives. Instead of focusing on self-control through a narrow lens as an individual’s choice-making ability, there's another way to view this complex process using broader constructs such as social regulation in the face of conflicting tendencies, ideas, and desires.

On this episode, Dr. Sabine Doebel,  Assistant Professor at George Mason University, discusses how creative and novel experimental designs can help explore the social and conceptual processes behind self-control skills in children across many contexts. Those who care about helping children develop self-regulation should consider giving them opportunities to acquire a wide-range of experiences and knowledge to benefit from the cultural context.

About Sabine Doebel, PhD
Sabine leads the Developing Minds Lab in the Department of Psychology at George Mason University. The lab focuses on questions related to how we become capable of  exercising conscious control over our thoughts and actions in the pursuit of goals  (executive function), and how this capacity develops through experience, particularly social experience.

She completed her Ph.D. at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota (advisors: Melissa Koenig and Philip D. Zelazo), and her NIH-funded postdoc at the University of Colorado Boulder (advisor: Yuko Munakata). Sabine is interested in cognitive development, with much of her research to date focusing on the development of executive function -- the ability to control thoughts and actions in the service of goals, especially in the face of conflicting habits, desires, or tendencies. She's particularly interested in how social and conceptual processes may support the development of skills in using control across contexts. Sabine is also doing work to promote open science practices in developmental psychology, with the goal of making it easier to help researchers build on one another's work.

About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.


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

Show Notes Transcript

Not now, later! These are three words we have come to value. The Marshmallow experiment from the 1960s popularized the idea of self-control and brought it into cultural consciousness; however, sometimes it has mislead us to think that kids who don’t wait for two marshmallows at the age of 4 might be destined to lead less fruitful lives. Instead of focusing on self-control through a narrow lens as an individual’s choice-making ability, there's another way to view this complex process using broader constructs such as social regulation in the face of conflicting tendencies, ideas, and desires.

On this episode, Dr. Sabine Doebel,  Assistant Professor at George Mason University, discusses how creative and novel experimental designs can help explore the social and conceptual processes behind self-control skills in children across many contexts. Those who care about helping children develop self-regulation should consider giving them opportunities to acquire a wide-range of experiences and knowledge to benefit from the cultural context.

About Sabine Doebel, PhD
Sabine leads the Developing Minds Lab in the Department of Psychology at George Mason University. The lab focuses on questions related to how we become capable of  exercising conscious control over our thoughts and actions in the pursuit of goals  (executive function), and how this capacity develops through experience, particularly social experience.

She completed her Ph.D. at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota (advisors: Melissa Koenig and Philip D. Zelazo), and her NIH-funded postdoc at the University of Colorado Boulder (advisor: Yuko Munakata). Sabine is interested in cognitive development, with much of her research to date focusing on the development of executive function -- the ability to control thoughts and actions in the service of goals, especially in the face of conflicting habits, desires, or tendencies. She's particularly interested in how social and conceptual processes may support the development of skills in using control across contexts. Sabine is also doing work to promote open science practices in developmental psychology, with the goal of making it easier to help researchers build on one another's work.

About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.


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

Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. These skills allow us to organize our behaviors over time and override immediate demands in favor of long-term goals. We have now done more than 150 episodes, and I continue to tackle three important goals. My first goal is that through these discussions, you should know that uncovering the role of prefrontal lobes is a great start to figure out how executive function skills work, if any, anything my guests help us walk through and showcase how complex and interlinked executive function skills are, to self-control, self-awareness, and even potential self-actualization. Secondly, I'm interested in tools for self-change. And, and for that, we need to understand that the plight of the new and improved future self, which is completely dependent on the effort and insights cultivated by the current self, so we need to create some continuum. And lastly, I hope to help you help you listeners to create a playbook for your personal success by mastering these amazing set of skills that we call executive function. So, as we dive into today's important topic, I want to kind of set the stage for self-regulation, which is facilitated by invisible rules. And those invisible rules are imposed by culture. So let me quickly share a story. I grew up in India, and I was always fascinated by different cultures, because in India, I like to tell people it's more like a continent than a country. And because different states have their languages, their different ways of eating different way of dressing. And so, when you travel, you definitely notice and when you interact with people from different parts of India, it is almost same person from another country. And I would love to share a story about my mom, you know, she grew up in a tiny town in the state of Maharashtra, her family was mostly poor. She talks about stories from her childhood, and they're almost always demonstrated of how norms and expectations inside behaviors have self-control. For example, you know, every time she stepped out the house as a child, she was never allowed to take food, if it was offered by somebody. That was sort of family rule. If somebody, by golly happened to give like cousins and aunts and uncles, they were the kids, all kids they had, there were seven of them were required to bring the food home and share with siblings. And so, imagine the self-control of not eating something delicious during Diwali, which is Festival of Lights, you know, another thing was very typical of my mom's household was observing fast, which is, you know, going all day without food or water intentionally waiting till sundown to eat, or eating food that's allowed, so to speak. So, there's another great example my grandmother, the only equivalent concept I can say is kosher, but it's not kosher. There's another, it's called solar. But anyway, so my grandmother always cooked meals without tasting them. And so, you're serving this food to a whole family of, you know, nine people without tasting and her food was absolutely delicious. So, the reason I'm sharing this is that when we talk about improving executive function, we shouldn't simply focus on managing goals with great resolve, but we rather need to broaden the lens and take a look at the context and activate sales, self-regulation, and self-management using skills that are needed to be woven into the larger place that you belong. So, with that in mind, it's such a pleasure to invite Dr. Sabine Doebel, who is an assistant professor at George Mason University. She is interested in cognitive development with much of her research to date, focusing on the development of executive function. And this is an important piece of information for us because there's not a lot of work regarding the milestones, what kind of skills are expected from children, what is the norm, this we are still figuring out as a field. And so, she is focused on the ability to control thoughts and actions in service of goals, especially in the face of conflicting habits, desires and tendencies. She's particularly interested in how social and conceptual processes may support the development of skills in using control across contexts. So, she has a great Ted TEDx talk. And she also has written some amazing papers. Particularly we'll be discussing about the infamous or famous marshmallow experiment. So welcome to the podcast. How are you? 

Sabine Doebel: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm good. 

Sucheta Kamath: Well, great. We are always asked our guests since we talk about executive function and goal directed effort. And I love psychologists because they are so insightful. I would love to know how you were as a child. What kind of knowledge and understanding you found yourself discovering about your own ability to control your goals or behaviors to achieve goals?

Sabine Doebel: Yeah, I wasn't, I think that I was very different than I am now is quite strange. I really, if I, you know, look back, I would say I didn't have very good executive function. Yeah, it's really true. I was kind of as a teenager, I was a bit of a rebel and I got into a fair amount of trouble. Yeah. But I, you know, I became more interested in academics as time went on, and that kind of helped me navigate into a better direction. And here I am. 

Sucheta Kamath: I love that. And what's so interesting about that is, I guess, you found your mission, you know, you found goals to commit to that kind of gave you the motivation and effort, right?

Sabine Doebel: Absolutely. I mean, I, I was kind of after I graduated from college, I really wasn't certain that I wanted to pursue psychology. And I had done a lot of coursework in social psychology. And I had some interests here and there, but nothing really fully developed. And so I actually went back to school and was studying other things like philosophy, and I kind of in this very roundabout way, came back to psychology because I was interested in how thinking develops, I was interested in thinking generally, you know, cognitive just processes and you know, how it is that we, as humans are able to think the things that we can think and I just thought the best way to answer these questions would be to study them developmentally and empirically. And so that kind of got me into developmental psychology. And from that point, I was just so driven, and goal directed like you, I was like making up for lost time, basically.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, that's great. That's actually very much maturation of intentions. That's what one of my colleagues says. So executive function refers to set of mental skills, we use to manage our thoughts, emotions, and actions to achieve goals for self, in accordance with the context. And by bringing a coherence to it. When you and your work in your work. Think about executive function, what kind of conceptual framework you use, and how does this definition sit with you?

Sabine Doebel: To be honest, I'm still working through my ideas about this, but they're definitely shifting away from this idea of executive function being these general processes that we apply. Yeah, so this is going to be a very interesting conversation. Because I really, you know, I think it's very deeply affected by context and knowledge, I think that we all have some capacity. And capacity is the only term that I can use that kind of feels right for the kind of general thing that, you know, people vary in terms of how, you know, good they are at controlling themselves and controlling their thoughts and actions. But, you know, that is one piece of it. And there's so much more that's interesting for me, just like understanding how knowledge affects, you know, and knowledge in different areas affects how you can use your executive function. So, as I said, earlier, when I said that I was, you know, as a child, I had bad executive function, I was being facetious, because really, I don't believe that I had bad executive function. I just think I didn't know how to use it very well, in certain situations. In some situations, maybe I was good. I can't think of any right now. But now, I think I am very good in some situations, and I'm still poor in many situations, you know, so it didn't it depends on what I care about, and what I know about and how practiced I am in certain things and yeah, so that's how I think about it.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I like to use this analogy of a car. So, your car is engine dependent. So, let's say that's your brain and the skills that you bring, bring, but there's something to do with the driving the ability to drive. So those are the learned skills, but then comes the road. So, a dirt road and the car performance is going to be very much different than a four-lane highway. So, I feel executive function is so context dependent in that way. But I think the biggest thing to me in this profession is it's not an absolute ability. It's how you utilize this ability based on upping and downing of the requirements. So, for example, if you are on a highway, you are required to abide by the law of 65 miles an hour. If you go over, you're going to get a ticket. And that knowledge feeds your car's capacity, which, which can drive 150 miles an hour, I'm making this up. But on the dirt road, you don't have any restrictions, but the dirt road is so bad that you will flip. And you don't know that until you flip. So, I think that's when I feel one of the benefits of or rather, the part of when, when I work on retraining, one of the ways that I help people is expand their repertoire, create a deck of experiences, whether they are imagined, or the external experiences, to know in what ways things will work. Because a lot of this is like, I don't know what to do when I'm locked out of my house. Only, I have to get locked out of my house. But that's a costly affair, right? So, you need to have some mental modeling of if I'm locked out of my car, I can apply that knowledge to being locked out of a house. So anyway, if that makes any sense. So right. So then, you know, the marshmallow experiment from 60 cents, I guess 70s certainly brought the topic of self-control into the cultural consciousness. But sometimes it's it has misled us to think that it is an end all things. So, before we begin as to why so let's start by defining self-control. And isn't self-control more of a narrow term as compared to executive function, which is a broader construct? And you're interested in?

Sabine Doebel: It depends on who you ask. 

Sucheta Kamath: Well, I'm curious as to what... 

Sabine Doebel: Sometimes you hear the reverse, right? Yeah, I, I think of it Yes, I, as, as an executive function researcher, I would tend to think of executive function as being the broader construct, actually, because I think that we use executive function in numerous ways, including regulating appetites and the things that would fall under kind of more of like the self-control, kind of resisting temptation idea, but others would say, you know, there's delay of gratification, and that's supported by these executive function processes, among other things, so some would kind of put it underneath, you know, self-control, as like, kind of like the supporting abilities. But I, yeah, I mean, I then there's also kind of, you know, the self-control kind of comes more from the social psychology, personality literature more about kind of traits and predicting, you know, making long range predictions from how somebody is capable of regulating themselves in childhood. So, kind of individual differences, stable traits. And, you know, obviously, executive function has a very different origin as a concept. And so, I sometimes just don't even try to integrate anymore. Like I kind of, you know, I know how I think about these things, but I don't, I don't necessarily believe in some of the kind of projects of just let's kind of come up with like, the one unifying kind of definition, and we'll fit everything in neatly and it all will work out nice. It's like, I don't know that that's actually possible or even necessary, necessary. Yes, yeah. Because these, these different concepts come from different research traditions, and they there's definitely overlap, of course, but they I don't think there's necessarily a way to reconcile everything and like, Yeah, not necessarily something we need to do. But I do I know people disagree with that.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, because I was going to ask you like, there is a general agreement, though, that these are set of skills, and the set of skills can help you achieve goals, but the goals are for self-created by self and executed by self. So, like, I like to say when you have a child in the classroom, whose rules the child is following, not self-set, so unless you create a rule saying that I will follow my teacher’s guidance, then that's a rule I impose on myself then I'm self-regulating, but I'm pretty much asked to not talk not interrupt not you know, shout out answers. So, in that way, there is that interplay between self as an independent entity and then self in the context of others as a regulatory regulating body as such, I suppose.

Sabine Doebel: Right. And when you say as a set of skills are you're talking about the skills for example, are you talking more about you know, working memory, updating, flexibility and inhibitory control like that? Or are you talking more about like the actual real-world skills that are, you know, involving executive function like sitting still, listening to instructions? 

Sucheta Kamath: Well, so I see it is a little a little bit more, come more broader again, because I'm a clinician, I'm not a researcher, but the way I see it is you have internal, cognitive and affective skills. So that's how you pay attention how you regulate your attention, which is not just paying attention, but knowing what to pay attention to, and continuously paying attention to that until processing is done, or dis taking a decision to switch attention, for example, then the second set of skills would be, for example, monitoring information in working memory and making reference to long term storage. So, do I understand what is being spoken? Do I understand? Do I have a question about vocabulary? Do I even know when, like, Can I retain components like don't open the window unless the door is closed, requires me to first check the window, then the door that reorganizing is a critical skill at a cognitive level. But when we talk about mental flexibility, it is it is about a theory of mind and perspective taking. So, I need to see me as you see me. But I also need to see what all roles and responsibilities I have as a student as a learner as a thinker, as a daughter, as a son. So, I feel like that in that way. Helping people to improve their executive function cannot be achieved, by focusing on set of these random abilities, they have to be in the context of us. And the US needs to be defined collectively, from, you know, onboarding, the child, onboarding, the family and onboarding, the school's needs or whatever, if that makes any sense?

Sabine Doebel: Yeah, it does. I yeah, I really like that. I guess for me, I, I kind of pushed back at the idea that we can actually come up with like a finite set of executive skills. I think that really, they, you could make a very long list, and you could extend it indefinitely, depending on you know, the child, the context, the cultural context. Absolutely. Yeah. So that's kind of what I think about.

Sucheta Kamath: But again, I can give you the reference of our field, cognitive retraining, and we use something called functional rehabilitation. So functional training is the context of use and context of need. So, we're, before we do any intervention, we do needs assessment. So, let's say, if your biggest challenge is, as a PhD student, you're not getting started with your thesis, you know, and you just don't know where to begin, and you're procrastinating. So, giving some random strategies to prevent procrastination has no use. Because you need to really know what why you're either do you not have your topic sorted, or you have no research data that supports your idea, or you don't know how to, you know, delineate information from 10 papers into one consolidate idea. So, I think that's what I mean by you cannot help people improve their functionality without knowing where they're failing, and why they're failing. And is this something they want to do, because one of the things I tell my clients and my patients that the goal is, you should not need me because you can improve your executive function because of external aid. And that's not true executive function mastery. So as long as you have your mom helping you, you are getting to school on time, as long as your dad is printing the paper and running to school, you're getting your paper turned in. That's not true skill that's just support. So that's where I come from about understanding intervention is not pure scalability, but context and you know, to making a person responsible for their lives, right, right. So, then let me ask you this as a cognitive neuroscientist say that in addition to allowing resisting of temptations, there another crucial role executive function plays is that it makes many things possible, mentally playing with ideas, you know, taking time to think before acting, you know, meeting novel, unanticipated challenges, staying focused or engaged. So, how do you see connection of those skill set? And actually, we see that in play, right. So how do you what are your thoughts about this idea that more than which you kind of talked about is resisting temptation as the end all skill set? 

Sabine Doebel: Well, yeah, I mean, resisting temptation is just one thing. And I think that the controversy really centered around this idea that it was just this ability that you either have or you don’t, and you know, you're kind of you know in trouble if you don't have it and you know, you're going to you know, you wait the full 15 minutes and in everything is going to be success and you know, See, that's Yeah, the marshmallow test. And obviously, that's not true. And I would, you know, I'd have conversations with parents, when I would run these tests in the lab, and I'd have to explain to them, you know, there's all always other factors involved, you know, it doesn't mean that executive function isn't playing a role. It just means that, you know, whether or not someone chooses to use executive function, or whether or not they're able to kind of carry that out through the full 15 minutes from the marshmallow test, for example, depends on lots of different factors depends on whether you came into the lab hungry, or whether you ate a snack, right? Before that's such a good observation, by the way. Nobody thought Yeah, well, well, yeah, we, as a researcher, you do think about it, because you, you know, you want your study to work out, and you need to be thinking about, like, you know, let's make sure that the parents are, you know, not giving their kid candy right before they come in, because that might mean they're not going to be really tempted by this marshmallow. And, and other factors, like show some children are maybe more inhibited in that situation, and, you know, lots of different things. And in my study, we looked at how their beliefs about what their group members are doing and what they value, how that would affect their behavior. And, yeah, we found that they

Sucheta Kamath: Yeah, can you share that experiment, how you went about it? So, there's definitely the end, what two things I love about your research is one, you know, we really didn't have a good sense, even skills like theory of mind, that how young can kids be who are demonstrating skills, so you test itty bitty kids, which is age three, and four. 

Sabine Doebel: But I mean, really, they're not these aren't. Children are using an executive function very, very, very young, six months infancy. And it's interesting, when you go back into the literature that they used to think that it wasn't like, around 12 years of age that you started to have an active frontal lobe. And that's, you know, but then some researcher’s kind of documented, there's this one paper, and I can't remember the names of the authors, but they really talked about all these different tasks that weren't your classic executive function tasks, but you could see how they involved executive function. And they surveyed this entire literature showing like, actually, children are using executive function in all these different ways. And then, you know, the more recent work has looked at infants, and actually some classic work like by Adele diamond, and you come into cotton and others where they've looked at the A not B, task, from this executive function lens. And, yeah, so I'm very strongly convinced that children are capable of using executive function really early on, it's just a matter of learning the ways to use it that are relevant for functioning well in their context and their culture. And so, the if you want me to talk about the, the marshmallow study, the way that this Yeah, the way that this came about, actually was that I was just kind of thinking about some work that was being done, where children were being trained. So, children from disadvantaged backgrounds were being beat, they were being trained to on some tasks, executive function tasks, with the hopes that this would kind of improve their executive function in a way that would then apply to their everyday lives. And I just kind of thought, you know, that's probably not going to work. It's not an it's, it's not because you didn't train it long enough. It's just that that is just to me that just underlying, you know, it suggests that the way we're thinking about executive function is not right. It's not this thing that you can just practice in a particular way. And that's going to strengthen the brain area that is responsible for executive function or, or the executive function skills, and then you will be able to apply it in all these different important contexts. And so, the way I went about it, I guess, as a first step in this direction was to, I wanted to explore how values and beliefs could affect how executive function is engaged. And so I brought together the, you know, the marshmallow paradigm with this other well-known finding that you can manipulate how children identify with others, just by giving them like a T shirt and saying, you know, you're in the orange group, here's your T shirt, and you can just with a simple thing like that, you can get them to say that they like that group better than another group that wears a different colored t shirt or that they want to give candy to their own group members, you know, and different things like that. And so, we basically assigned children to a group and gave them the T shirt, and then told them that their group waited for the Two marshmallows and the other group, you know, the ones wearing the orange t shirt, they didn't wait. And then in a different condition, we did the opposite where we told them that their group didn't wait, and the other group did. And then we left them to wait for the 15 minutes. And we found that the kids who believe that their group waited, were themselves able to wait longer. And the way that I interpret this is that they were using executive function just in light of this, these beliefs, I doubt or the belief yet. 

Sucheta Kamath: So, I do have a question about that. How did you reconcile with those who did not identify themselves as green shirt wearers? or orange shirt wearers? Is there any mechanism that makes you want to belong? Or because this too, sounds to me very common human tendency to want to belong? So why didn't Is there a reason other than failure of self-control? That people wearing certain colored t shirts? ate one marshmallow? Because they don't want to identify themselves? Is there like because it didn't feel like compelling enough identity? Is that possible?  

Sabine Doebel: Yeah. I mean, I think that's possible. There's definitely other interpretations open for this work. We found that most kids did, I did want to belong to their group. So, but there were the odd, you know, children who basically didn't really want to wear the T shirt are, but we didn't find that the wearing of the T shirt really mattered actually like it. They still identify, they just didn't want to put the T shirt on some kids just had these preferences. So. But yeah, I think that might be an interesting direction to go into it further explore that? Because yeah, I think there are individual differences in how much people really want to be part of a group. And that could affect how much something like this would, you know, affect their behavior? 

Sucheta Kamath: Because I was wondering, when I read your research, I thought, so let's say let's take internalized quality in a T shirt is an external, right, I wear it, what if I say something like, I'm an early riser, you know, are making this up? Or, like, I am a vegetarian, for example, with that, also add to that, you know, because it is an identity, would that also support the same process? You think? 

Sabine Doebel: Maybe, you know, I definitely I'm an early riser now. And I pass judgment on those who like, wake up after, you know, nine o'clock? So maybe just yeah, I think, you know, we would think that like the minimal groups thing, if that, if that works, then you would think that something where there's a stronger basis for identity would have more impact, but I don't, you know, that hasn't actually been tested. But, you know, in our, in our second experiment, we actually did go beyond the minimal groups, where we also said, you know, your group also likes the things that you like, we ask kids what they like, between some choices. And then we said, you know, your group also likes those things, because we didn't want it to be long, more potent. And I think that that would matter. 

Sucheta Kamath: And so, so in that variation, can you talk us how you set that up? And how did the kids respond to it? 

Sabine Doebel: Um, it was essentially the same because it was the second round of the same study, but we just said, you know, do you what do you prefer? Do you prefer chocolate, or I don't remember exactly what it was, but a chocolate or gum or playing ball or playing with a puzzle or, you know, different things and then saying, you know, what, the green group also likes all of these things that you said. And so, we just assumed that that would create a stronger sense of identity that would then carry over to maybe more interest in more motivation for waiting.  

Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's so interesting. You have my brother, who lives in Canada is in India right now. He's stuck there for a variety of reasons. But anyway, he because of COVID. And it was interesting. So, he's staying at my mom's place, and my mom lives with us. She has moved to us to live with us. Anyways, and so he was doing lots of things and you're taking care of her banking and all the, you know, paying for gas, electricity for a year is what happened. And after he finished taking care of everything, and so he says to my mom, and this is an inside joke, and I'll explain in a second, but he says, Mom, what would people say? And she, my mom said, oh, people would say you're such an amazing, amazing young son, you know, so when we were younger, my mother used to say, if you do this, you know people are going to say you're such a good, our family name son, you know Kelkar son. And so, it actually He worked with me and my brother, older brother, and then my younger brother came along, who's seven and nine years younger. And that did not work with him at all. What would people say? And he's like, I don't care. So, all the practices that as a family and a culture that my parents were able to instill in us just fell out of the, you know, my wayside. It was hilarious. So, um, you know, I'm also I love the parts that you're talking about, which is the social factors, the norm values and, you know, trust influence children, you say, rather, you know, like, many papers have written about this, too, that this matters a lot. And this reminded me of, you know, another guest I have had on my podcast, which is Dr. Michele Gelfand, she is, you know, she has written a book called Tight and Loose Culture, and she studies cultures. And I was wondering if that capacity to identify do you see, or you have some thoughts about how that would influence one's ability to regulate oneself? You know, she says that our deep cultural programming shapes our views and warrants code switching. So could failure to code switching be visible, be perceived as failure in executive function? 

Sabine Doebel: I'm not sure. I mean, when I think about culture, I think a lot about how we tend to think that when people aren't showing an executive function in the ways that we expect or the ways that we think is important, you know, on these tasks, that we think that they're showing some kind of deficit that needs to be remediated. And, you know, it's really interesting to me that like the construct of executive function came from the neuro psychology literature. And, you know, initially, it was talked about much in terms of the frontal lobes. So, this, you know, this executive function and frontal lobe functioning, and then it kind of gradually became, you know, discussed more in terms of, I mean, the, the neuro psychology literature persists, and there's the developmental neuro psychology literature, but now, you know, you hear executive function is talked about a lot in the context of typically developing children. And so, when young children do poorly on like, the marshmallow test, or you know, the card sorting test, that's kind of viewed as you know, reflecting a deficit of some sort, right, and age-related deficit. And then in the cultural situation, it's, you know, it's also similarly construed as a kind of deficit, that's due to disparity. And we also hear it talked about, you know, with, you know, socioeconomic status, or background, this idea that people are, you know, experiencing disparities in you know, you know, parent, its parenting and other things, stimulation for the brain, various things that are then contributing to brain-based deficits, you know, executive function deficits, and I really don't agree with that. And I think like I, that's a big kind of idea for me, and now is to kind of really think more about how, you know, that's kind of reflecting a bit of a bias. And also, just, we're not thinking about the history of the construct enough that we kind of just transported this from the kind of neuroscience literature, and some things that might actually make sense in explaining, you know, dysfunction. In some populations, that may make sense, but it might not actually be a good explanation of what's going on with young children, or people in different contexts. 

Sucheta Kamath: So, I really like that, I think it's a sensible, retake, if I may say, you know, what I find, for example, a 16-year-old is going to be more proficient than a 14-year-old, and 14-year-old, more than six-year-old. But if you take all six-year-olds, and there are going to be some who are probably can lead the class, for example, have self-sufficiency, then there is middle of the road, who just need a little bit more suggestions and guidance. And then there are some who are who are definitely falling behind. But if we talk about falling behind, to me, the way I conceptualize in understanding executive function, failure or breakdown or deficit would be that not meeting expectations to achieve success that you are fully capable of, or our desire. So, the deficit is really there's a goal mismatch. I have a goal, and I'm not meeting the goal successfully. So, I don't look at it as a fun Not that you become a failure, you're not a failure, you as a person, because these are emergent skills, right? They are going to gain mastery over time, because of the developing nature of the brain. But there are some processes that can support and propel children to understand, for example, I find that when doing the work, if you kind of help children understand intent analysis, why do you think your teacher wants you to do this? If you make that clarification, the children are like, oh, I didn't know, like, one of the things I often see working with middle school, they'll say, I never thought the teacher actually prepares a lesson plan, you know, they had no idea. So, when you make them aware, like act of cooperation, so to me social skills can really aid the process of goal attainment or interference with the goals that you desire, because that's measured through some sort of achievement. And I'm wondering, what do you think about that way of thinking about things? 

Sabine Doebel: Yeah, that totally makes sense to me that just this but and for me, I think of it as in terms of knowledge, like, you're providing them with more insight into what others expect, or you know, desire. And once they have that additional insight that could also help them to use executive function in the way that is expected. They're just better able to kind of grasp on to the ideas and keep them in mind, for example. So, I like I really like that. I, one thing I worry about is this idea, like, the brain gets talked about a lot. And it makes sense, because the concept came from, you know, the neuro psych literature. And also, of course, we require prefrontal cortex in order to act, you know, use executive function. But what I have seen a lot of, and that really concerns me is this idea that, you know, for example, young children are limited because of their brain, you know, their, their brain hasn't developed yet. And you see this actually, in textbooks and in different places where it's just sort of like, oh, yeah, they're, they're impulsive, because of, you know, these limitations. And I tend not to think that way, I think that children, you know, are the way they are, because, like, they have a lot of strengths. And I don't think it will talk enough about that. They, you know, they are very different. And they're not necessarily just like this deficient kind of adult like that just, you know, their brain isn't fully developed, like they, they're very playful, they're very, like, engaged with the world. And they're very positive often, and I like to think about what they're bringing to the table, instead of thinking about them in as limited. Of course, they're, you know, the brain needs to develop, but how much of that is a function of the experiences that they need to have that they have not had yet, you can think a lot about young children like preschoolers kind of, as you know, in parallel to teenagers who also kind of get a bad rap for being impulsive, and because of their brain, right. But there's another way of thinking about that, they really, they want to explore the world. And they are seeking out new experiences from which they will learn and become wiser. And then you know, and that will shape their brain in a certain way. And they'll be capable of using executive function in particular ways because of the experiences that they had, because of the knowledge that they have. And I think the same way of young children. 

Sucheta Kamath: You know, so I'm going to share with you a working title of my book that I'm working on, the dance of freedom and control, you know, it's executive function to me is a balance between the discipline and spontaneity is the Goldilocks effect, you cannot be all you know, controlled, because then that definitely is going to lose that playfulness, exploration, exploration, which is such an essential part of developing our self-understanding, but also understanding of the world. And, but you do need certain places where you need to rein in because particularly if you're causing disruption, so that that contextual cooperation, so I like to think about building executive function for as more as an art of learning to collaborate and cooperate with the world, not so much selfish, self-centric thought process, because once you become aware that I have goals, Sabine has goals is my goal pursuit interfering with Sabine’s goal pursuit, then actually, that is not a collaborative, you know, and so metacognitive training is really about that. It's kind of making people children, adolescent and adult aware of the goals, goals, pursuit as a human striving, you know, I like to think that way. Yeah. So, you know the talking about then other part not the deficit model, which I completely agree with you, we need to think about strength, modern model and development can benefit all an exposure and practice can benefit all to improve their ability. But I also like to think like executive function skills are more like a gas in the tank more you drive less you will have you know, so your own executive function, you're more impulsive at night, you know, there's shopping trends, people tend to spend a lot more money from nine to 11, you know, this just you have less inhibition? So, what, what are your thoughts about, you know, research shows that the EF capacity sharply reduces when it must be devoted to managing lower-level skills and responds to which are not automatic or fluent. So, the capacity for the higher level, which is metacognitive function is taken up, so there's a like, mismatch there. Have you given some thought to that? 

Sabine Doebel: Yeah, I mean, I think I definitely, you know, you know, lack of sleep and just being exhausted and all those things, for sure that those that's going to reduce your executive function, capacity and having some self-knowledge goes a long way. And that, you know, if you know, that you're capable of, or that you're prone to, you know, shopping a lot, you might want to kind of set something up where you can access your websites, after a certain time of day, or, you know, and just yeah, removing yourself from situations that you know, are going to be stressful, like, I'm very exhausted by 5pm. Because I have, I work all day. And then I have a four-year-old who comes home from preschool. And, yeah, and so I know that by the end of the day, especially if I've been working really hard, my, my capacity for executive control has been, you know, very diminished. And I need to not be in certain situations that are going to provoke me to be kind of irritable with family members. And so yeah, it's about self just managing that. And the thing is, is like, well, you can't ask yourself to be thinking about these things, when you're already tired. So, then it makes sense, when you have more of your capacity to practice certain things or, you know, think through certain things so that once your executive function is more diminished, then you are able to behave in the way that it's, you know, desirable for yourself and for your family members. So, I think I caught like, there's an interplay, right, because you practice, you can practice certain skills, and then you can automate some things. And then you can devote whatever executive function resources, you have to something else, right. And so, when I think about executive function development, and we're all still in developing, it's a part of it is just getting better at something like automating, you know, some of what you are needed to do, and then building on layering on more of the demands. And so, for me, like I learned to drive, you know, well into adulthood, and I experienced that directly, like I at first, it was just like, so exhausting and taxing. I couldn't talk to anybody after I would come home from a lesson I would be just so worn out and just like, how do people even how do people ever learn how to do this, like, this is just too much. And then, you know, within months, I was driving like everybody else. And I was able to have a conversation with somebody while I was driving. Now, that's not to say that it becomes fully automated, you still require some executive function skills when you're driving. But you know, you can eventually carry on conversations and with children for a parallel idea that when they're first learning social skills, like it's hard, they're learning so much, and they're not able to do anything high level, they're not able to really reason about other people, like what's that person thinking about me while I'm talking. But once they've practiced certain skills, then they can have more resources to devote to kind of keeping track of like, am I talking too much, you know, should I let the other person talk and things like that, that are really important for social skills? So, if I was to say, how can I, you know, if somebody asked me, how could you train, use your executive function or trained executive function to help somebody develop more social skills, I'd say just practice the core skills, and then you'll eventually have more resources that you can devote to the like higher level stuff. 

Sucheta Kamath: So, as we end, I was also interested in something you have written recently about less stress. versus more structured, you know, COVID has really given people a window into how difficult it is to educate children and parents have, unfortunately become teachers, which is not necessarily their job, but also not their skill set. And I feel my heart goes out for them. But I think the temptation is to in order to get kids to produce, there's so much imposition and creating structure. But that can be extremely counterintuitive to the developing of creative mind. So, you have written a little bit about that. Do you mind sharing with us what your viewpoint is on this one? 

Sabine Doebel: Sure. I'm just I've been really interested in especially like you said, with COVID, that obviously was an inspiration is just knowing that all these children were at home all day for days on end, and just wondering, you know, what are people doing? And you know, what, you know, what should they be doing? What would be optimal for their development. And so, I knew of previous work by my mentor, you come into kata where they found that children who had less structured leisure time tended to show better self-directed executive function. So that's kind of the kind of self-initiated executive processes. And I that that work is really interesting. And I thought, you know, we could kind of build on that here by looking at just not just leisure time, but what are kids doing, you know, all day, like, how is their time being structured at home, just to get a window into how that might support executive function. And my idea was a little bit different than it's not necessarily just supporting self-directedness. But basically, just having more variety and activities, and just being able to, for example, you know, show interest in something and then have that supported and, you know, it's not necessarily that it's completely unstructured, like, there can be some structure there. But kind of this give and take of, you know, have showing some interest in kind of being given some activities and variety of activities, and that this would give children a lot of knowledge that could then help them use executive function in the ways that are valued. And so, we only, we tried to test it with more than one task, but one of our tests didn't quite work out. But we so we use the card sorting task, which is this widely used measure of executive function, not self-directed executive function. And, you know, the way I think about the card sort is that it is kind of, I don't think of it as tapping, like the core executive process of cognitive flexibility, I think of it as a culturally kind of embedded task, where you're asking a child to use executive function, you're asking them to sort cards by a dimension, like color or shape. And then you are after a while asking them to switch and do it in a different way. And then there's all these assumptions that are built in here where you know that the child is actually kind of understanding the, I think, you know, for example, the child and kind of relating to what we're talking about earlier, the child who may be thinking about what this What does this person want from me? Are they used to being instructed on what to do, you know, in this way? Are they used to being you know, sorting by these different dimensions and kind of doing these arbitrary tasks? some kids definitely probably have more experience with that than others. And that could help them engage their executive function in a task like that. And I think that the less structure time, provides more opportunities for you know, learning about shapes and colors and learning about variety of things that, you know, even engaging in pretend play and different things that are going to give you more insight into others minds and what they expect of you and things like that can then help children use executive function on that task, and perhaps in other ways. 

Sucheta Kamath: Yeah, and I think what got me thinking about is the most critical part about that is the opportunity for choice making. I think when, as a young developing mind multiple ways you continue to make choices for yourself, that is a sort of explore exploration, without conditions, because only when you have a repertoire of doing that, then you kind of are able to go with a choice that's not yours. Because you know, many ways things can be done. And this is sometimes lost on parents or teachers who are trying to create these amazing opportunities, but it's not the child's idea. And it's kind of get lost in the shuffle. I feel. I have a great story of my firstborn when he was two. We had a big floor puzzle with one, you know, number one with one fish number like two numerical, you know, two lines as two with two oranges and it was formed puzzle. And you had like, you know, eight kites and nine bears and whatever, and then you remove any for hours used to do that hours. And then 10 would be one and 0 sorry, one would be one stick, you know, two would be a numerical letter and a number and all that stuff one day, and then he would dismantle it and put it in a box and then take that empty shell of a foam and hey, you know, put it up against the wall one day he was playing. And two, and he was mind you only two years old, it blew me away, blew me away, because what he did is the one was missing in 10, or one like, doesn't matter. So, he started is puzzle 1234 when it came to 10, he had all 10, you know, apples, but it was only zero, there was no one. So, he went and picked up the one from one and put it in 10. So, he had the flexibility to finish the puzzle, full well knowledge, that one will be empty now. But I just fell out because there was no way I would have given him credit to do that, if I had not just watched it. But anyways, that just is such a beautiful story to me, because that's how he learned about multiple application of that numerical one, you know, anyways. So, I do think that sometimes, yeah, it's a witnessing that is so beautiful. 

Sabine Doebel: That's the kind of parent I am. So, it's really easy for me to be enthusiastic about that. And just letting my child take the lead and letting him do what he's going to do and kind of like, you know, encouraging orienting in terms of what we value, you know, the kinds of things we do want him to learn, but not dictating, like, this is what you're going to do. And, you know, just letting him kind of what we end up doing is giving him a lot of opportunities to observe what we're doing at home. And then we find that he then incorporates a lot of that into his play and different things. And so, and I just I absolutely love watching him do different things. Just seeing what his mind comes up with, you know, things that I would never think, of course. 

Sucheta Kamath: I am so excited to have gotten a chance to talk with you. And really, this has been a very meaningful conversation. Particularly I love the way you are challenging our field to broaden its own mind. And from my work in the field where I'm actually working in helping people this is where I see that executive function skill is not making somebody perfect, because that will be such a false way of thinking, it is actually a process of helping people help themselves. And what they need help with is how can they be most effective in leading most meaningful lives, but the defining of meaningful life has to be done by them as well. And a good support and therapy is that and like you and I you know, it took you a while to figure out, this is your field, it took me a while to say oh my god, I love what I'm doing. And thank God somebody was patient; the universe was patient with us. Because once you're in your zone of excellence, I think you can make such a big difference. So, I really appreciate. So, as we end, do you have any recommendations for our listeners, any books that have influenced your thought or things that really get you very excited, we would love to know that. 

Sabine Doebel: Um, you know, I don't really have time to read books lately. And you know, the last four years really, because of my son, he's kind of, you know, taking some of that time away, but which, you know, of course, I'm happy because he's amazing. But, you know, so I can think about some books that have influenced me, really, and it's not really an endorsement of all the ideas in them as but I tend to enjoy books that challenge my thinking, challenge my assumptions. And, you know, I've been attracted to reading authors where I, you know, are kind of controversial, even and just seeing what it is exactly that they say like, what, what do they really say, I don't want to just listen to what other people say that they say. So, one book that was really influential for me at one point was Practical Ethics by Peter Singer, who is you know, he's actually quite controversial in some ways. But, you know, some of his ideas I really, I really liked. And of course, I'm not giving a full blanket endorsement of everything he says, but I just, you know, he talks about a lot of different real-world issues that philosophy has, you know, something to say about and you know, made me reflect on certain things. Another kind of author like this is Jonathan Hite. He has this book called The Righteous Mind, this is really relevant for current times where he talks about the left or right kind of divide and kind of tries to make sense of it in a way that is not about saying that one side is better than the other, but just trying to understand human nature really like and you know, and that's kind of where I come from, and that we're all kind of flawed humans trying to make ourselves better. And it's, yeah, so that's a really satisfying book to read.  

Sucheta Kamath: Well, thank you for your recommendations. It's been such a pleasure talking with you. And we really thank you listeners for tuning in. And if you love what you're listening, please share. There's a lot of ways you can get connected with us and if you want to hear from us, definitely sign up for our newsletter. Once again. Thank you so being for being here with us today. And everybody have a great day.