Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to change what you are thinking about, how you are thinking about it and even what you think about it – in other words, the ability to change your mind. Cognitive flexibility is required in multiple ways throughout the working day. In neuroscience, the term is sometimes referred to as “attention switching,” “cognitive shifting,” “mental flexibility,” “set shifting,” and “task switching.”
We have to switch mental gears when moving from one subject to another, abandon one way of thinking about a problem when it does not lead to a solution and adopt another way of thinking, and even give up erroneous information to accept new and correct information.
Perhaps the most helpful way to explain cognitive flexibility is to use an analogy. Think of cognitive flexibility as being analogous to changing channels on a TV, but think of the channels as “streams-of-thought” (concepts) and the TV as your “brain.” If you are stuck on one channel and can’t change it – your cognition is inflexible; your stream-of-thought and/or beliefs cannot be updated or altered. However, if you possess a remote and can rapidly change the channel at whim, you are considered to have cognitive flexibility.
Therefore, someone who is cognitively flexible will be able to learn more quickly, solve problems more creatively, and adapt and respond to new situations more effectively, which is why it’s so important in both educational settings and the workplace.
Those of you who have read some of our recent articles will also know, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, cognitive flexibility will be one of the top 10 job skills in 2020. Building your cognitive flexibility is a great way to develop professionally and keep up with the ever-changing work environment of the future.
Building your skills
One of the best ways to become more cognitively flexible is to expose yourself to new experiences and ways of doing things, and there are many methods that can be utilised to increase cognitive flexibility.
If you’re not sure where to start here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. Alter your everyday routine.
If you’re looking for a simple way to start building your cognitive flexibility, you can start by changing your everyday routine. Obviously, you’d balance this with the need to maintain your efficiency and effectiveness, but even the thinking process of identifying changes will help your cognitive flexibility.
For instance, if you’re accustomed to taking the same route to work each day, look for a different route or consider taking the bus instead of driving yourself. If you usually get your exercise at the gym, change by running in the park or going for a bike ride. Even making the smallest of changes like sitting at a new spot at the dinner table or using your left hand to brush your teeth instead of your right can help you build and strengthen new neural pathways.
2. Mindfulness meditation.
In recent years, the benefits of meditation have received more mainstream attention and have been subject to significant scientific investigation. In a study published in 2007, researchers decided to analyse the effect of Mindfulness Meditation on cognitive flexibility and other elements of attention. This study involved comparing a group of meditators to a group of non-meditators.
The results from the study determined that both cognitive flexibility and attention were enhanced by the practice of mindfulness meditation. In fact, meditators were noted as significantly outperforming non-meditators on all attentional measures.
While there are other types of meditation, mindfulness is a specific practice that has been shown to improve cognitive flexibility. Individuals with low cognitive flexibility may derive significant benefit from a meditation practice, especially mindfulness.
3. Seek out new experiences.
Each time you experience something out of the ordinary or learn something new, the brain creates new synaptic connections. New and interesting experiences have also been shown to trigger the release of dopamine, which not only increases motivation but also enhances memory and learning.
Going out of your way to experience new things or engage in novel activities can go a long way towards helping you develop cognitive flexibility. This might mean travelling to another country or volunteering in a new industry, but it could also take the form of activities like learning a new language or musical instrument, taking a dance class, or even exploring a part of town you’re not familiar with.
4. Aerobic exercise.
We all know that there are many psychological benefits of exercise including: mood boost, anxiolytic effects, and cognitive enhancement. Results from a study published in 2009 suggest that aerobic exercise is also an effective way to increase cognitive flexibility.
Researchers controlled for age, gender, education, and psychomotor speed. It was concluded that 10 weeks of aerobic exercise was associated with heightened cognitive flexibility. If you want to improve your ability to rapidly shift your thinking between multiple concepts, consistent aerobic exercise is an effective method.
5. Practice thinking creatively (another skill on the WEF Top 10).
Another way to build cognitive flexibility is to make an effort to think in unconventional and creative ways or practice divergent thinking. One study by psychologist Dr Robert Steinberg showed that when students were taught to think in both creative and practical ways, not only did their grades improve, but they were also able to transfer the knowledge they gained to entirely different areas of learning.
Divergent thinking usually occurs in a spontaneous and free-flowing manner and involves thinking in terms of unlimited possibilities rather than a limited set of choices.
6. REM sleep (Rapid-Eye Movement).
If you aren’t getting proper sleep and/or are missing the REM stage of the sleep cycle, you may have less cognitive flexibility than others. REM sleep, also known as “rapid-eye movement” is associated with information processing across various neural networks. Specifically, it has been noted that REM-dreaming is linked to increased creativity and abstract reasoning abilities.
In a study published in 2002, researchers compared the effects of REM sleep to those associated with NREM (non-REM) sleep. Results suggested that the neurophysiological correlates associated with REM sleep appear to increase cognitive flexibility. This suggests that getting proper sleep (especially REM) could result in superior flexibility of cognitive processing. Therefore, behaviours and substances that decrease REM sleep should be avoided.
7. Inner speech.
Not everyone conducts inner speech, or “silent expression of conscious thoughts to oneself in coherent linguistic form.” That said, if you want to increase your cognitive flexibility, it may be time to start incorporating inner speech in your cognitive arsenal. A study published in 2010 involved reviewing relationships between language, inner speech, and cognitive control in both adults and children – they specifically analysed cognitive flexibility.
Results from the study discovered that development of inner speech in childhood enhances development of cognitive flexibility. There was a close relationship between cognitive flexibility and inner speech among both children and adults. It appears as though inner speech may increase top-down control during shifting of thoughts (i.e. flexibility).
8. Go out of your way to meet new people.
Meeting people from different cultures and walks of life whose perspectives and viewpoints are likely to differ from your own can help you to be less rigid in your way of thinking and accept that there may be more than one “right” way of looking at things.
One study in particular found that college students who had been exposed to diversity and cultural differences were more likely to have reached an advanced stage of moral reasoning.
Make an effort to meet people outside of your normal social circles, whether that means travelling abroad, volunteering, teaching, or connecting with people through social media.
9. Challenge your morals.
Research shows that seeking out experiences that test your morals and expose you to a variety of beliefs, values, and expectations can give you a better understanding of culturally different perspectives and help you become more flexible in your thinking.
Even if you don’t necessarily agree with someone’s point of view or belief system, being cognitively flexible means you’ll be able to think about why they might see things that way and understand their point of view. This ability will make it easier for you to communicate with people, resolve conflicts, and adapt your thinking to various situations.
An easy win in this area is to review your regular reading material. Many people – including some high-profile politicians – only read books, articles and blogs that reinforce their existing viewpoint. To enhance your cognitive flexibility try reading more widely, including material that is directly in opposition to your world-view.
Cognitive flexibility is immensely important for shifting attention and thoughts quickly. Those with low levels of cognitive flexibility are unable to shift from one concept to another, and often become “stuck” in a single train of thought or aspect of focus (i.e. centration).
Being cognitively stuck is akin to watching just one TV channel or reading one book for the rest of your life; you’ll have a difficult time adapting to changes and novel stimuli. This also heavily influences your behaviour towards others as well; let’s use an example to illustrate this concept. Suppose I work as a receptionist within a prison. It is healthy and advantageous for me to adopt a vigilant approach in this kind of workplace. It is entirely appropriate for me to be cautious and somewhat suspicious of others because these thoughts, feelings, and behaviours properly match that particular situation and circumstance. Now, imagine what might happen if I attempted to use this same approach in a different workplace setting; say for example, a high street shop. If I am constantly vigilant and distrustful of others and suspect my co-workers or customers might try to harm me at any moment, I will likely behave in a manner that is overly-guarded, hostile, suspicious, or withholding. This approach would certainly interfere with my performance and would negatively affect my interactions with co-workers, supervisors, and customers.
What is helpful, is to be able to rapidly shift your thinking between concepts and alter your perspective to accommodate new information. With cultural evolution continuing to outpace biological evolution, cognitive flexibility helps you update your old belief system as an adaptation to novel stimuli.