“Cognitive flexibility” is the key to learning and creativity
IQ is often hailed as a crucial factor for success, especially in areas such as science, innovation and technology. In fact, many people have an endless fascination with the IQ scores of famous people. But the truth is that some of the greatest achievements of our species are based primarily on qualities such as creativity, imagination, curiosity, and empathy.
Many of these traits are built into what scientists call “cognitive flexibility” – a skill that allows us to switch between different concepts or adapt behavior to achieve goals in a new or changing environment. It’s basically about learning how to learn and being able to be flexible about how you learn. This includes evolving strategies for optimal decision making. In our ongoing research, we are trying to determine how people can best improve their cognitive flexibility.
Cognitive flexibility gives us the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it. If you normally take the same route to work, but there is now roadworks on your usual route, what do you do? Some people remain rigid and stick to the original plan, despite the delay. More flexible people adapt to the unexpected event and solve problems to find a solution.
Cognitive flexibility may have affected the way people dealt with pandemic blockages, which created new challenges around work and schooling. Some of us have found it easier than others to adapt our routines to do many activities at home. These flexible people may also have changed these routines from time to time, trying to find better and more varied ways to go about their day. Others, however, struggled and eventually became more rigid in their thinking. They stuck to the same routine activities, with little flexibility or change.
Flexible thinking is the key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, to make new connections between ideas, and to create new inventions. It also supports academic and professional skills such as problem solving. That said, unlike working memory – which you may remember at some point – it is largely independent of IQ, or “crystallized intelligence.” For example, many visual artists may be of average intelligence, but 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 created multiple businesses are more cognitively flexible than managers of the same age and IQ.
So, does cognitive flexibility make people smarter in ways that aren’t always captured in IQ tests? We know this leads to better “cold cognition,” which is non-emotional or “rational” thinking, throughout life. For example, for children, it leads to better reading skills and better academic results.
It can also help protect against a number of biases, such as confirmation bias. This is because people who are cognitively flexible are better able to recognize potential flaws in themselves and use strategies to overcome those flaws.
Cognitive flexibility is also associated with greater resilience to negative life events, as well as better quality of life in older people. It may even be beneficial for emotional and social cognition: Studies have shown that cognitive flexibility has a strong connection with the ability to understand the emotions, thoughts, and intentions of others.
The opposite of cognitive flexibility is cognitive rigidity, which is found in a number of 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. Rather, striatal regions are related to reward and motivation.
There are a number of ways to objectively assess people’s cognitive flexibility, including the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test and the CANTAB Intra-Extra-Dimensional Set Shift task.
The good news is that it looks like you can train cognitive flexibility. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for example, is evidence-based psychological therapy that helps people change their thinking and behavior patterns. For example, someone with depression who hasn’t been contacted by a friend for a week may attribute this to the friend not liking them anymore. In CBT, the goal is to reconstruct their thinking to consider more flexible options, such as the friend being busy or unable to contact them.
Learning about structure – the ability to extract information about the structure of a complex environment and decipher initially incomprehensible flows of sensory information – is another potential avenue to take. We know that this type of learning involves frontal and striatal brain regions similar to those of cognitive flexibility.
As part of a collaboration between Cambridge University 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 cognitive flexibility training, for example in children with autism. After training cognitive flexibility, children showed not only improved performance on cognitive tasks, but also improved social interaction and communication. Additionally, cognitive flexibility training has been shown to be beneficial for children without autism and for the elderly.
As the pandemic emerges, we will need to make sure that by teaching and training new skills, people also learn to be cognitively flexible in their thinking. This will give them greater resilience and greater well-being in the future.
Cognitive flexibility is essential for the development of society. This can help maximize the potential of individuals to create innovative ideas and creative inventions. Ultimately, these are the qualities we need to solve today’s big challenges, including global warming, preservation of the natural world, clean and sustainable energy, and food security.