A few decades ago, a high IQ was one of the deciding factors of success, especially when it came to the science and tech industries. We now know that many of the greatest masterminds have relied not just on their intelligence but also on their imagination and curiosity, which simply cannot be measured. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” was Albert Einstein’s advice. Today, many psychologists echo the great physicist and recommend developing cognitive flexibility.
Young and old alike
Cognitive flexibility, or mental plasticity, is the ability to adapt your behaviour to new circumstances, a skill for leaving your comfort zone and generating creative ideas. It allows us to handle large volumes of data without losing our minds, switching our attention from one task to another. It sounds like a necessary skillset for the human mind, especially in our data saturated high-tech age.
Researchers agree that everyone possesses the ability for cognitive flexibility to some extent. It can be observed in early childhood by getting a child to do a simple exercise of categorising cards depicting various objects according to such parameters as colour, size and the number of objects displayed.
A young child, who is able to consider two parameters at once and select the cards which match both in colour and shape, demonstrates a high degree of cognitive flexibility. Such children easily adapt their thinking and skilfully switch from one task to another, overcoming their familiar responses when shifting to a new task.
The development of cognitive flexibility in children (and adults) helps them learn more quickly, adapt to new circumstances, question the world around them and come up with new ways of thinking if the old have outlived themselves. This is the cornerstone of self-development.
The advantages of being flexible
The “cards” we were referring to might become increasingly more complicated as we grow up, but the advantages of cognitive flexibility are then all the more valuable. The development of this skill correlates with a higher resilience in the face of traumatic life events and overall life satisfaction.
We all had the chance to observe cognitive flexibility in action during lockdowns. Some found it a lot easier than others to adapt their lives to working from home. People with such a flexible mindset are not afraid of experimenting with new ways of approaching old problems, effortlessly adjusting to changing conditions.
Open-mindedness is an added bonus in helping release our ego. People who lack prejudice typically find it easier to remember several contradictory points of view at once. It is the opposite of black-and-white thinking where things are either good or bad. Such people are capable of perceiving the universe and everything in it with more depth in regard to all of its pros, cons and pitfalls. This also allows them to overcome stress more easily.
One study, which looked at 340 college students, has shown that open-mindedness can be linked to higher cognitive function. It is unclear, however, whether it is the lack of prejudice that makes someone smarter or if being intelligent in the first place makes people more open. The fact is these two come hand in hand.
Openness is the way forwards
The human mind is adaptive and elastic, resulting in it not only being able to learn but also overcome fears and anxiety and making us more emotionally open. Flexible people are prone to self-improvement and believe that mistakes are just learning curves.
But there is also a whole other category of people. Those that choose to lock themselves in eternal arguments and stand by their views. People who are forever anxious and upset when something does not go their way, who are unable to adapt to new circumstances. Those that are afraid of everything new and refuse to take on unknown territories. All of them have something in common: they are unable to let go of old ways of thinking and models of behaviour. They are cognitively rigid and therefore stuck ruminating and adhering to behaviours that no longer serve them.
Recognise yourself in any of this? That’s ok, we all become more rigid with age, less willing to take risks and perceive everything with scepticism. The good news is that, with the right intention, everything is in your power. The degree of cognitive flexibility fluctuates over time and is an ability that we can all improve in.
1/ Cognitive-behavioural therapy
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) helps people change their way of thinking and behaviour. For example, someone suffering with depression, who has not been contacted by their friend for a week, might decide that their friend no longer likes them. The aim of CBT is to restructure our thoughts and consider other options (i.e. the fact that the said friend is busy, consumed by a project or simply wants to be alone right now). This kind of therapy helps get rid of one-sided limiting thinking and holding on to one version of the story by introducing a range of alternative hypotheses.
2/ Hitting pause
The important part of regaining control over repetitive thoughts is learning to nip them in the bud as they emerge to take matters into your own hands. There is a simple technique that you can try here. Imagine a red “Stop” sign in front of you and use that image every time you catch yourself in a loop of negative thinking. If that is not enough, use a basic ritual like a clap or pinch on your wrist. It is a lot easier to master this technique, if you already have an existing meditation practice.
3/ Document your thoughts
Committing your thoughts to paper gives them more room than in your head. Writing is a relatively simple method of overcoming complicated emotions and getting rid of them altogether. In this case paper is your best friend and ally. While using the notepad function on your smartphone always leaves room for retrospective editing, it is important to accurately capture the moment on paper to make these thoughts more tangible so you can look at them rationally and analyse them from various points of view.
Try this simple writing exercise. Divide a piece of paper into three columns. Put down whatever thought is currently stuck in your head in the first one. In the second, write down one thing you can do right now to tackle it (it has to be something within your control). In the third, put everything that is outside of your control. This will help you see the situation you are in more objectively, without holding on to your preconceptions.
You can also develop the habit of coming up with several action plans for a single situation. Anticipating various scenarios is also a form of being flexible. This way you will be able to act freely in any circumstance. This option will be particularly useful for anxious or shy people who feel the need to channel their overly alert and analytical minds to many (likely negative) options in a positive way.
Being flexible and open is constant work but it is so worth it. Cognitive flexibility is a necessary life skill for everyone, be it to improve your resilience to stress or to promote creative thinking in society as a whole.
However, this skill should not be seen as an end in itself. One the one hand, cognitive flexibility gives us adaptability, on the other – fluidity. If you do not want to be swayed by anything that comes your way, it is important to counterbalance cognitive flexibility with critical thinking and communication skills.
It will then become something of a navigator, which shows you all the route options to your destination, providing confidence and freedom. In the end, it is about perceiving the world and the people in it from a range of perspectives, gaining a new vantage point without losing your own personal compass to see the bigger picture.