Cognitive flexibility 2020-12-18T16:43:29+00:00

Scientific lessons you can use to improve your cognitive flexibility

learn actionable and science backed techniques that help you increase your cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is a highly diverse aspect of human cognition. It involves creative problem solving, perspective taking, thinking about things in new ways, being able to shift between mental sets and representations, among other things. Being more cognitively flexible can improve focus, creativity, empathy, understanding, and performance in many different domains of your life. You can also become a better and more efficient thinker.

In this document you’ll learn to challenge some of the ways you think, and will be given quick tips for improving your cognitive flexibility. The following lessons have been expertly curated from the scientific literature and distilled into quick, manageable tutorials that will not only affect your cognitive flexibility, but will have ripple effects into your personal and professional lives. We have gone through hundreds of empirical papers from psychology, neuroscience, developmental science, cognitive science, and clinical research. We have then summarized and explained the research in ways that are easy to understand and even easier to follow. 

This module pulls from the extensive cognitive flexibility literature in order to develop actionable plans that will help you improve your cognitive flexibility both in the moment and over time. The lessons should be easy to follow and simple to implement in your everyday life. Each lesson employs a different tactic that will not only help improve your cognitive flexibility, but will also inspire you to be more aware of how you think.

What is cognitive flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility broadly refers to humans’ ability to quickly reconfigure our minds. It falls under the executive function umbrella, along with working memory and inhibition. Executive functions are the control centers of our brains, and cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibition contribute to our ability to engage in cognitive control. Fortunately, research has shown that it is possible to train and improve our executive functioning. In particular, being more cognitively flexible helps us to override ingrained and habitual thoughts and behaviours. 

Being more cognitively flexible can mean a wide variety of different things. More specifically, it refers to the ability to represent knowledge from different perspectives, along with the ability to use that knowledge appropriately to solve problems or complete tasks. Cognitive flexibility is linked to the ability to focus, to ignore irrelevant stimuli, to control your own thinking, and helps prevent getting stuck in a cognitive rut by enabling us to connect or disconnect various parts of our brains and mental representations. One of the overarching benefits of cognitive flexibility is the potential for improved life skills such as increased adaptability, more rationality, more accurate risk assessment, greater impartiality, and more tolerance. 

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Cognitive flexibility and the brain

One primary aspect of cognitive flexibility is divergent thinking. This is strongly linked to creative thought, but it essentially refers to not becoming stuck in one type of thinking. When thinking divergently, your brain is in a state of defocused attention, meaning that you are thinking broadly and pulling from different areas to make connections that might not be immediately obvious. This is in contrast to focused attention, in which you are thinking in a certain domain and don’t stray into other domains. Divergent thinking is an important part of cognitive flexibility, because it helps you break out of familiar thought patterns and generate novel insights. 

Cognitive flexibility is also impacted by neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the body’s chemical messengers. They transmit messages from neuron to neuron through our bodies’ nervous systems. Despite being known as the pleasure and reward neurotransmitter, dopamine plays an especially important role in cognitive flexibility. It affects the connectivity between areas of the brain that are responsible for modulating executive functioning (responsible for managing cognition, including memory, attention, planning, multitasking, etc.).

What we will cover in this module

The following 12 lessons will outline small changes you can make in five target areas: shifting your mental representations; making lifestyle adjustments; altering your mindset; optimizing your environment, and tweaking your diet. 

  1. Shift your mental representations: You can become better at shifting your mental representations by imagining yourself in the future and actively looking at different ways you can interpret ambiguous stimuli. You can even improve this area of cognitive flexibility by playing games that challenge your brain.

  2. The importance of lifestyle: There are some quick and easy lifestyle changes you can make that will help improve your cognitive flexibility. In fact, not only will they help with cognition, but the benefits will extend into other areas of your health and well-being.

  3. Being in the right mindset: Cognitive flexibility is not something that is always easy to manage or influence. It’s important to be in the right mindset to capitalize on its benefits. For instance, your emotional state can play a factor in cognitive flexibility, as can the type of motivation you experience.

  4. Setting up the best environment: Much like lifestyle, there are quick and easy changes you can make to your immediate environment that will boost your cognitive flexibility.

  5. Eating your way to flexibility: Another simple solution that can help improve your cognitive flexibility is by eating the right foods. It’s amazing the difference what we put in our bodies can have on our minds.

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Debunking the myths of cognitive flexibility

Myth #1:

You’re either born flexible or you’re not.

There is a longstanding myth that people can’t change how their brains work. Despite the historical belief that cognition is an internal trait that is determined at birth, how the brain functions is also a function of people’s environments. This means that the structure and function of our brains is actually quite plastic. The theory that our brains are influenced by our environments hinges on the notion that our experiences affect our brains’ neural circuits. As we have different experiences, the circuits in our brains update to incorporate these experiences. 

When it comes to how we think, our neural circuits can be adapted to incorporate learning. This means that, as we develop new behaviours, our brain is modified accordingly. Each person has their own unique set of life experiences that contribute to who they are, including memories, skills, training, temperament. These experiences shape the lens through which we see and interact with the world and other people.

However, these experiences do not mean that how we think, feel, and behave are set in stone. By developing our cognitive flexibility, we can leverage our personal experiences and mindsets in different ways to optimize performance in a wide array of domains. As you complete these lessons, your brain will adapt and the flexibility you’re enacting will become easier and easier to incorporate into your natural thought processes.

The good news about neuroplasticity is that, if you’re naturally less cognitively flexible, or if you simply want to become more cognitively flexible, it is definitely possible to do so. We hope that with the help of the lessons provided in this module that you will be able to observe noticeable differences, not only in how you think, but also in how you interact with your environments. As you complete the exercises, your brain will adapt and update its neural circuits, which should improve your overall cognitive flexibility.

The evidence

  1. Abdullah, S., Czerwinski, M., Mark, G., & Johns, P. (2016).
    Shining (blue) light on creative ability.
    UbiComp ’16: Proceedings of the 2016 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, 793–804.

  2. Berry, A. S., Shah, V. D., & Jagust, W. J. (2018).
    The influence of dopamine on cognitive flexibility is mediated by functional connectivity in young but not older adults.
    Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 30(9), 1330-1344.

  3. Braem, S., & Egner, T. (2018).
    Getting a Grip on Cognitive Flexibility.
    Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27.

  4. Cohen-Zimerman, S. & Hassin, R. R. (2018).
    Implicit motivation improves executive functions of older adults.
    Consciousness and Cognition, 63, 267-279.

  5. Cools, R. & D’Esposito, M. (2010).
    Dopaminergic modulation of flexible cognitive control in humans.
    In: Björklund, A., Dunnett, S., Iversen, L., Iversen., S. (Eds.), Dopamine Handbook. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

  6. de Vito, S., Gamboz, N., Brandimonte, M., Barone, P., Amboni, M., & Sala, S. (2012).
    Future thinking in Parkinson’s disease: An executive function?
    Neuropsychologia, 50, 1494-501. 

  7. Fröding, B., & Osika, W. (2015).
    Cognitive Flexibility.
    SpringerBriefs in Ethics, 63–72.

  8. Hofman, W., & Förster, Georg. (2019).
    Training Three Facets of Executive Functions.
    Experimental Psychology, 66, 1-12. 

  9. Ionescu, T. (2012).
    Exploring the nature of cognitive flexibility.
    New Ideas in Psychology, 30(2), 190–200.

  10. Mercado, E. (2015).
    Neural and Cognitive Plasticity.
    Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1–13.

  11. Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009).
    Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility.
    Consciousness and Cognition, 18(1), 176–186.

  12. Runco, M.A., & Yoruk, S. (2014)
    The Neuroscience of Divergent Thinking.
    Activitas Nervosa Superior, 56, 1–16.

  13. Smith, K., Davoli, C., Knapp, W., & Abrams, R. (2019).
    Standing enhances cognitive control and alters visual search.
    Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 81(11).

  14. Steenbergen, L., Sellaro, R., Hommel, B., & Colzato, L. (2015).
    Tyrosine promotes cognitive flexibility: Evidence from proactive vs. reactive control during task switching performance.
    Neuropsychologia, 69, 50-55.

  15. Vandewalle, G., Collignon, O., Hull, J., Daneault, V., Albouy, G., Lepore, F., Phillips, C., Doyon, J., Czeisler, C., Dumont, M., Lockley, S., & Carrier, J. (2013).
    Blue Light Stimulates Cognitive Brain Activity in Visually Blind Individuals.
    Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(12), 2072-2085.

  16. Vandewalle, G., Gais, S., Schabus, M., Balteau, E., Carrier, J., Darsaud, A.. Sterpenich, V., Albouy, G., Dijk, D. J., Maquet, P. (2007).
    Wavelength-dependent modulation of brain responses to a working memory task by daytime light exposure.
    Cerebral Cortex, 17(12), 2788-2795.

  17. Zhou, Y., Zhang, Y., Hommel, B., & Zhang, H. (2017).
    The impact of bodily states on divergent thinking: Evidence for a control-depletion account.
    Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1546, 1-9.

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