Wednesday, July 28

What is “cognitive flexibility” and why is it key to learning and creativity


The intelligence quotient (IQ) It is often hailed as a critical driver of success, especially in fields such as science, innovation, and technology.

In fact, many people are infinitely fascinated by the IQ scores of famous people.

But the truth is that some of the greatest achievements of our species have been based largely on qualities like creativity, imagination, curiosity and empathy.

Many of these traits are embedded in what scientists call “cognitive flexibility,” an ability that allows us to switch between different concepts or adapt behavior to achieve goals in a new or changing environment.

Basically it is about learning how to learn and being able to be flexible in the way you learn.

This includes changing strategies for optimal decision making.

In our ongoing research, we are trying to find out how people can better improve their cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility gives us the ability to see that what we are doing is not conducive to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it.

Albert Einstein.
We usually look at the IQs of geniuses, but it is not everything. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you normally take the same route to work, but now there are construction sites on your usual route, what can you do?

Some people remain rigid and stick to the original plan, despite the delay. The most flexible people adapt to the unexpected event and solve problems to find a solution.

Cognitive flexibility may have affected how people coped with pandemic lockdowns, which produced new challenges around work and education.

Some of us found it easier than others to adapt our routines to do many activities from home.

Such flexible people may have changed these routines from time to time as well, trying to find better and more varied ways to go about their day.

Others, however, had problems and eventually became more rigid in their thinking. They stuck to the same routine activities, with little flexibility or change.

Huge advantages

Flexible thinking is key to creativity; in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make new connections between ideas, and make new inventions.

It also supports academic and job skills, such as problem solving.

That said, unlike working memory, how much you can remember at any one time is largely independent of IQ or “crystallized intelligence.”

Think different.
(Foto: Getty Images)

For example, many visual artists may have average intelligence, but they are very creative and have produced masterpieces.

Contrary to the beliefs of many people, creativity is also important in science and innovation.

For example, we have found that entrepreneurs who have started multiple companies are cognitively more flexible than managers of a similar age and IQ.

So does cognitive flexibility make people smarter in a way that isn’t always captured on IQ tests?

We know that it leads to better “cold cognition”, which is non-emotional or “rational” thinking, throughout life.

For example, for children it leads to better reading ability and better school performance.

It can also help protect against a number of biases, such as confirmation bias.

This is because people who are cognitively flexible better recognize potential failures in themselves and use strategies to overcome them.

Cognitive flexibility is also associated with greater resistance to negative life events, as well as a better quality of life in older people.

It can even be beneficial in emotional and social cognition: Studies have shown that cognitive flexibility has a strong link with the ability to understand the emotions, thoughts, and intentions of others.

Cognitive rigidity

The opposite of cognitive flexibility is cognitive rigidity, which is found in various mental health disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder, and autism spectrum disorder.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that cognitive flexibility depends on a network of frontal and “striatal” brain regions.

The frontal regions are associated with higher cognitive processes such as decision making and problem solving. Instead, the striatal regions are linked to reward and motivation.

There are several ways to objectively assess people’s cognitive flexibility, including the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test and the CANTAB intra-extra-dimensional task shift.

Boosting flexibility

The good news is that it seems like you can train cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, is an evidence-based psychological therapy that helps people change their patterns of thoughts and behavior.

For example, a person with depression who has not been contacted by a friend in a week may attribute this to the friend no longer liking him.

In CBT, the goal is to rebuild your thinking to consider more flexible options, such as whether the friend is busy or unable to contact you.

Structure learning – the ability to extract information about the structure of a complex environment and decipher initially incomprehensible streams of sensory information – is another potential way forward.

Light bulb.
Cognitive flexibility can be trained. (Photo: Getty Images)

We know that this type of learning involves frontal and striatal brain regions similar to cognitive flexibility.

In a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and Nanyang Technological University, we are currently working on a “real world” experiment to determine whether structural learning can actually lead to better cognitive flexibility.

Studies have shown the benefits of training cognitive flexibility, for example, in children with autism.

After training for cognitive flexibility, the children showed not only better performance on cognitive tasks, but also better social interaction and communication.

Additionally, cognitive flexibility training has been shown to be beneficial for children without autism and for older adults.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we will need to ensure that by teaching and training new skills, people also learn to be cognitively flexible in their thinking.

This will provide them with greater resilience and well-being in the future.

Cognitive flexibility is essential for society to prosper. It can help maximize people’s potential to create innovative ideas and creative inventions.

Ultimately, it is those qualities that we need to solve today’s great challenges, including global warming, preserving the natural world, clean and sustainable energy, and food security.


*Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian is Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, Christelle Langley is a Research Associate in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge and Victoria Leong is an affiliate professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can see the original version here.


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