July 3, 2023
Have you ever wondered why you forgot a person’s name immediately after meeting them, or pondered why you reacted a certain way in a social situation? If you have, then you’ve been engaging in a mental process called metacognition–thinking about thinking. Metacognition is an important skill that helps us better understand ourselves and improve how we deal with all kinds of circumstances.
We all have the ability to develop metacognition at no cost through meditation. When we meditate, we notice our mind wandering and practice returning to the present moment. The more we meditate, the more we hone the skill and refine our metacognitive ability over time. Our ability to introspect and reflect matures as we grow, fine-tuning from infancy to late teens and into adulthood.
For neurodivergent children, however, thinking and analysing a situation can be quite challenging, and reflecting on events difficult. Instead of being mindful of activities, these children can feel like their thought processes are cluttered and overwhelmed. In place of contemplation and intentional actions, they may feel they have a series of habits that take them through their day without much thought–just automatic reactions to events that occur.
Working memory–the brain’s processing capacity–plays a pivotal role in metacognition. If it is weak, as it often is for neurodivergent children, this can greatly restrict metacognitive ability. But training working memory, increasing the amount of information a child can retain and process simultaneously, can change how thoughts are managed. Cogmed, by changing the brain’s architecture, can help with this challenge.
I have been a Cogmed provider since 2008, and so I have had a lot of time to think about how to create successful training. With each passing year, I learn to tweak the coaching process to improve the results. When neurodivergent children with conditions such as ADHD, ASD, Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia (now referred to as Developmental Coordintation Disorder or DCD) pursue Cogmed in my practice, I often see significant changes.
Parents also report they see marked changes in their child, such as faster writing speed but also increased patience and enhanced reflective thinking. In other words, metacognition is improving.
One student I worked with, diagnosed with ADHD, shared an experience that illustrates the power of Cogmed. He noticed an improved ability to process and follow conversations happening behind his line of vision in class, and shared that he now gets annoyed by his classmates’ whispering. Prior to completing the program, he would turn around and focus on the conversations to find out what they were whispering about, often getting in trouble with the teacher. Now, after completing Cogmed, he felt he had a choice: should I turn around and risk getting caught, or should I focus on the teacher at the front of the class?
As a typical emerging teenager, he told me he would of course always decide to talk to his friends and risk getting caught! Shocked as I was, I realized the enormity of the fact that he now not only had increased auditory processing skills, but also the space in his thinking to reflect and decide how he wanted to respond to the situation. This was never a factor before Cogmed.
It also dawned on me that this student, as a result of his active decision-making, would be less defensive when caught by the teacher. Thinking through the consequences and admitting his behavioral choices (to himself, at least) is a direct feedback loop. Each time he does this, he makes a conscious decision and further strengthens his metacognition.
Raviv Practice London takes many people of all ages through Cogmed working memory training each year, and it’s not just neurodivergent youngsters. The neurotypical adults that come to us finding they are struggling in their high-level roles, often stand out for me the most.
A great example is RC, a 49-year old with a PhD, and a high-level position leading multiple teams and assessing stock-market trends. After his Cogmed training, he noted his stress levels had visibly reduced and described an increased ability to retain information. He shared:
“Now when I get a six-digit verification code to log on to my server, I can remember it after seeing it flash up once on my phone. Before, I didn’t even see or register the numbers. I had to open the message application, COPY the numbers and paste them into my computer. Now it flashes up, I register the code and type it in. Sometimes I go back to double check, and seeing the number again just verifies I was correct all along. It is such a great feeling!”
I was naturally delighted. RC also reported that he no longer zoned out of meetings, and that he remembered complex reading material and could disseminate the content to his team without rereading. This increased capacity to remember and process information can be attributed to the improvements in his working memory.
Like many individuals doing Cogmed for the first time, the act of repeating daily working memory tasks means they are creating a new permanent baseline that stays with them indefinitely. The new baseline can be their new normal, or they come back for a repeat after a year and improve further. Nothing gets lost: it is just built on.
The data I collect shows numerical improvements in working memory, but the impact on metacognition is only fully understood once I have conversations with the trainees themselves. I can then really understand how this has changed their lives and hear their own evidence about things they feel are improving. Reflecting on these conversations, it is clear to me how removing the stressors (micro-stress or otherwise) can impact mental well-being and provide a much-needed assurance that improvement is possible and that gains can be sustained.
Cogmed shows me how the human brain’s plasticity can be exploited to its very fullest. Not only can it allow us to create a space between stimuli and response, but also give us enough room to consider the options–and understand our own decision making.
Usha Patel is a Neurocognitive Therapist from Raviv Practice London who specialises in those with/without neurodivergence. In 2008, she was part of the first cohort of Cogmed Coaches in the UK, and now offers remote trainings Europe Wide. To discuss a training for yourself or your child, book into the diary, or head here to sign up for the training.
Neurocognitive Therapist, Director of Raviv Practice London