Executive Function and the Art of Diesel-Powered Car Repair (Pt 2)

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Welcome back. In Part 1 we stopped just before taking a look at the four main domains or brain circuits of EF or Executive Function. I’m pulling this information from a great YouTube series that Dr. Barkley has created on the connection between EF and ADHD or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.[1] Dr. Barkley is an ADHD expert who also studies EF. I’ll mention the connection between the two in a moment.

  1. The What circuit – This is the circuit that asks the question What are we going to do? This circuit involves working memory (both verbal and non-verbal or image/procedural forms), the manipulation of mentally held information (such as cognitive models), and our ability to plan, organize, and otherwise problem-solve. This is where critical thinking centrally takes place. It’s not enough to know what we wish to do but we also need to know when we plan to do it.
  2. The When circuit – This is the circuit that asks the question When are we going to do something? This circuit is involved with the anticipation of rewards (i.e., valuing the future), setting up appropriate timing and time schedules, executing actions in a timely and appropriate fashion, and executing actions when they are most ideal. (As comedians say, timing is everything.) Checking your tweets in class is probably not good EF timing.[2] This is the circuit that establishes milestones and deadlines for projects. It’s not enough to just do something that has been scheduled. We also need to know how we feel about that doing.
  3. The Why circuit – This is the circuit that asks the question How do we feel about what and when we are doing something? This circuit involves a very dynamic feedback loop. As Dr. Barkley puts it in his YouTube series, “What I think controls how I feel and how I feel controls what I think.” For this feedback circuit to function properly there needs to be emotional maturity. Emotional maturity further involves making sure that our emotions are consistent with our long-term goals and plans (i.e., how do we feel about the future). This is where top-down control of emotion takes place using imaginative (as opposed to concrete) forms of self-soothing. Pleasant thoughts of the future would be an example of imaginative self-soothing. It’s also where distractions are filtered out, not unlike placing someone in a quiet room (as mentioned above). It’s not enough to feel about something that is being done. We need some way of monitoring how well things are going.
  4. The Reflective circuit – This is the circuit that asks the question How are things going? This circuit involves self-monitoring, self-awareness, and error detection. This circuit monitors not only what is going on within the space that surrounds us (situational awareness) it also monitors what we are doing in that space. This really is the central realm of metacognition or what researchers like to call “thinking about thinking.” Reflection is itself an EF skill designed to watch over and interact with other EF skills.

It’s clear that critical thinking and metacognition are contained within a much larger EF environment, one that includes the individual as well as the individual within evolutionary time and space. It should also be clear that a person must possess a strong sense of self in order for EF top-down skills such as self-monitoring, self-awareness, and self-soothing to be successful.

Now I’d be remiss if I did not point out that according to Dr. Barkley’s research (along with research by others) persons diagnosed as having ADHD show deficiencies in most if not all of these EF domains. Barkley has proposed that ADHD give way to a better description, namely Executive Function Deficiency Disorder or EEDD. Dr. Barkley makes the observation that ADHD expresses a functional break between the rear “knowing brain” and the frontal “preforming brain.” EF is centrally about performance skills: what to do, when to do, why to do, etc.. Persons with ADHD have no difficulties learning and retaining information; they have problems figuring out what to do with that information once acquired.[3] Dr. Barkley suggests that in order to accommodate persons with ADHD, educators need to spend less time delivering information and more time on helping them figure out what to do or how to perform as a result of that information. This sounds great in theory but I can only imagine that these types of accommodations will put extra demands on any learning environment. As a general observation teachers and professors are already being pushed to their limits. We’ll take up this topic of “knowing vs performing” again in Part 3.

It may well be that certain psychologically-orientated accommodation letters reveal deficiencies in one or more of these Executive Function domains. However, are educators able to recognize certain “accommodation letter-EF deficiency” connections? Honestly, I have no idea. Allow me to venture a guess. Professors (especially the ones I know) are pretty intuitive. They’re curious. I’m sure they are wondering if certain accommodation letters are about possible cognitive impairments and how the prescribed accommodation goes about helping to treat or otherwise improve these impairments. Heck, professors are typically good at metacognition and it only makes sense that they would think about the thinking reflected in accommodation letters.

Once again, do geologists need to know all of this psychological stuff? Or, looked at another way, could a geologist either engage in or otherwise promote critical thinking and metacognition without all of this other mumbo jumbo about EF domains and Executive Function Deficiency Disorder. This question keeps coming back to me. I find it fascinating. But there again I’m a psychogeologist. And I am the devil’s advocate after all.

As I prepared for my geology thesis defense all those many years ago, my fellow students told me to not mention even a small part of something unless I was prepared to answer questions about the whole system that holds that part. (One of my fellow students had been racked over the coals during his defense for mentioning a part that existed within a system that he was not prepared to address.) Good advice. If someone mentions critical thinking or metacognition should they then be prepared to answer questions about the whole system that holds them, namely EF. Could “some” knowledge be dangerous? Do geologists know about the domains or brain circuits that are involved in EF? Do geologists know that critical thinking and metacognition are held by a much larger framework? I think geologists might be blown away (as I was) by the insight that by teaching certain aspects of EF, they are not only preserving the legacy and evolutionary history of EF but they just might be extending it as well.

Barkley certainly has given us the science behind EF but I think he’s also given us the philosophy behind it as well. He certainly has given us the scientific evidence behind the argument that where goes EF so too such things as culture, ethics, morality, and, yes, education. Again, we need well-developed EF to get and use, say, the Golden Rule. Keeping the above domains or brain circuits in mind we will start Part 3 with an example of how EF works.


[1] – You can find Part 1 of this five-part series by navigating to:

[2] – Devices such as smartphones and tablets could be used to aid EF. A calendar app could be used to schedule appointments, ToDos, deadlines, etc. There are myriad note-taking apps. My geology colleague who teaches undergrads allows her students to use their smartphones to take pictures of outcrops during field camp but little else. The key to device use in education is to know when such use benefits EF and when it does not. I think it is safe to say that tweets and TikToks do not benefit EF unless they are on orogeny. All kidding aside, a student could say that reading tweets and watching TikToks is a form of affect regulation. Fair enough. However, in both cases we are looking at external, concrete forms of self-soothing and affect regulation. As a general observation, higher education requires a higher level of EF functioning, one at the level of what Barkley calls Conceptual/Abstract Capacity (as mentioned in Part 1).

[3] – I have a friend who is an attorney. He told me that one of the paralegals in his office, after six months of service,  just did not show up for work one day. Once it was clear that this paralegal was not coming back, a few of the other paralegals began cleaning out her desk. Much to their surprise they found that one of the desk drawers contained a rather large stack of papers. Upon further inspection it was clear that these were client documents for the last six months that this paralegal was asked to file away in client folders in the main file room. I’m guessing but I would wager that this paralegal knew that these were client documents and that they should be filed but fell short when it came to actual performance. This person was not able to make the connection that knowing often implies doing. According to Barkley, persons with EF deficiencies are not able to bridge knowing to performance through such cognitive skills as implication. If this law office had wished to increase performance for this paralegal they could have put up signs like “Main File Room This Way” or “Make Sure All Client Documents Get Filed Each Day.”

Speaking as a psychogeologist now, the study of geology depends a lot on implication. As just one example, the limbs of a large first order fold may contain smaller second order folds. Depending on whether these second order folds have a “Z” or “S” shape to them could reveal which limb of the first order fold you are looking at. In essence, the second order folds make certain implications concerning the first order fold that holds them. If you find “M” shaped second order folds, this implies that you may well be at the crest of the first order fold. Pretty cool eh? As another example, ripple marks preserved in the rock record could imply not only whether a section of rock was right side up but also the direction of flow. Geology is shot through with implication. Crosscutting relationships are yet another example.