Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between different tasks or to think about multiple concepts at the same time.
It is an important part of executive function. It helps us to plan, organize, and complete tasks.
People with good cognitive flexibility are able to adapt quickly to new situations and to hold multiple thoughts in their mind at once. They are also good at switching between tasks, multitasking, and solving problems in creative ways.
Research has shown that cognitive flexibility declines with age, but it can be improved through training and practice. Some activities that can help to improve cognitive flexibility include learning a new language, playing strategy games, and practicing meditation.
Definition of Cognitive Flexibility
Cognitive flexibility can be defined as the awareness of and ability to adjust your thinking to match various situations (Moore and Malinowski, 2009).
It involves adapting your thinking to new, changing, or unanticipated circumstances.
Cognitive flexibility is directly related to many advanced mental abilities, such as:
- Planning ahead
- Inhibition, and
- Being able to consider multiple aspects of the same situation.
The opposite of this is functional fixedness. This occurs when you can’t get out of your fixed state of mind and see things from a new, creative, innovative, perspective. Don’t forget to read our full guide on functional fixedness examples.
Examples of Cognitive Flexibility
Metacognition refers to the ability to think about your own thinking. This is a foundational skill for cognitive flexibility.
An example of metacognition is the act of pausing and reflecting on your own thinking. You might catch yourself being overly negative and go: “I need to actively be more positive in the next 5 minutes.”
Today, people often use a technique called mindfulness to achieve this. Mindfulness involves a focused observation of what’s happening in your mind and all around you. You can remind yourself to do this in any situation throughout the day, which will open the door for consciously changing your thinking.
2. The Ability to Regulate your Stress
One piece of advice that is often given when people feel stressed is to “take a deep breath and relax.” Thinking about something that makes you feel relaxed will help.
This could include conjuring up mental images of a sunset or beautiful blue skies or listening to soothing music.
When you create those images in your mind, your thoughts about what is making you feel stressed will be replaced with thoughts about the pleasant images in your mind.
Or, listening to soothing music can “take your mind away” from what is making you feel stressed.
These are examples of cognitive flexibility because you are changing your mental focus away from something stressful, such as an upcoming deadline at work, to something calming, like gentle ocean waves.
It is a shift in cognitive activity and it can produce actual changes in your physical state as well, such as a slowed heart rate.
3. The Ability to Debate
Engaging in a social or political debate is a big part of living in a free and open society. This seems especially true in the era of social media because it is so convenient to communicate with other people.
When we have a sincere discussion or even a heated argument, it actually involves a complicated cognitive process:
- First, you must shut down your own thinking and listen to the other person’s statements and genuinely try to understand its logic.
- Second, if and when it is your turn to speak, you will need to change your thinking back to your own perspective and then present a counterargument to their views.
This requires a shift in your mental activity from a passive listening state, to an active argumentative state.
If you are able to generate a very potent rebuttal then you are demonstrating an even more advanced level of cognitive flexibility.
4. The Ability to Empathize
Empathy means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
This will allow you to see things from their point of view, and hence, become more understanding.
This ability is also the hallmark of a civilized society.
Being empathetic has led to the foundation of charities, numerous laws and government regulations, and various rights movements regarding gender and racial equality.
Empathy is considered to be an advanced form of cognitive flexibility and exists on a clear developmental continuum.
Very young children are not able to see things from another person’s point of view. As children grow this ability gradually emerges because of emotional maturity and changes in brain structure.
Teachers often try to get students to think about and practice empathy in order to stimulate their cognitive flexibility.
5. Thinking Outside the Box
Thinking outside the box means thinking about things in ways other than intended.
Using an object in an unusual way can be as simple as using a brick as a doorstop or a pencil as a bookmark. It enables you to use what’s around you to your own advantage.
In more significant scenarios, large corporations will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to find creative solutions to problems. From brainstorming sessions to company retreats, getting people on the team to “unlock” their mindset can pay valuable dividends.
6. Changing Directions
An act as simple as changing the route you take while driving to work is an example of cognitive flexibility.
And this is actually more complicated than it seems on the surface.
For example, imagine you are already on the usual route, but then, all of a sudden discover that the road ahead is blocked. You must then instantly think of an alternative path. Here, you are being flexible in your thinking.
A closer examination reveals that the process is quite involved:
- First, you must shut off whatever you were thinking about before encountering the roadblock.
- Second, you must reach back into your memory store to locate and recall alternative routes.
This might also involve a visual map being created in your mind that almost looks like a real 3D image. You might also quickly calculate how much longer it will take to get to your destination.
7. Strategic Planning
Every company, large or small, needs a long-term plan to succeed. The leaders of the company have to set goals that will keep the business alive and profitable.
This means considering a multitude of factors that are all interconnected.
A strategic plan has to include a budget, personnel, and a vision of what the market will need in 5 and 10 years down the road. In addition, there has to be plan on how to integrate all the departments in the company, including marketing, accounting, and R&D.
Of course, all of those analyses have to occur while trying to predict the unforeseen. There are many obstacles that could emerge and derail the strategic plan. Those could include threats from competition, government regulations, or changing consumer preferences.
Leaders who are best at this kind of cognitive acuity are difficult to find, and often receive salaries in the tens of millions…per year.
8. Technological Ingenuity
The modern era has produced amazing advances in technology. The key to those advances is cognitive flexibility.
For example, the idea of making a device that would allow you to carry music with you wherever you go was absolutely ingenious.
Other examples include the mobile phone, the internet, and of course, connecting the internet to the mobile phone.
Then, someone thought to add a touch-screen to the phone, and someone else thought that adding a camera and a video recording function would be great. Which they were.
All of those innovations are examples of cognitive flexibility at work, and they all require a shift in thinking.
9. Reading and Comprehending Simultaneously
Reading is one of the most advanced forms of cognitive flexibility because it involves carrying out several mental tasks simultaneously.
It comes in handy in a wide range of contexts, such as reading chapters in a school textbook, scientific articles, legal briefs, and business plans.
While reading these types of documents the mind is carrying out a multitude of tasks. On a fundamental level, the mind is processing the letters of each word and recalling the meaning of the concepts.
On a deeper level, we must evaluate which information is the most important and how it relates to other information in the text or in our own knowledge base.
10. Creative Writing
Similar to reading, writing is also an advanced form of cognitive flexibility because it involves carrying out several mental tasks at the same time.
For example, when writing a romantic novel or the next great mystery, the author must perform a variety of mental tasks:
- First, they have to organize their thoughts, create a storyline, and write using a level of language that their audience will understand (i.e., perspective thinking).
- Then, they have to consider the characters and write a dialogue that is reflective of those individual personalities.
At the same time, the storyline has to undergo a critical analysis to evaluate the timeline and its plausibility.
Last but not least, the “creative” part of the story involves using an original way of expressing one’s thoughts.
11. Problem Solving
Solving problems is a necessity of life. Each day is full of encountering obstacles and finding ways around them. There is actually a wide range of mental analyses that need to take place when problem-solving. An example might be:
- Firstly, recognizing that there is a problem to begin with.
- Secondly, identifying the cause and then generating possible solutions.
- Thirdly, each possible solution must be analyzed separately for its likelihood of success.
- Lastly, the steps to implementing the chosen solution have to be carefully thought out.
Success of a solution then depends on a number of factors, such as encountering other possible obstacles, available resources, and a cost/benefit analysis. Every step in problem solving requires being able to switch one’s thinking.
Without cognitive flexibility, effective problem solving would not be possible.
12. Acting on Formative Feedback
Formative feedback is a type of feedback that you receive in the middle of (rather the end of) a task. An example is when, in the middle of a public speech, you notice that the crowd is not responding well to your jokes.
Be taking in that formative feedback and acting on it, you’re showing cognitive flexibility. For example, you might decide to stop making jokes and be more formal in your presentation to match the expectations of the room.
Cognitive flexibility involves being able to shift mental focus, carry out several mental tasks simultaneously, or think about objects or concepts in a new way. It is an ability that exists on a developmental continuum, which means that very young children lack the skill but gradually acquire it as they get older.
It is the basis of many daily functions, such as reading and writing, driving to work, or relating to colleagues. It is also the basis of advanced scientific and technological innovations and the strategic planning of multi-national corporations.
Cognitive flexibility is an essential attribute of human beings that is a fundamental part of society’s progression. Nearly every advancement in human history was a result of cognitive flexibility.
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