Jonah Lehrer on marshmallows and executive function
In the comments section of last week’s post on delayed gratification and the Marshmallow Test, Seth Leon pointed out a really interesting article by Jonah Lehrer (first published in the Wall Street Journal but mirrored on his excellent blog, Frontal Cortex) that discusses ways in which you can improve your focus and impulse control — how to boost your performance on the Marshmallow Test, in other words:
The key is strengthening what psychologists call “executive function,” a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses. When we resist the allure of a sweet treat, or do homework instead of watch television, or concentrate for hours on a difficult problem, we are relying on these lofty mental talents. What we want to do in the moment, and what we want to want, are often very different things. Executive function helps to narrow the gap. [...]
But here’s the good news: Executive function can be significantly improved, especially if interventions begin at an early age. In the current issue of Science, Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, reviews the activities that can reliably boost these essential mental skills. The list is surprisingly varied, revolving around activities that are both engaging and challenging, such as computer exercises involving short-term memory, tae-kwon-do, yoga and difficult board games.
The whole article (which isn’t very long) is worth a read, as is Lehrer’s previous post, which describes in considerably more detail the history and implications of the marshmallow studies.