The New York Times ran a long article a couple of days ago (it's still the #2 most emailed article) on the growing hope that there may be techniques to improve what neuroscientists have termed "executive function." This is exciting stuff, and sets the stage for the growing body of work (from The Shamatha Project and elsewhere) on how contemplative training improves executive function. From the article:
Over the last few years, a new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development, a phrase that sounds more as if it belongs in the boardroom than the classroom: executive function. Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.
The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children. In one recent national survey, 46 percent of kindergarten teachers said that at least half the kids in their classes had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, like kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week. Walter Gilliam, a professor at Yale’s child-study center, estimates that each year, across the country, more than 5,000 children are expelled from pre-K programs because teachers feel unable to control them.
There is a popular belief that executive-function skills are fixed early on, a function of genes and parenting, and that other than medication, there’s not much that teachers and professionals can do to affect children’s impulsive behavior. In fact, though, there is growing evidence that the opposite is true, that executive-function skills are relatively malleable — quite possibly more malleable than I.Q., which is notoriously hard to increase over a sustained period.
This article focuses on a program called Tools of the Mind as a potential way to boost executive function, and doesn't mention meditation. What's exciting here is that The Shamatha Project scientists are focusing on how meditation alters (ok, I'll say it: dramatically improves) executive function, from a number of angles that are highly relevant to addressing key societal problems, including those highlighted above. When Joan Halifax, who caught a preview of the project's unpublished results, writes that they're "stunning," I suspect that the findings on executive function are part of what she's referring to. Results are currently being prepared for publication. Stay tuned (which, I suppose, is another way of saying "Keep that executive function switched on") ...