Stretch Your Brain’s Muscles with Cognitive Flexibility!

By: Inas Essa

It is not a desirable feeling to be stuck in a situation while running out of all well-tested solutions and previously implemented ways. Yet, living in an ever-changing world that continues to surprise us with new conditions unfamiliar to our expectations, we constantly come face-to-face with brand new situations that require our immediate actions.

We tend to unconsciously rely on implementing well-tested solutions to help us face any new problem. We struggle while switching between different approaches to make solving it possible; how we react remains the key either to moving on or feeling stuck and beaten.

Cognitive flexibility is a concept that defines such a state in which we find ourselves in a changing environment that requires us to adapt to new situations, deal with them as they are, throwing away past unpractical solutions that would not help in the current situation, and replacing them with what would actually work.


What Does Cognitive Flexibility Mean?

Generally speaking, cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt behavior and thinking strategies in response to the surrounding environment. It is about evaluating current strategies and generating novel applicable solutions to allow individuals to regulate their thoughts and actions adaptively.

Although it cannot be measured through an IQ test, it can be analyzed through the ability to think about multiple things at the same time, and the ability to modify thinking based on a change in expectations and demands. So, in every situation, the person has to focus on the conditions that change continuously during the task performed and invest in aborting the automatic response generated from the ordinary way of thinking. Consequently, they need to restructure their knowledge to effectively interpret the new situation and the new task requirements and act accordingly.

Those with healthy cognitive flexibility are often considered to be more open-minded because they can evaluate the benefits of new input and update old belief systems when offered a fresh perspective.

The concept of cognitive flexibility has three fundamental characteristics; it:

  1. Implicates a process of learning; thus, it could be acquired with experience.
  1. Involves the adaptation of cognitive processing strategies, which refers to changes in complex behaviors, not in separated responses.
  1. Occurs in new and unexpected environmental changes after a person has been performing a task for some time.

Some people suffer from difficulties implementing cognitive flexibility in situations they face, including people who suffer from mental health disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder and major depressive disorder. Additionally, children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Learning Disabilities/Disorders commonly show challenges with their executive functioning. However, as it could be learned, they can also benefit from it.



What are the Benefits of Cognitive Flexibility?

Such flexibility is not an abstract idea; it involves the essence of creating new ideas and even connecting them and has a noticeable role in supporting academic and professional skills like problem-solving. It can also boost critical thinking and help protect against several biases because cognitively flexible people are better at recognizing potential faults in themselves and using strategies to overcome these faults.

Additionally, it can be beneficial in emotional and social cognition as studies have shown that cognitive flexibility has a strong link to the ability to understand the emotions, thoughts, and intentions of others. Lacking cognitive flexibility could manifest in freezing and doing nothing while faced with problems or new situations, ruminating over the consequences that already took place and would not change, or feeling distressed and struggling with the new norm or fact.

Studies have shown its learning benefits for children with autism; after training, they showed improvement in performance on cognitive skills as well as in social interaction and communication. It also manifests benefits in older adults.


How Can Educators Benefit from Cognitive Flexibility?

This term is not only important for children or students; its benefits extend to help in making stronger educators. It provides the foundation for creative brain processes and helps in approaching problems from multiple perspectives, which generate more possible outcomes and, as a result, reaching the best possible solution.

Educators are multitaskers and they have to handle many things effectively at the same time, starting from dealing with students from diverse backgrounds, cultures, beliefs, to the new situations they have to handle. Therefore, they need to implement such flexibility in their daily work to help divert students’ attention and their own from any unhealthy situation to a more productive and appropriate one.

They can work on improving cognitive flexibility to increase the ability to adapt to every day’s flux by:

  1. Developing new lessons/activities for an old curriculum would force the mind to think of updated ways to reach students.
  1. Stepping outside of the educational comfort zone and undertaking something novel, like taking on a coaching position, joining a new committee, etc.
  1. Seeking out friendships with people from various backgrounds would help in viewing situations from multiple perspectives, and as a result, could gain a fresh outlook on any given situation.
  1. Doing something new and mixing up a routine, which does not have to be super different, but just different from the usual.



To help children improve their cognitive flexibility, try:

  1. Incorporating the concepts of rigidity and flexibility through play and practice, modeling flexible thinking in a fun way, demonstrating how each of these concepts can affect them.
  1. Explaining rigidity as a tightly pulled elastic and flexible thinking as a loose, flexible elastic, and how such flexibility allows us to adapt to every situation.
  1. Emphasizing that there are different strategies they can try and multiple ways of solving a problem, especially in math.
  1. Incorporating small changes to help build their tolerance skills, like switching the order of certain things, doing a routine backward or in a different way, or making up new rules for a game, etc. would help to give them a sense of control over the situation.


In a nutshell, cognitive flexibility is a broad term generally referring to our ability to adapt flexibly to our constantly changing environment. Although it seems optimal, missing it may result in drawbacks and difficulty moving forward. It can be learned step by step to reach better results through updated strategies and the ability to change, which has become sufficiently prominent.


References Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility