Executive Function and the Art of Diesel-Powered Car Repair (Pt 1)

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As many of you know in my first career I was a geologist. I worked for a major oil company in the 1980s. I am very fortunate in that over the years I have stayed in contact with several geology colleagues from both my days as a masters student in geology as well as from my days in the oil industry. My geology colleagues and I will often text or email back and forth on a number of topics, including geology.

During a recent exchange I mentioned Executive Function, which, very loosely, is considered by researchers to be a collection of cognitive skills such as self-regulation, focusing attention, mental modeling, reflection, time travel, and planning (among others). One colleague who taught geology at the graduate level for a number of years and is now retired, responded by saying something like, “I feel a bit out of touch because I’m not familiar with Executive Function … should I be?” Another colleague who currently teaches geology mostly at the undergraduate level, chimed in along the lines of, “In education we do not call it Executive Function. We use terms like critical thinking and metacognition.” This same colleague allowed that she attempts to bring critical thinking into the classroom (and field studies) as much as possible. In an attempt to get me up to speed on critical thinking and metacognition in geology she pointed me toward a keynote address given by geology professor Dr. Karl Wirth at a 2008 workshop entitled The Role of Metacognition In Teaching Geoscience.[1]

The above exchange got me thinking: Should geologists and geology educators really know about Executive Function, or its subcomponents critical thinking and metacognition? These topics sound as if they should be more within the purview of psychology, neurobiology, neuropsychology, or even cognitive science. How do I know this? Well, in my second career I was a psychotherapist working mainly with adolescents in a residential treatment center (RTC) setting. This would have been in the 1990s.

As a result of my masters studies in counseling and my time working with adolescents I developed an interest in, at first, Bowlbian attachment theory and, later, Executive Function. Yes, there is a connection between the two, a connection that we will not look at in any detail here. I have maintained my interest in both topics to this day as evidenced by this blog and my 2018 book A Question of Attachment.

Sure, it makes sense for someone working in the counseling field to know about Bowlbian attachment theory and even Executive Function, but should geologists and geology educators know about these topics? Should they tiptoe around in such areas as psychology, neurobiology, neuropsychology, or even cognitive science? I can honestly say that back when I was studying geology the topics of critical thinking and metacognition never came up. However, it’s clear that EF has filtered into geology via these concepts starting as early as 2008 as Dr. Wirth’s keynote address suggests.

I have to admit that I know very little about the field of education. However I am intrigued by how psychology and cognitive science (and possibly neuroscience) have filtered into geology via the field of education. In my opinion being both a geologist and a psychotherapist (now retired from both) qualifies me as a “psychogeologist.” Honestly I thought I was a rather rare animal. Turns out there seems to be more psychogeologists out there than I thought. How interesting.

In his keynote address Dr. Wirth makes a statement that caught my attention. He told his audience that critical thinking and metacognition are often associated with the prefrontal cortex of the so-called upper brain. He then went on to point out that studies of the brain reveal that the prefrontal cortex or PFC does not fully mature until as late as age 25.[2] He then threw out the following question along the lines of: “Given that the PFC does not fully develop until age 25 or so, are we as educators asking our students to do things like critical thinking, that they are not developmentally prepared for?” He then suggested that geology educators may wish to get together with neurobiologists on this question. This is a great suggestion. I’m not sure these two disciplines have in fact shaken hands.

Speaking as an avowed psychogeologist, I applaud efforts to bridge psychology or cognitive science or neurobiology over to geology either directly or via the field of education. But is it possible that I am, well, just “psycho” or “off my rocker” as my father’s generation used to say. So, allow me to play devil’s advocate in what follows and argue against bridging psychology and associated areas over to geology. To do this I’d like to setup an analogy if you would be so kind as to indulge me.

About two years ago I took my diesel-powered car into service. My car was throwing a “check engine” light along with a nasty message on the dash display: “Please find a service center within the next 200 miles or your car will no longer start.” The service tech told me that my SCR (selective catalytic reduction) system was malfunctioning.

In 2010 the EPA (envionmental protection agency) mandated that all diesel vehicles have SRC systems that use DEF fluid to reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx). SCR systems have an entry NOx sensor and an exit NOx sensor. If the delta (or difference) is not big enough between the two NOx sensors, then the SCR system throws a check engine light and displays that nasty message mentioned above. Apparently the EPA mandated that car manufacturers disable a vehicle after so many miles or after so many engine starts once that car no longer meets EPA emissions standards. (Please note that some vehicles, like over the road tractor-trailer trucks, may go into “limp mode” that restricts the maximum speed of the vehicle to 35 mph.)

I told the service tech, “Dude, I just want my car to run trouble free. I don’t want to see any nasty messages about how my car is going to potentially strand me. I don’t want to know about the innerworkings of the SCR system. I just wish to drive.” I did ask the tech why so many SCR systems seem to be screwing up in the U.S. He said simply, “Really poor diesel fuel quality in the U.S. compared to Europe.” I got my car fixed and quickly traded it in for a Honda.[3]

Given the above I can imagine a hypothetical professor out there (and not one necessarily in geology) saying something like, “Dude, I just want my classroom to run trouble free. I don’t want to see accommodation letters on my desk (more on these in a moment). I do not want to know about the innerworkings of the brain and that gosh darn Prefrontal Cortex. I just wish to take my students on a smooth drive down the highway of higher education. I want Honda students.”

Accommodation letters. I have to admit that up until about a week ago I had never heard of accommodation letters. My geology colleague who teaches undergrads mentioned them in passing as if I would know what they were. I did a Google search and came upon a web page for the Office of Disability Services at Rutgers University.[4] Here I learned that accommodation letters are an outgrowth of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008. Apparently after a student goes through an application and review process at the Office of Disability Services, an accommodation letter may be issued. This letter is then sent to the student’s professor (or professors). As a result of this letter, professor(s) must make certain reasonable accommodations as a part of accommodating certain disabilities whether physical, cognitive, or even emotional. Now I’m the one who feels a bit out of touch.

My colleague told me that she once received an accommodation letter that instructed her to not call on a particular student in class because such untoward attention may trigger an adverse emotional reaction. This to me implies that this student may have difficulties with affect regulation (one of the EF skills mentioned above). My colleague said that she has received several accommodation letters stipulating that she provide “quite rooms” in which tests and exams could take place distraction free, implying possible difficulties regulating distractions or filtering out extraneous information (more EF skills). OK, it was at this point that I realized that the confluence of psychology and geology via education was, how shall I say, murky. Let me see if I can get some sediment to drop out of these murky waters. No promises.

In his seminal 2012 book entitled Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved, professor of psychiatry and neurology Russell Barkley, taking an Evolutionary view, suggests that Executive Function starts at the level of gene processes and extends all the way to the farthest advances of civilization, such as ethics and morality. In addition, certain aspects of EF evolution can only be measured using geologic time. Dr. Barkley suggests that well-developed EF is required to operate at a high level of cognition he calls Conceptual/Abstract Capacity. Obtaining this level of EF is required to understand and use such complex concepts as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “all individuals should be presumed innocent until proven guilty” (quotes that Barkley uses in his book). Here’s Barkley’s bottom line: “[A]dvances in formal social organizations, such as laws, constitutions, and forms of government, can serve to ratchet up an individual to a higher level of extended EF phenotypic functioning not permitted to either earlier generations or those born into less advanced societies.” A bit further along Barkley says that education plays a pivotal role in the EF-Culture dynamic feedback loop (using a concept drawn from systems theory).

OK then. It would appear that there is a dynamic relationship or positive feedback loop between EF and education. However, exactly how visible is this connection? Recall that in an earlier post I talked about psychotherapists Marcie and Daniel Yeager and their 2012 book entitled Executive Function & Child Development. The Yeagers make the point that in order for kids (ages four to 12) to be successful in school they have to have well-functioning EF. The Yeagers have designed a number of exercises that teachers can use to help develop executive functioning in students.

Here’s a clear example of psychotherapists porting knowledge of EF over to the classroom. Teachers are being asked to be “psychoteachers,” to play a role in student treatment plans if you will, and to join student treatment teams. I would suggest that the same is being asked of professors and other instructors of higher education. Is this perhaps “responsibility creep” into the area of special education? Still murky, however it’s clear that EF is important in education from K to grad school and beyond. Back to Barkley.

In essence Barkley tells us that there is this huge (geologically huge) evolutionary history to Executive Function, which today holds critical thinking and metacognition. Barkley suggests that we can see a middle layer of EF development (the Self-Reliant EF layer) displayed as far back as early humans and possibly including Neanderthals. Today Barkley and other neuropsychology researchers look at EF as consisting of four main domains or brain circuits. We’ll begin Part 2 by looking at these four domains and where critical thinking and metacognition fit in.



[1] – You can find a video recording of Dr. Wirth’s address by navigating to:

[2] – For a great article (which I mentioned in an earlier blog) on late development of the PFC in teens and young adults, see the 2015 article entitled The Amazing Teen Brain by psychiatry researcher Dr. Jay Giedd. This article appeared over at in June of 2015. You can find a reader’s version of this article by navigating to:

[3] – As a side note, this particular car manufacturer no longer sells diesel cars in the US although their diesel cars are still very popular in Europe where apparently high quality diesel fuel can be found.

[4] – You can find this web page by navigating to: