What Is Cognitive Flexibility? Its Importance And Examples

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REVIEWED BY NUMBERDYSLEXIA’S EXPERT PANEL ON APRIL 11, 2022

We all need to be adept at multi-tasking. It helps us through all phases of life. Right at school time, the kids are taught to be flexible in their thinking. They are given a curriculum and a set of extra-curricular activities too. It demands them to mold their mind to concentrate on one set of activities solely while being aware of other tasks at hand. This ability to accommodate the learning of multiple skills and attend to tasks of different nature and give a hundred percent to each of them is nothing but cognitive flexibility.

Definition

The ability to mold the brain’s response according to situational context is termed cognitive flexibility[1]. It is the brain’s capacity to absorb and act on different kinds of stimuli and information resources; sometimes simultaneously, and at others, in tandem. In the practical world, no two incidences are entirely independent of each other. While one part of the brain is listening to the instruction, the other part automatically processes it and decides the future course of action. It is an example of cognitive flexibility when the mind needs to concentrate on one task in a start-to-finish manner.

The other type of stimuli is those where nature is entirely different. You may be busy cooking and also responding to an invitation from a friend. The actions are unique for both activities and no mistakes are allowed in either (else it can be a source of embarrassment for you). It is the cognitive flexibility of your brain that allows you to perform each task perfectly and without mixing up the impending actions clumsily. Thus, your ability to think and have awareness about the situations clearly or cognitively allows you to be the social entity you are supposed to be.

Examples of cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility manifests in a variety of ways in our daily life. Our brain has an executive memory that allows us to do a task in a particular sequence, which usually gives us desired outcomes too. For instance, while you are dressing up for an occasion, you are following a sequence of activities like changing clothes, doing makeup, donning jewelry, etc. All these activities need to be performed in a sequence so that you look your best ultimately. Flexible thinking and the ability to include activities one after the other, i.e. sequential memory are also the components or examples of cognitive flexibility.

A few important abilities that sum up the characteristics of a cognitively flexible mind are:

Task-switching: You are talking to a colleague to decide the action plan for a day, and then, you are following the plan too. This process of switching from listening to instructions and then complying with them is a classic and the most basic example of task-switching[2].

The top-down processing approach or the ability of the brain is another outcome of the ability to switch between tasks. You gather the general information from an action plan and boil it down to the ones specific to your need and act upon it to complete the task assigned. This moving from general to specific makes it easier to develop concentration and focus energy only on the tasks that require your individualized attention.

Task switching

Problem-solving: The very process of problem-solving requires a person to be cognitively flexible. A study[3] was conducted to find the problem-solving ability of children with cognitive flexibility. This study analyzed how the students utilized creative, cognitive thinking to identify patterns, try different methods, and adopt a trial-and-error procedure to find the solution to various problems. All these activities of pattern identification, trying methods, following procedures, etc. come naturally or lead to procedural fluency. This ultimate outcome of procedural fluency actually finds its germs embedded in the cognitive flexible thinking ability of students.

Coordinated working: A person needs to have a coordinated thought process to accomplish a task or an activity in a logically sequenced manner. This ability to perform tasks one after another as a part of a procedure shows that a person has thoughts and actions placed in coordination. It is not limited to a person’s internal environment alone. A team working on a project can work in a seamless fashion when the members are aware of their responsibilities and know the correct time to carry out those.

Being cognitively flexible allows the members to wait for the right time to do the intended task. They put the sequential and executive memory to work in a coordinated manner. By trying different methods, they also try to cut down the steps and achieve a faster working plan. This ability to recognize the need to maintain order, try different methods, and cooperate with each other while following a code of working emerges from cognition and flexible thinking.

A simple example of the following discipline while speaking in the class is speaking only when asked to do so, and summing up thoughts in a timed manner to allow others to reflect upon them is also an example of cognitive flexibility. In this routine activity in a class, a student utilizes creativity to compose the speech in mind and stays cognitively aware to recognize the turn to speak, when to stop, and also to respond to any doubts raised.

Creative thinking: Cognition is needed to practice mindfulness. A person travels inwards to seek solutions and pick newer, faster, and more evolved ways of doing a particular task. It is through cognitive flexibility that a person is able to find solutions creatively and adopt newer approaches. Our take on things needs to change with time because the demands change and so do the expectations.

Thinking creatively is a good implication of being cognitively flexible as it reflects in a more improved version of ours. Finding Work from Home as an alternative, use of applications to solve a consumer problem, or applying newer techniques to cook fast at home or to enhance output at a manufacturing base – there is no area where the cognitive flexibility does not show its impact. It is essential for the development of the individual and of the world around, on the whole, simply put.

Absence of cognitive flexibility – Important implications

While it is understood clearly what all cognitive flexibility can deliver, the fact that its absence can cause various issues remains undisputable too. It is actually an important skill that differentiates a mentally strong and supple thinker from the one with intellectual disabilities. Also, the absence can lead to the display of a lack of cooperative attitude, intolerance, and inability to be socially active. A few of the important implications of a lack of cognitive flexibility are:

Different neurological disorders
  • Extremist behavior: A research[4] attributed the lack of cognitive flexibility to extremist attitudes in people. The conditioned mind refuses to recognize or accept a different viewpoint. Also, the intense ingraining of opinions related to self-identity deters the flexible approach further. The inability to move on from the current, opinionated state results in stubbornness in thinking, which is why the adoption of new ideas and tolerance towards those becomes almost impossible.
  • Different neurological disorders: Cognitive inflexibility is not manifested as a lack of social empathy only. It is the outcome of several diseases or disorders like anorexia-nervosa, Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive aging, ADHD, etc. The people suffering from such disorders display behavioral inefficiency, lack of social skills, and intolerance to sudden stimuli like strong sounds or light, harsh voices, etc. Also, they may not perform well academically or feel stressed by common expectations like making friends, having a conversation, etc. They may show undue repetition of an action or fidgety behavior too.
  • Lack of innovative thinking: Cognitive rigidity does not allow a person to deviate from the set pattern of thinking or give some new strategies a thought. They may not be open to new ideas or may lack an approach of trying new ideas or experimenting. This serves as a deterrent to innovation drive leading to the inability to learn a new skill or be accustomed to a new device or process[5].

Ways to improve cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility building can be a therapeutic process for people suffering from various neurological disorders. The process may also help improve the trainability of the mind for skill-development purposes. The development of cognitive flexibility can augment the skill development in children who need to be more absorbing towards newer ideas and learnings for overall knowledge enhancement. A few ways to improve this skill are:

  • Take a break from routine: Breaking from routine provides the mind with the deviation needed to attain flexibility in thinking. Since the types of stimuli change on taking a break, the horizons may widen for the learners. They may cultivate experiences and apply them to improve cognition.
  • Try new hobbies: It is necessary to try new activities to feed the mind with a variety of thoughts and procedures. Hobbies can help freshen up the mind and make it more receptive to newer skills.
  • Adopt a questioning approach: Strike a dialogue, discuss and question the concepts being taught to you. It helps have an enriched experience and also a suitably diverse way of thinking. Applying new learnings developed from the habit of questioning can bring flexibility to cognition.
  • Spend time in nature: The mind needs refreshment to think flexibly. Nature and greenery have a positive impact on thinking ability. It prepares the mind to exercise and be active in thinking of new ideas.
  • Try to do things spontaneously: Always sticking to the plan may slow down the thinking process. By being spontaneous, you learn to think quickly. It may help you acquire a new or faster method and become flexible in your working approach eventually.
  • Entertain mind: You may use online solutions for giving the brain the desired breaks, indulge in recreational activities, socialize with friends, etc. to freshen up mentally. Recreating helps manage stress and brings flexibility to the brain.

Summing up,

Cognitive flexibility is an indicator of an agile and receptive mind. The correct thinking process requires sequential memory and executive memory facilitates procedural fluency. By having flexibility in cognition or in the way of brain’s working, a person can become open to learning, innovative in approach, and result-oriented. The only thing to take care of is not to repeatedly change the stimuli and give the mind ample time to ingrain the concept. A careful approach to building cognitive flexibility can help maximize its outcomes and put it to use for bringing a positive change in the self and the world around

References :

  1. CAÑAS, J., QUESADA, J., ANTOLÍ, A., & FAJARDO, I. (2003). Cognitive flexibility and adaptability to environmental changes in dynamic complex problem-solving tasks. Ergonomics, 46(5), 482–501. https://doi.org/10.1080/0014013031000061640
  2. D.W. Schneider, G.D. Logan, Task Switching, Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, Academic Press, 2009, Pages 869-874, ISBN 9780080450469, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-008045046-9.00426-5.
  3. Rahayuningsih, Sri & Sirajuddin, Sirajuddin & Nasrun, Nasrun. (2020). Cognitive flexibility: exploring students’ problem-solving in elementary school mathematics learning. JRAMathEdu (Journal of Research and Advances in Mathematics Education). 6. 59-70. 10.23917/jramathedu.v6i1.11630.
  4. Zmigrod, L., Rentfrow, P. J., & Robbins, T. W. (2019). Cognitive Inflexibility Predicts Extremist Attitudes. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00989
  5. Allison G. Butler & Michael A. Roberto (2018) When Cognition Interferes with Innovation: Overcoming Cognitive Obstacles to Design Thinking, Research-Technology Management, 61:4, 45-51, DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2018.1471276

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