Executive Function and Cognitive Reserve: Effortful, Focussed Attention

I listened to Radio National’s All in the Mind program yesterday.
The topic was the bilingual brain.
The program host, Natasha Mitchell, spoke with Judith Kroll, Janet Werker and Ellen Bialystok about their research into bilingualism. Natasha met Judith, Janet and Ellen at the 2011 American Association of the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington D.C
I found the program fascinating partly because of my own interest in language (stimulated by a Grammar School immersion in Latin, Welsh, French and German) and partly because of their discussion of executive function and cognitive reserve. There is a transcript of the program and a detailed blog post by Natasha.
I was particularly interested in a segment of the program about executive function. Natasha asked Ellen about the cognitive benefits that children and adults gain from being bilingual. Ellen responded:

The cognitive benefits relate to this cognitive system loosely called the executive function or the executive control system. It’s a set of abilities that allows you to perform tasks that require effortful, focussed attention, especially when there’s some conflict or competition. So because bilinguals have to do this all the time when they’re speaking one of their languages and preventing the other language from intruding, it seems that that constant effort and use of that system fortifies it.

In a 2007 paper, Ellen observed that:

The executive functions are basic to all cognitive life – they control attention, determine planning and categorising, and inhibit inappropriate responding. They are normally considered to reside in areas of the frontal cortex, a region of the brain that is the last to develop in childhood and the first to deteriorate with ageing. Speculatively, these executive functions are recruited by bilinguals to control attention to the two languages systems in order to maintain fluent performance in one of them. The massive practice that is involved in that application leads to the hypothesis that these processes are bolstered for bilinguals, creating systems that are more durable, more efficient and more resilient. Thus, for bilinguals, control over the executive functions develops earlier in childhood and declines later in older adulthood.

Ellen’s discussion sent me off thinking about the creation of learning environments in sport and some of the research into attention and expertise.
In addition to contemplating the processes necessary to control two language systems for a bilingual (attention, inhibition, monitoring and switching) I wondered how coaches might develop athletes’ executive function. I think that the acquisition of a second language offers remarkable opportunities to develop effortful, focussed attention.
There are some intriguing long term issues too. Ellen discussed cognitive reserve with Natasha.
This reserve “is a set of activities that people engage in that have shown to be powerful in protecting cognition as we age”. It struck me forcefully that models of long term athlete development and flourishing might want to consider how learning environments can be enriched by language (and classical music).
It would be fascinating to plan a program for athletes that included active rest around language acquisition and musical appreciation. I wonder how such a program would be described. Transformation?
Such a program might shed light on non-specific training and transfer too.
Photo Credit
Lost in Translation



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