How do we become more efficient at harnessing our experience, knowledge, and imagination to respond most effectively to the situation at hand?
Originally coined by psychologists in the 1960s, cognitive flexibility has emerged from the literature and been rebranded as a popular concept in edpsych circles. It is traditionally defined in terms of how well an individual can adopt another perspective, change one’s thinking, or mentally adapt to one’s environment. Common strategies for enhancing cognitive flexibility resemble strategies for boosting divergent thinking, creativity, and openness.
While this definition, and these strategies, tend to frame “flexible” thought as a departure from one’s normal way of thinking, a more comprehensive definition might account for the efficiency of that normal way of thinking as well: how flexibly can we engage various parts of our brain to respond to a task, whether or not the task requires us to think “differently”?
For example, most activities require us to call upon our reserves of personal experience, factual knowledge, and imagination to address the task at hand. How well we do this depends on how flexibly we can navigate these three domains. As we try to manage the constant deluge of information brought on by technology and digital media in the 21st century, a more useful definition of cognitive flexibility might be how well we think inside, not just outside, the box.
Challenges to Cognitive Flexibility
If you’re solving a problem, you might choose the obvious path or you might recall a similar challenge from your past or a story a friend told you about solving a similar challenge or something you saw in a film. The act of using a memory from a past to solve a current problem—not because you’ve encountered this problem before but because you are able to make a connection between this one and a different one (detect a pattern)—this ability is at the heart of cognitive flexibility.
It’s the same process going on when you hear someone’s story and you respond with your own, recognizing a similar theme. This is harder than it sounds. You might have a better, more relevant story—but you can’t remember it at the moment. Improving your ability to remember it would be enhancing cognitive flexibility. As would improving your ability to recall relevant facts/things you’ve read when someone brings up a specific topic in conversation.
To think flexibly, you must be able to draw from multiple reserves of knowledge and memory to engage with a task or problem. You need an ability to reach deeply into the past and not just draw your immediate reserves, which requires a very good declarative memory.
Being able to see all possible relevant experiences or bites of knowledge at once and choose best response based on all of those, but most of us can’t recall enough in the moment…how do we improve at that function?
“We remember things because they either stand out, they relate to and can easily be integrated in our existing knowledge base, or it’s something we retrieve, recount or use repeatedly over time,” explains Sean Kang, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Education at Dartmouth College.
As we get older, we sometimes get fixed in our way of thinking and struggle to latch onto truly new ideas. We tend to shape them to match info we already know and therefore miss out on the really valuable part of learning.
There’s an entire part of the brain, the Salience Network, devoted to noticing things which stand out in our environment. It requires cognitive flexibility to determine which of these things are worth paying attention to.
“Our brain is constantly bombarded by sensory information, and we have to score all that information in terms of how personally relevant it is for guiding our behavior,” says William Seeley, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco.
You know that point in a conversation when you start thinking, “This is boring, small talk, things we’ve sort of talked about before”? Cognitive flexibility is being able to flex a brain muscle and push the curtains aside and look out the window toward a more interesting conversation topic. Many of us just stay in the mill pond or go farther down the rabbit hole rather than stepping back and trying to sway things in a more interesting direction. Most of us just go with the flow, which is fine. But true cognitive flexibility would be directing this flow in a way that’s valuable to you and your fellow convo participants. To be able to judge what you know that could be most useful to the people you’re talking to in that moment—that’s cognitive flexibility.
Low latent inhibition
Latent inhibition is the name for the fact that it takes us longer to prescribe meaning to a familiar stimulus than to a new stimulus. For example, we may pass by the same houses on our street every day and prescribe little meaning to them unless our attention is drawn to them for a particular reason. This is normal, and allows our brain to ignore old information so it can focus on new information. Some people, however, have what’s called low latent inhibition, which means they have a harder time placing those houses in the category of “old information” and moving on. Individuals with autism become easily overwhelmed by stimuli that other people consider familiar. Poets, writers, and other artists also tend to get caught up in the details of things, which allows for greater creativity but also may sometimes prevent the brain from seeing the bigger picture or moving on.
Sometimes our cognitive flexibility suffers because we’ve got so much on our mind or so much information or experience stored in our knowledge reserve that a bottleneck occurs. Like cubes of ice blocking the flow of water out of a bottle, the possible pieces of information we could bring to a situation is so great that nothing comes to mind at all. We’ll offer a few ways to overcome this phenomenon in the next section.
Rigid thinking is the opposite of cognitive flexibility. It’s what defines mental conditions like depression and anxiety: We get stuck in a loop of rumination and can’t seem to think about things a different way. Becoming aware of the pattern of our own thoughts is a huge step forward in seeing things from a new angle and feeling more positive about the world.
Thinking is like walking: you leave a print wherever you go, and the path becomes increasingly well-trodden the more you go down it. Neural pathways are the same way. Our brain remembers what we reinforce in our neural pathways, so if we’re using the same facts or telling the same stories all the time, we’re branding our neural pathways with them, which means we may end up repeating the same story to the same person and responding with less cognitive flexibility to situations and tasks.
How to Improve Cognitive Flexibility?
1. Pay attention to your thoughts
Where does your mind go (or not go) when you’re called upon to share knowledge or experience?
2. Be intentional
Ask yourself some questions: What do you want to know? What do you want to talk about?
3. Create categories
Create mental categories for information and situations ahead of time so that you can more easily organize your experience. While reading the news, place article headlines into mental categories such as Environment, Politics, Arts, etc. so that you can easily pull up the information later on.
4. Align encoding and retrieval cues
Think about the functional meaning of the info, which context you’ll apply it to, and that will help you remember it when you need it. “Number one reason why start-ups fail isn’t cash flow but fact that people don’t want the product.”
5. Record your experience
Do a brain dump. Research says that if we unload our worries it frees up more space in our brain to think of other things throughout the day, therefore promoting greater flexibility.
6. “If you understand it, you’ll remember it.”
A friend told me this one recently and I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Oftentimes we have trouble recalling concepts because we don’t understand them as well as we thought we did.
7. Physical exercise
After only twenty minutes of intensive exercise, your brain releases dopamine, serotonin, opioids, endorphins, neurotrophics, and endocannabinoids—feel-good chemicals that allow the body and brain to learn and grow. For evolutionary reasons, the body is primed to learn while exercising. Exercise also enhances focus and lowers anxiety. Over time, it stabilizes mood, increases the size of the hippocampus, and promotes neurogenesis. All of these things enhance cognitive flexibility.
8. Learn new skills
Learning new skills promotes mental flexibility. Try picking up a musical instrument, a new foreign language, or learning a new game.
9. Shake up your routine
To keep the mind sharp and flexible, introduce new things into your routine. New stimuli promote mental flexibility because they force your brain to adapt quickly. Travel is great for this, but you can also simply take a new route home from work or go for a walk in a neighborhood you haven’t explored before. Occasionally surrounding yourself with people who are unlike you is also a good way to push your brain into making new connections.
10. Cultivate humor
Quick-wittedness is a sign of cognitive flexibility. When we make a joke, it means we’re able to step back and see the bigger picture rather than getting caught up in the literal meaning of the situation. Finding the humor in a variety of situations is an exercise in flexible thinking.