Interview: the Importance of Executive Function with Bishop T Omphalos

Interview: the Importance of Executive Function with Bishop T Omphalos

T Omphalos works at the neurology wing of his local hospital as a clinical neuropsychologist. Beyond conducting neuropsychological assessment, diagnostics and differential diagnostics, he is currently engaged in research on the development of executive function in the human brain.

As a member of the O.T.O. for 22 years he serves the Order as a Sovereign Grand Inspector General and a Bishop, in the Greater Great Work of promulgating and establishing the Law of Thelema and has during the last 15 years devoted his life to the Great Work as an aspirant to the A∴A∴

CF: Dear Brother, thank you for taking the time to talk with the USGL Families Committee today. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

TO: Love is the law, love under will. I am happy and honored to assist you with my knowledge of the development of children, be it from my experience as a neuropsychologist working with children, a parent, or as a Thelemite as it relates to the executive function.

Tell me a bit about neuropsychology and how it compares to other approaches to psychology.

I understand from professional colleagues in U.S.A. that one can become a psychologist without ever opening a book on biology in certain states. This is unfortunate since it is our biology that sets the parameters for what kind of behavior that our environment is able to elicit and shape. What is more, it is odd since the modern conceptualization and development of the neurocognitive underpinnings of our behavior in the field cognitive neuroscience was in fact founded and is still largely spearheaded by biologically oriented cognitive scientists.

Cognitive neuroscience is after all just a fancy name for neuropsychology, and its name was the result of historical processes in U.S.A. (the need for the dominant Behaviorist school to differentiate itself from the notion that we have a mind and the subsequent backlash against the radical behaviorist conceptualization of psychology as the science of external and internal behavior by emphasizing a new cognitive processes as the cause of external behavior).

Though today the field obviously recruits professionals from all fields, be this philosophers, mathematicians, computer scientists, neurologists or neurobiologists, the reason for the prominent place of neuropsychologists (cognitive neuroscientists with a background in psychology) is that the field itself is naturally collaborative and draws from several fields (be this biology, cognitive science, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and clinical science). Psychology is after all merely a specialization within the biological field of zoology which similarly draws from several fields in that it centers its focus on the most important animal of them all: humans.

As such psychologists who have the proper background in the five main specialty areas of academic psychology (cognitive, biological, social, personality and developmental psychology) are uniquely placed to both understand and appreciate the complexities of the neurocognitive properties of human thought and behavior, particularly if they additionally have a clinical background within neuropsychology. Our great strength is that we are taught normal rather than just abnormal psychology (like neurologists and psychiatrists), and we have a natural understanding for the great variation that constitutes normality as a statistical, biological, psychological and social phenomenon.

In my home country of Norway where psychology is a recent academic and clinical discipline, it was united from the beginning as an academic and clinical discipline and is increasingly becoming attached to the biomedical sciences rather than the the social or humanistic sciences. We start by learning in evolutionary psychology, how evolutionary processes shapes the biology of the human body just as it does with any other animal. This biology then gives the parameters for how our cognitive properties function and for our personality. As we interact with our environment this biology will develop in different ways, be it abnormally or within the normal variation. After this course in the five broad fields of psychology, we then are trained and study the three main clinical specializations, child/youth, adult and neuro.

What is your background as it pertains to this topic? As a professional child psychologist, what led you to your understanding of the importance of executive function in childhood development?

During my own study I found that I had a penchant for evolutionary and biological psychology in general and cognitive and developmental psychology in particular. I conducted experiments and wrote my two research reports within the fields of cognitive and biological psychology. The first research project was done under the guidance of cognitive scientist Tore Hellstrup and centered on testing the parameters of the specific modules of the working memory. The second focused on LTP saturation of the hippocampal area was done under the neuropsychologist Edvard Moser, a nobel laureate in physiology and medicine for his work on the role of grid-cells in spatial mapping.

My interest for the executive function of the brain (of which working memory is a small part of) was kindled during the writing of my thesis which I wrote under the guidance of Mons Bendixen, an evolutionary and social psychologist. It was an empirical and theoretical investigation into the general theory of crime by social psychologists Gottfredson and Hirschi which posits a three-factor model constituted by opportunity, self-control and gender, where the main factor self-control is mediated by opportunity and gender, as far as criminal and antisocial behavior goes.

Since Gottfredson and Hirschi have been accused of being tautological in their investigations due to empirically operationalizing low self-control as antisocial and criminal behavior, I operationalized it instead to cognitive factors that underlies the clinical disorder ADHD. I demonstrated in line with the general theory of crime that these factors that underlie poor executive function or low self-control indeed successfully predicted antisocial and criminal behavior, that this behavior was universal rather than specialized, mediated by opportunity and gender, and then discussed theoretically the neurocognitive underpinnings of these findings in light of findings in neuropsychology, social and developmental psychology.

Clinical neuropsychology started out in neurological departments at the hospital and before the advent of high-res radiographic imaging techniques such as CT and MRI. Neurologists relied on clinical neuropscyhologists to diagnose and locate various tumors or other problems that threatened the structure and integrity of the human brain. These days due to these imaging techniques the focus has shifted to higher cognitive functions such as intelligence, memory and executive functions.

Consequently the choice of clinical neuropsychology with a focus on children was a natural further professional development, and I work these days at a hospital in the neurological and habilitation departments. In the first I assess child, adolescent and adult patients with neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s, dementia etc.), ME/CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome), brain tumors, head fractures and other conditions that threaten the structure and integrity of the human brain. In the second I assess and diagnose children who suffer from mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, various syndromes, poor neuropsychological function etc.

Slowly it has become increasingly clear to me the importance of executive function and that without the so-called central executive we are little but automatons, largely helpless when there is a mismatch between our phylogenetic evolution or ontogenetic development and our environments. Evolutionary speaking it is the latest acquisition of brain development, and this is recapitulated in the development of our brain. The oldest parts of the brain, the so-called animal brain is the first to develop, then the parts that give rudimentary and specialized control as well as the coding of memory slowly develops. Then around the age of four to eight years the latest evolutionary acquisition, our forebrain, starts rapidly developing.

The first focus of the brain is now centered on developing our analytical faculties, largely through the process of myelinogenesis. It is interesting that universally all cultures has a conception of an “age of reason” around this period of the development. One example of this is the Roman Catholic concern that from this age onward children are capable of knowing right from wrong and consequently capable of sinning. Hence the first communion. We find similar “rites of passage” or conceptualizations of a change in cognitive awareness in children across all cultures.

Psychologically this is the age where children dramatically increase their capability to take in information and reflect upon it. It is an age where they are increasingly curious about the world outside and how it all fits together. It coincides with a more or less fully developed functional language, which in itself underlies higher cognition and lays the foundation for executive functions.

This continues until the age of 9–13 years old, when the parts of the brain that govern analytical reasoning is largely developed, which also coincides with the time when myelinogenesis is completed. After this age we see little or no change in global intelligence measures in children. Provided that they are not exposed to serious conditions that threaten the structure and integrity of their brain, their intelligence level will remain stable from this age until the neurodegenerative effects of aging start to occur.

While the brain is very plastic, there are developmental windows for our underlying neurocognitive functions. After this window plasticity merely means that the brain may shift its usage in accordance with the new skills that one learns, but the underlying neurocognitive properties remain stable. This is what underlies the specificity principle in cognitive neuroscience which, simplified, states that while you get better at what you train at, this does not generalize to other functions. In other words, while Tiger Woods may hit hole in one most of the time in golf, if he had never thrown a basket ball he would still have to train in order to hit the hoop as well as he hits the hole in golf.

Further, it is important to separate between intelligence, special aptitudes and skills. The first sets the foundation for how quickly you are capable of learning a new skill. The second sets the limits or variation for how well you can learn a new skill. Only the last part is really trainable, but the extent that it is trained is mediated by one’s intelligence and special aptitude for the subject in question. Each new skill then has to be trained as if it were a new area to be learned. As we train there develops specialized and dedicated circuits in the brain for these new skills, and there is little overlap between them when we control for the other two factors, even within a specific field such as mathematics..

Evolution however created a shortcut that enables us to train skills much more easily and quickly than previously and in comparison to many other species. Roughly speaking, our cognitive system consists of three parts, an automatic system that is unconscious and heuristic. Though the human being is vastly superior in its neurocognitive development compared to other species because of the other two systems, we share this part with every organism that has a brain. This is the part of the brain that runs the show most of the time. It does its work efficiently and automatically. Without it we would not be able to conduct complex behavior in a rapidly changing environment where time is of the essence.

This automatic part starts out with various phylogenetic modules that have been evolved to allow us to successfully adapt to our environments provided that there is a match between our current environment and the one where the module evolved. As the child develops ontogenetically, these modules are trained and we are able to adapt to a greater variation of environment as we learn about the modern world. As there are no universal problems, the phylogenetic modules are of a general nature, allowing our ontogenetic development through the behaviorist process of conditioning in its many forms, specializing in accordance with our environment. Species-specific modules then adapt to become individual-specific traits.

But what happens when there is a mismatch between the environment and the module? One such example is our “fight or flight” module, one of our oldest evolved phylogenetic properties. In an uncertain world where Man largely was at odds with his environment and had little or no control over it, these modules served us well. Flee when things that produce anxiety are in the vicinity; fight when there is no possibility to flee or if we can allocate some resource that increase our reproductive fitness. Moreover we can through the effects of priming and conditioning quickly learn what to fear and what increases reproductive fitness within the parameters that our phylogenetic modules give us.

But what happens when our instincts tells us to flee things that are erroneously perceived as dangerous (either through a mismatch phylogenetically or ontogenetically in ones environment), which in turn robs us from the chance to disconfirm this and become conditioned to it no longer being dangerous? This will tend to increase anxiety. What about reproductive strategies that were successful and allowed in the past, but which are today considered an aggression and outlawed?

Enter the frontal cortex, where our analytical faculties allow us to analyze novel problems and understand how to solve them independent of (fluid intelligence) or dependent on (crystallized intelligence) past knowledge. But this analytical faculty depends on several executive functions in the frontotemporal cortex that allow it to focus and direct the processes — including memory — of the whole brain to solve this new problem.

But even this matters little if this executive function is not capable of redirecting the whole organism to overrule the automatic system and change the behavior and through the process of conditioning learn how to solve the new problem and in time make it an automatic and integrated part of the behavioral output of the organism. Plato was in other words fundamentally wrong. It matters little if you know what to do if you lack the ability to govern yourself so that you can actually do it.

The development of the executive functions starts developing rapidly once the analytical system is finished developing. This lasts until the age of 21–25. This is where the window of opportunity to train this basic function starts to close, though luckily the executive function is the most plastic of all neurocognitive functions. Unlike intelligence it is much more trainable.

Having said that, just because the variation within which one can train it is more plastic does not mean that biology has nothing to say. Studies show that the variation of executive function in an individual is, like that of intelligence, highly heritable. But because reproductive fitness in some environments depends less on it than in others, it is more plastic in its manifestation. My current research as a neuropsychologist focuses on the training of executive function and in particular working memory. My appreciation for its role continues to grow every day.

As a Thelemite, what do you see as some key points of intersection between the Law of Thelema and the responsibilities of parents to their children?

The important thing for a parent who is a Thelemite is to raise their children under the aegis of the Law of Thelema. That is, they have to raise the child in such a way that it successfully adapts to its environment. Since all children are created unequal as far as their intelligence and specific aptitudes go, this means by necessity that different children develop different skills at different speed. It is the responsibility of the parent to match the needs of the child in order to allow it to develop its full potential.

There are certain universal factors that underlie proper development in all children. These begin with a loving and nurturing environment where the needs of the child are identified and matched as it grows. For this to happen the child needs an attentive parent that is concerned with the welfare of the child. It express this by observing the child, responding to appropriately to its behavior, giving it safe and age appropriate boundaries wherein the child may explore the world without danger to the structure and integrity of its organism. The natural development of a child is from dependence to autonomy, with an increasing ability to forming long-term attachments and to make and follow long-term plans. How fast and how autonomous the child can develop into depends on a number of factors. First and foremost there are individual variations in our intelligence and specific aptitudes, but the complexity of the environment is another factor in this equation.

The parent needs to take into consideration these individual variations rather than insisting on that all children needs to end up at the same level. Provided that we are speaking of normal children with normal parents who have not been confused by modern and novel ideas about how to raise children this behavior is governed by phylogenetic modules that makes the newly born/toddler and parent interactively elicit appropriate behavior so that they are matched and secure proper development in the child. Most normal parents with normal children know instinctively when something is wrong and right and would do well to heed this provided that they have not already let cultural concerns overrule their behavior.

In the past, adolescence was a period of young adulthood where children were largely autonomous and expected to live like adults. Though this resulted in a lot of antisocial and criminal behavior on the part of youths who though they may have known what to do were unable to do so due to the executive functions not being fully developed, it also made the issue of how to approach parenting of teenagers a non-issue as it was relegated to the law-enforcement to deal with problematic behavior among this group.

With the advent of the industrial revolution and the necessity of long-term schooling this regulation has been transferred back to parents who often struggle with this, there being no evolved modules to tackle this. Both schooling and most parenting tend to approach this in a wrong-headed way, and in the past rampant physical abuse of adolescents was common when they misbehaved. There is little evidence that this actually works and that the improvement that they saw were the result of a maturation of the brain rather than the effects of corporeal punishment.

Teenagers need freedom, but since they are less capable of making long-term plans and keeping to these plans, care must be made that they are not given freedom to irreparably damage their future prospects, either through threat to the structure and integrity of their organism or by partaking in extreme antisocial or criminal behavior. Having said that, they do need a gradual transferral to autonomy, but it is important that this happens within their capabilities. In other words, they need to skin their knees to see that they do not die of this, but they should not be allowed to do something that very likely will result in irreparable damage to their bodily structure or integrity.

Some children are also abnormal, that is due to ontogenetic reasons they may have a development that falls either way ahead or way behind the normal variation. These children need to be given opportunities to develop faster if they are ahead or special education if they are behind in their development. Our phylogenetic modules will tend to get in the way here and consequently we need our executive functions to overrule our automatic system in order to ensure them their proper development to their full potentials.

What are some examples of “modern and novel ideas” about child rearing that may distract parents from their proper, instinctual response to the child’s needs? Since our brain structures have remained largely unchanged over the past 20,000 years, when culture changed very slowly and included at most only a few hundred contributors, are we better off looking toward our pleistocene ancestors — what little we know about them, anyway — for the soundest advice rather than to our own parents?

By “modern and novel” I mean any theory or idea that interferes with our instinctual matching of a child’s needs. But one of the more insane ones is raising children to be androgynous. That is denying them the chance to play with their chosen toys etc. Same goes of course for earlier cultures attempts at forcing boys who would rather play with girls’ toys to play with gender appropriate toys and vice versa. In general it is best to approach children as the individuals they are, and if parents avoid cultural hangups (either of the progressive type more common now or the conservative type more common in the past) they tend to match them appropriately and instinctively.

As for your second question regarding is it better to look toward our evolved nature, it depends. Children have an evolved and instinctual fear of the dark, but due to a mismatch between our modern day and the past there is nothing wrong in habituating them to become unafraid of the dark and in fact most parents do this pretty well. Same goes for food sources. Children as well as adults have a sweet tooth and unless you want a diabetic child you should restrict their natural inclination (evolved for a different age) to eat sweets.

Crowley’s advice to treat children and look at the child’s natural inclinations (within limits as noted above) rather than artificial ideals for what a child is and should be jives very well will what modern science knows about children. As does his advice to take into account that it is all children’s natural will as an organism to grow up as healthy specimens in accordance with their inherited qualities. If you add to this the notion that anything that assists the child to become as independent and functional as an adult, then you have a winner.

Other kinds of advice such as his ideas about how best to teach children by letting them choose between two cases are horrible mistakes as not only does it make education inefficient, it quickly leads one down the path of erroneous and superstitious conspiracy theories and ideas such as creationism. The reason for this is that one is not able to choose properly what is true before one knows quite a bit about the subject matter, and the less one knows, the more prone to cognitive errors one is (due to the automatic system taking over and answering questions erroneously that the analytical system can not answer).

“Executive function” is the term to describe the set of skills and mental traits used for some parts of advanced cognition, like planning, strategizing, and appropriate inhibition. While these traits have obvious importance for adults, what is the value of inculcating these skills into children, whose lives are dominated by play, imagination, spontaneity?

Executive function, like analytical reasoning, is a developmental property that slowly emerges as a result of a proper environment. Consequently, for it to be present in adults when our brain have finished developing it needs to emerge as a property in the brains of children and youths.

But more importantly, when one does not have self-control, for adaptation to be successful and create secure children this control needs to be external to them. As they slowly increase in their executive functions children learn to self-regulate through conditioning by interacting with their parents and in time friends and other adults. That is, their automatic system is trained to refrain from biting, from sleeping at odd times, from hitting others when they do not get their will, from whining or crying when they do not get their will.

Toddlers with poor executive function develop more slowly academically than other children, are unhappy and incapable of interacting and playing well with others and utilizing their imagination in constructive ways. Executive function is crucial to children’s present and future well-being cognitively, emotionally as well as physically. They are at increased risk of developing behavioral problems that necessitate interventions as toddlers. As adolescents they are at increased risk of engaging in antisocial and criminal behavior, failing at school and developing mental and somatic illness. As adults they are at increased risk of incarceration and being dependent on welfare and health interventions.

What many people fail to realize is that imagination, play and even spontaneity are complex cognitive processes that necessitate the presence of executive function to a lesser or greater extent. In fact, flexibility (true spontaneity as opposed to random behavior), is one of the many domains of executive function.

With poor executive function children develop socially abnormal as toddlers, academically as adolescents and professionally as adults and have a much worse prognosis as they enter old age. As internationally renowned neuropsychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Elkhenon Goldberg points out in his book The New Executive Brain, without the executive function no Civilization would be possible.

Is it possible to teach children the skills associated with development of executive function, or is it largely a trait that’s genetically conferred or somehow driven by other contextual factors?

I think it is important to realize that everything is driven by genes and that genes confer nothing but lay the framework for how the environment may develop it. In other words every cognitive trait in human beings is driven by both genes and the environment.

Its plasticity however depends on which domain of executive functioning you are talking about and in what time period of the development of the child. If it is the working memory, then this is rather stable once it has been developed (21–25 years of age), though there are cognitive shortcuts such as chunking that allow us to increase its processing capacity even if the underlying memory capacity remains stable.

For the most part however executive function develops naturally in children provided that they receive age-appropriate boundaries which they then internalize so that the regulation moves from external to internal factors.

At what age is it appropriate to try to impart these skills? When is too young or too old?

You need to start imparting these skills as soon as the child is born, but as I have pointed out, provided that you are a normal parent who is not confused by culture and who has a normal child, this happens automatically through the phylogenetic modules that we inherit.

But in general children learn to regulate themselves through the internalization of the regulation that the parents impose upon them. It is important however that this regulation is age-appropriate in order to secure the proper development for the child.

Through this regulation children learn to delay self-gratification, exhibit mental flexibility, monitor their own thoughts, inhibition, initiate new actions and so on.

Are these skills taught pedagogically or is it necessary to teach them experientially?

You can teach them pedagogically, but there is little use doing so unless we are speaking of people with poor cognitive function in the executive domains. Mostly what you can do is teach them tricks.

Are there some educational programs (i.e. the US’ “common core” schooling, Montessori, unschooling, etc.) that naturally lend themselves to the development of this skill set?

In general all educational programs that emphasize age-appropriate discipline and an increasing autonomy that takes into account the developmental level of the individual child lend themselves to the development of good executive functioning. While some children do manage to succeed in educational programs that do not emphasize age-appropriate discipline and an increasing autonomy (be this schools with no autonomy or schools with complete autonomy), these are the children who by accident from nature were lucky enough to be born with a greater potential for self-regulation. Not only would normal children fare badly in these educational programs, but those who have better self-regulation and thus are able to adapt more successfully to them would fare better in more appropriate educational programs.

One of the traits Crowley emphasizes as being of particular importance to the practice of magick is the ability to maintain a state of equanimity which can serve as a balanced foundation for action. We find this in core texts like Liber XXX which reads almost like paean to executive function. We also see practices around this, like Liber III and The Vow of Holy Obedience. These descriptions and practices are probably not the best match for younger humans as they present the topic in a fairly advanced way. Do you have recommendations of materials aimed at cultivating an understanding of these cognitive skills?

Newborns and toddlers develop normally provided that they are developing within a safe and secure environment with attentive parents who are capable of matching their needs as outlined in my above answers. It is important that one does not validate everything a child does, or for that matter allow it to do as it pleases. It is important that children learn routine and through that train themselves to delay self-gratification.

Due to low cognitive flexibility before the age of four (remember, spontaneity is something other than rigid adherence to your own point of view) it is however important to realize that children do not learn very well what to do and what not to do by people telling them. Instead they learn best through experience. To the extent that we want to impart knowledge through language, research indicates that children below the age of four learn best by listening to stories that emphasize lessons of what to do and what not to do.

After the age of reason however children has matured enough in cognitive flexibility that they are capable of being told what to do and what not to do, though they still need help to adjust their behavior accordingly.

In other words I think a general understanding of developmental psychology and the neurodevelopment of the brain is the best material for parents to engage in. Provided that they have not learned and internalized erroneous information, matching the toddlers needs happens automatically. A good resource and outline of these two along with some experimental programs in strengthening cognitive neurodevelopment can be found at the online resources of Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child. If parents are experiencing significant behavioral problems with their children, they might benefit from checking out the evidence-based intervention program Circle of Security in order to see how these principles practically should manifest in the appropriate raising of children.

Thank you again for this detailed elaboration on the importance of executive function in child development. Love is the law, love under will.

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