GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about how to be better - better at things like managing stress or connecting with people or being better decision-makers.
All right, Sabine. Just please tell me your name and how we should identify you in the story.
SABINE DOEBEL: My name is Sabine Doebel, and I am an assistant professor - or incoming assistant professor at George Mason University.
RAZ: And what do you teach there - or what will you teach there?
DOEBEL: I will be teaching developmental psychology.
RAZ: And one of the areas that Sabine researches is our executive function - our ability to consciously control our thoughts and actions. And it's what allows our conscious brain to override things we do automatically by habit.
So, like, if I, like - when I wake up in the morning and I get out of bed and I put my slippers on, I'm not using my executive function. I'm just doing that. That's just something I don't even think about.
DOEBEL: It depends. How hard is it for you to get out of bed?
RAZ: Not hard. I - every...
DOEBEL: Some people...
RAZ: I get up. I put my slippers on. It's, like, an automatic thing.
DOEBEL: Well, for some people, it's not as automatic 'cause they want to sleep in, so that takes effort.
DOEBEL: Right? So there will be differences. But yeah, there's a lot of things you can do in life without thinking too hard about it. You just kind of do it.
DOEBEL: But I think executive function comes into play when you need to be more conscious and you have specific goals and there's, like, specific things that you need to execute...
DOEBEL: ...Especially when there are underlying habits and - that kind of go against what you're trying to do.
RAZ: Here's more from Sabine Doebel on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDx TALK)
DOEBEL: So we use executive function every day in all aspects of our lives. It's what we use when we need to break away from habit, inhibit our impulses and plan ahead. Executive function is really complex, and it's shaped by numerous factors. It's no surprise that researchers like me are so interested in understanding it and figuring out ways to improve it. But lately, executive function has become a huge self-improvement buzzword. People think you can improve it through brain training iPhone apps and computer games.
Well, I'm here to tell you that this way of thinking about executive function is all wrong. Brain training won't improve executive function in a broad sense because it involves exercising it in a narrow way, outside of the real-world context in which we actually use it. If you really want to improve your executive function in a way that matters for your life, you have to understand how it's influenced by context. And success in real-world situations depends on things like how motivated you are and what your peers are doing.
Now, let me give you an example from my research. I recently brought in a bunch of kids to do the classic marshmallow test, which is a measure of delay of gratification that also likely requires a lot of executive function. So you may have heard about this test, but basically, kids are given a choice - they can have one marshmallow right away or, if they can wait for me to go to the other room and get more marshmallows, they can have two instead. Now, most kids really want that second marshmallow. But the key question is, how long can they wait?
Now, I added a twist to look at the effects of context. I told each kid that they were in a group - like the green group - and I even gave them a green t-shirt to wear. And I said, your group waited for two marshmallows, and this other group - the orange group - did not. And then I left the kid alone in the room, and I watched on a webcam to see how long they waited. So what I found was that kids who believed that their group waited for two marshmallows were themselves more likely to wait. So they were influenced by a peer group that they'd never even met.
So what this all shows is just how much context matters. It's not that these kids had good executive function or bad. It's that the context helped them use it better.
RAZ: I mean, that would suggest that you can actually improve a child's executive function if you can somehow convince them to wait. It would suggest that it's possible to change the way that people make decisions.
DOEBEL: I totally agree. I mean, there's all kinds of examples where this seems to happen. You can really exploit things like social influences to help you do things that you want to do - like, to help you use that executive function to get out the door and go exercise, for example, and to maintain an exercise routine. Like, group exercise - I think a lot of people have already picked up on this - like, group exercise works because you get used to being in an environment with other people that - who have friendly faces that you know, and they expect you to be there. And it becomes more meaningful for you.
So in a way, like, I think you have to trick yourself or you have to tell yourself - like, right now you might say, like, there might be some area of life where you want to improve, but you feel like you just can't figure out how to change your decisions or be better - make better decisions. If you can make that more meaningful for you, then it'll be easier for you to kind of use that effort to achieve those goals.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDx TALK)
DOEBEL: So what does this mean for you and for your kids? Well, let's say that you want to learn Spanish. You could try changing your context and surrounding yourself with other people who also want to learn. And even better, if these are people that you really like - that way you'll be more motivated to use executive function.
Or let's say that you want to help your child do better on her math homework. You could teach her strategies to use executive function in that particular context, like putting her phone away before she starts studying or planning to reward herself after studying for an hour.
Now, I don't want to make it sound like context is everything. Executive function is really complex, and it's shaped by numerous factors. But what I want you to remember is if you want to improve your executive function in some aspect of your life, think about the context and how you can make your goals matter more to you and how you can use strategies to help yourself in that particular situation.
Don't look for quick fixes. The key part of this is knowing how context shapes your behavior and how you can use that knowledge to change for the better.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So what's the slow fix?
DOEBEL: I think the slow fix is first figuring out what it is that - what area of life it is or what particular situation it is that you want to improve your executive function or how you use it and understand more about that situation. Like, how much does it really matter to you? What can you do to make it matter more to you? And go from there.
Like, you - for example, I used to smoke. And, like, I cut down a lot, but it was very hard to let go of that last cigarette. And, like, there was one cigarette I'd have before I went to bed, and that was really hard. And I just could not do it.
But I moved to a new apartment, and there was no smoking allowed. And I lived in Canada. It was very cold in the winter, and I was just not one of those people who was going to go outside to have a cigarette. And that was it. That was it. I never smoked again.
It's almost like the environment will support you in using your executive function. You'll still need to use it. You still need to use conscious control, but so much of how we function in the world depends on what matters to us and, like, what - how well we know ourselves and how much we can exploit that knowledge in our favor.
RAZ: That's Sabine Doebel. She's a developmental cognitive scientist and an assistant professor at George Mason University. You can see her entire talk at TED.com.
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