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Understanding Cognitive Flexibility and ways to improve it.

Jeevitha Ramesh

Jay was working in a marketing company and was very good at his work. But, at times, his productivity would suffer due to his inability to do things differently. He would struggle to switch approaches or use a different strategy to solve workplace issues. He was also very rigid in his thinking.

Those who demonstrate the challenges listed above have difficulties with cognitive flexibility. In this blog, we will explore the concept of cognitive flexibility and also learn a few tips to improve our cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility helps us adapt our behavior and thinking patterns to the new, changing environment or unplanned events. For example, think of a situation where someone asked you about multiple concepts simultaneously or when you wanted to think of different approaches to solve a particular problem. In such cases, you need to demonstrate flexible thinking.

Cognitive flexibility is essential for success in the workplace and everyday life as it allows us to think flexibly and adapt to various situations. For example, let's say you have organised a charity event and one of the main volunteers gets sick. Cognitive flexibility will allow you to think of all other options to adjust immediately. You may think of other people you can call or find ways to talk with the volunteers currently present at the event to take over.

Sometimes cognitive flexibility is also known as cognitive shifting. Cognitive flexibility is considered one of the core aspects of executive functioning. (Executive function includes the mental processes that will enable us to plan, focus, keep attention, remember, and perform various tasks simultaneously).

Cognitive flexibility can occur in two main ways:

  • The capability to think about multiple things at the same time:

Imagine your boss at the office asks everyone to sort the employees into different groups. One of your colleagues might say, “We all belong to the same office!” But one could also consider that they can be sorted by age, height, gender, favourite animal, sports, number of siblings, hair colour, and so on. This example shows us that we need to look at situations from multiple perspectives to solve our workplace or personal life challenges. This is a very important aspect of cognitive flexibility!

  • The ability to change thinking based on different expectations and demands:

Revisit your childhood and think of all the math questions you have solved. You may realize that you would always use the same method while solving a challenging math question. You may also use known methods more often than trying the new ones! If you didn’t solve the math question with the best-known method, the question might have seemed impossible to solve. But, if you had tried different methods, you would have ended up with the correct answer. This idea of trying to solve problems with different methods is a skill of cognitive flexibility. With this, we can understand that we can change ways or apply different approaches to deal with situations for successful results.

Now let us look into brain regions that are involved with cognitive flexibility. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies have shown that when an individual engages in cognitive flexibility, various regions of the brain work together as a network. The important brain regions that are activated includes prefrontal cortex (helps in decision making and problem-solving), basal ganglia (helps in motor learning and task switching), anterior cingulate cortex (responsible for impulse control and empathy) and posterior parietal cortex (helps is reasoning and attention).

Brain image showing regions involved in cognitive flexibility

The regions of the brain that are active during the process of cognitive flexibility depend on the task and factors like working memory, attention, etc. For example, when an individual is involved in task switching situations, the dorsal prefrontal cortex is activated. The basal ganglia also gets activated when we make choices in a particular situation.

Cognitive flexibility is important in both personal lives and the workplace. Every day you may use cognitive flexibility even without realizing it. For example, you may use cognitive flexibility during multitasking or when you think of alternative solutions to get work done. Even concentrating on the task and performing it successfully would become difficult without cognitive flexibility as distractions may not allow the brain to focus.

Being cognitively flexible increases your chances of success. The improved ability to adapt to new situations, increased flexibility, creativity, etc. (said to be aspects of cognitive flexibility skills) helps in academic and work achievements. In the same way, cognitive flexibility helps mitigate the effects of aging and cognitive decline in later life.

Cognitive flexibility is very necessary for society to grow. It helps to maximize individual potential with different perspectives and creativity. Eventually, it is such skills that are needed in facing big challenges in life. To improve it, we can practice a few tips:

  • Living a healthy lifestyle

The obvious healthy lifestyle options like exercise, sleep, and diet are known to improve cognitive flexibility. Good sleep helps in regulating stress, consolidating memory, and leads to more creative thinking. Exercising every day reduces the level of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) and stimulates the release of mood-elevating hormones (endorphins). A diet including healthy fatty acids such as omega-3 can help in improving the brain’s cognitive function and flexibility.

  • Practicing meditation

Studies have shown that the practice of meditation improves the ability of the brain to switch between tasks. It can also help get rid of distracting thoughts, opens the brain, and makes space for creativity and new thinking.

  • Reading and playing games

Reading activates occipital and cortex regions of the brain simultaneously, leading to improved neural function, which in turn helps improve cognitive flexibility. Playing games makes you challenge assumptions, fixed thoughts, and beliefs. It forces you to shift thinking in response to the different situations during the game.

  • Building empathy

Understanding the experiences, processes, routines, and methods of other people will help you build cognitive flexibility. This is because it helps to get out of the fixed mindset and expands flexible thinking capabilities. To build empathy or understand different points of view, you can approach other people at work with your challenges by asking them how to approach a problem and listen to them actively. With this, you can start to understand that there are several ways to approach one problem.

  • Looking out for new experiences

Every time you try something newer than normal, the brain creates a new synaptic nerve connection and triggers dopamine release. This will increase motivation, memory, and learning, which in turn helps in developing cognitive flexibility.

  • Meeting new people

Meeting different people and understanding their views and cultures, which are different from your own, can help you to be less rigid in the way you think. Research shows that people exposed to situations that challenge their ideas about what is right and wrong tend to have greater cognitive flexibility.

Apart from these, several brain training programs facilitate building the skill of cognitive flexibility. Research also establishes that training the brain for improvement in memory, problem-solving, healthy lifestyle practices (like nutritious food, exercise), etc., can improve cognitive flexibility. Many programs have come up which train children and adults with methods and techniques to improve cognitive flexibility.

One such program is the Brighter Minds - ReStart program. It is a brain training program that helps individuals understand and modify lifestyle aspects to protect brain health and enhance cognitive capacity, allowing cognitive flexibility. The program helps improve cognitive flexibility by equipping participants with practical and straightforward tools that will help enhance memory capacity, creativity, and key ideas about productivity, problem-solving which helps divergent thinking.


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