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What Is Cognitive Flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility refers to the brain’s ability to transition from thinking about one concept to another.  The quicker you are able to switch or “shift” your thinking from one dimension (e.g. color of an object) to another (e.g. shape of an object), the greater your level of cognitive flexibility.  As an example, let’s say you were playing a game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker, but the dealer tells everyone that every other hand you’ll be playing 7 Card Stud.

Mentally, you’ll need to transition between the rules for Texas Hold ‘Em and 7 Card Stud.  Certain individuals would struggle to rapidly transition between these two card-game constructs due to the fact that they have poor cognitive flexibility or “rigidity.”  Rigid thinkers are poor at adapting to the introduction of novel stimuli and shifting their thinking to accommodate various changes.

Those that are able to easily alternate between playing Texas Hold ‘Em and 7 Card Stud in an “every-other-hand” format, likely have significant cognitive flexibility.  Cognitive flexibility not only helps when faced with unexpected situations, but it helps you update your belief system when exposed to better information.  If you learn that smoking causes lung cancer, but are unable to shift your thinking to accept the more accurate information – you may be cognitively inflexible or “rigid.”

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility is defined as the ability to switch one’s thinking (cognition) (or train of thought) as an adaptation to the demands of stimuli.  In neuroscience, the term is sometimes referred to as “attention switching,” “cognitive shifting,” “mental flexibility,” “set shifting,” and “task switching.”  Perhaps the most helpful way to explain cognitive flexibility is to use an analogy.

Think of cognitive flexibility as being analogous to changing channels on a TV, but think of the channels as “streams-of-thought” (concepts) and the TV as your “brain.”  If you are stuck on one channel and can’t change it – your cognition is inflexible; your stream-of-thought and/or beliefs cannot be updated or altered.  However, if you possess a remote and can rapidly change the channel rapidly at whim, you are considered to have cognitive flexibility.

There are varying degrees of cognitive flexibility as well.  Two people may be considered cognitively flexible, but one may be more flexible than the other.  In other words, both individuals may be able to shift their thinking to adapt to new stimuli, but one may be able to accomplish this at a faster rate.

Cognitive flexibility is useful in that it helps people adapt to novel scenarios and information such as: moving to a foreign country, unexpected demands in the workplace, and/or a last-minute change of plans.  There are many nuanced, technical definitions of “cognitive flexibility,” but to keep things simple – think of it as the ability to shift your thinking as an adaptation to new stimuli.

Aspects of Cognitive Flexibility (List of Possibilities)

Below is a list of potential elements of cognitive flexibility.  It is important to understand that while most psychologists refer to cognitive flexibility as the ability to transition between multiple thoughts, some consider it to encompass concepts such as: updating old beliefs, multi-faceted thinking, and/or establishing commonalities between completely unrelated concepts.

  • Transition “stream-of-thoughts” and attention: Cognitive flexibility most often refers to the ability to shift thoughts between multiple concepts. Let’s say you’re in a group of two friends and one starts talking about the rules of baseball.  Suddenly the other friend starts talking about French literature.  In this scenario – your ability to transition between the two concepts would be considered flexibility of cognition.
  • Updating beliefs & cognition: In some cases, cognitive flexibility can refer to updating cognitive function as an adaptation to new information or stimuli. Individuals that are “set in their ways” or display rigidity of thinking have poor cognitive flexibility; these people are unable to change their thinking even when presented with novel stimuli or better information.  For example, even after Copernicus suggested that the Sun was the center of the solar system (which was upgraded information), may people lacked cognitive flexibility to accept this concept.
  • Multi-faceted observation: Cognitive flexibility can sometimes refer to considering multiple elements of observation simultaneously. For example, let’s say you’re looking at an object and notice that it’s a reddish color.  In addition to the color, you may consider a multitude of other descriptors such as the: shape, cost, fragility, texture, density, etc.  Your ability to connect certain observable aspects may be considered cognitive flexibility by some.
  • Deconstructing thoughts: When posed with a complex thought or problem, cognitive flexibility can help deconstruct the complexity into smaller chunks. The ability to shift between specific elements of a larger problem in effort to solve it is an example of cognitive flexibility.  Interjection of new perspectives, simplification, and/or understanding how smaller pieces contribute to the larger problem may be considered cognitive flexibility.
  • Expanded awareness: Some have suggested that cognitive flexibility is the ability to be consciously aware of all possible choices and alternatives in a specific scenario. For example, someone playing a game of poker may understand that although he has a “Full House,” other players could have a superior hand (e.g. 4-of-a-Kind) or an inferior hand (e.g. a “High Card”).

Measuring Cognitive Flexibility

There are many different tests and protocols utilized to measure cognitive flexibility.  The ability to rapidly switch between focusing on one specific aspect of an object such as “color” to another aspect such as “shape” determines how cognitively flexible you are.  Many measures of cognitive flexibility are regarded as age-specific due to the fact that they are either too simplistic or advanced for other age groups.

A-Not-B Task

This is a cognitive flexibility test typically administered to children.  During this test, children are visually presented with an object that is hidden at “Location A.”  The children are then allowed to look for the object at the hidden “Location A” – which is generally within arm’s reach.

The hiding of the object at Location A is repeated a few times until the child becomes focused on how to find it.  Next, the same object is hidden in a new area called “Location B” – a distinct location separate from Location A (also within arm’s reach).  Individuals under 1 years of age will typically look again in Location A.

Children over 1 years of age are able to display “cognitive flexibility” and learn to find the object at the novel Location B.  This is a cognitive flexibility task reserved for infants and would be far too simplistic for older children, teens, and adults.

  • Source: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-7687.00300/abstract
  • Source: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20182520

Dimensional Change Card Sorting (DCCS) Task

The Dimensional Change Card Sorting task is a test used to measure cognitive flexibility in children.  During this task, a child will be instructed to sort cards by a specific descriptor (e.g. shape) and during this sorting process, are interrupted and instructed to sort the cards to fit a secondary characteristic (e.g. size).  Researchers have determined that children between 3 and 5 are unable to adjust to integrate the secondary characteristic into their sorting process.

However, children 5 years of age are able to integrate the novel, secondary characteristic into their sorting; this displays cognitive flexibility.  This is a significantly easier task for children over the age of 5 due to the fact that their brain has undergone significantly more development than younger infants.

  • Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0885201496900271
  • Source: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-7687.00300/abstract

Multiple Classification Card Sorting Task

The Multiple Classification Card Sorting Task is a cognitive flexibility test administered to children.  During the test, various cards are shown to a child, and the child is instructed to sort them based on multiple characteristics (e.g. color and shape).  The child will then place them into 4 distinct piles based on the characteristics: red squares, red triangles, purple squares, purple triangles.  Studies have suggested that this is a challenging task for most children, but becomes easier once a child reaches age 11.

Evidence highlights that 7 year olds have a difficult time sorting the cards based on multiple characteristics. This suggests that up to a certain age, children are unable to simultaneously focus on two characteristics of a single object.  There appears to be a significant jump in cognitive flexibility between age 7 and 11.

  • Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1446556
  • Source: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2002-02073-006

Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST)

Another popular test to measure cognitive flexibility is the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST).  This test focuses on elements of abstract reasoning and incorporates problem-solving.  During the WCST, an individual is presented with cards with displays that differ in elements of: color, shapes, and quantities.

The individual is then handed another set of cards and instructed to match the new cards with the already-presented cards.  This is another test administered primarily to children.  Individuals between ages 9 and 11 typically have developed enough cognitive flexibility to properly complete the test.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3722348
  • Source: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-7687.00300/abstract

Stroop Test (Color-word Naming Test)

Many adults are familiar with the Stroop Test to measure cognitive function and flexibility.  In the Stoop Test, an individual is presented with 3 different types of cards: a color card, a word card, and a combo “color-word” card.  Their goal is to identify the colors on the color card, the words on the word card, and then solely the colors on the “color-word” card.  This is a cognitive flexibility test primarily reserved for individuals over the age of 11.

Color card: Displays segments of various colors.  Individuals are instructed to identify these colors as rapidly as possible.

Word card: Displays the names of colors printed in black and white.  Individuals are instructed to read the names of these colors as rapidly as possible.

Color-Word card: Displays the names of colors printed in the ink of an entirely distinct color.  In other words, the color of a word does not match up with the text.  For example, a person may see the word “Black” with all letters printed in purple ink.  When a person sees the Color-Word card, they are instructed to name only the color of the ink, while selectively ignoring the text.  In the example of seeing “Black” printed in purple ink, a person would therefore respond with “purple” as quickly as possible.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7650102

Neural Mechanisms of Cognitive Flexibility

To determine the specific regions of the brain associated with cognitive flexibility, researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans.  The fMRI scans revealed that a variety of cortical networks are activated to facilitate cognitive flexibility.  These networks include: the anterior cingulate cortex, basal ganglia, posterior parietal cortex, and the prefrontal cortex.

  • Anterior cingulate cortex
  • Basal ganglia
  • Posterior parietal cortex
  • Prefrontal cortex

It should be noted that the regions associated with cognitive flexibility are likely subject to variation based on the specific task used to measure it.  In other words, certain parts of your brain may light up during the Stroop Test that wouldn’t be as active during a separate test of cognitive flexibility.  Some research has documented that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex modulates interference.

Most experts believe that the prefrontal cortex is the driving force behind cognitive flexibility.  The specific regions within the prefrontal cortex that are activated during a cognitive flexibility task are likely task-dependent.  The basal ganglia is known to become active during selection of responses, whereas the posterior parietal cortex is active as we update preexisting information about how to perform a task.

It may be too simplistic to assume that the aforementioned areas are solely responsible for cognitive flexibility.  Some evidence suggests that any form of brain damage – regardless of the specific region, could reduce cognitive flexibility.

  • Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18757744
  • Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18211234
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22750124

Age and Cognitive Flexibility

Generally adults ages 25 and up are thought to display the greatest degree of cognitive flexibility.  The human brain is fully developed by the mid-20s, but up until the mid-20s, humans haven’t reached their full cognitive capacity.  Young children display a significant degree of cognitive inflexibility due to lack of cortical development.

For this reason, children are administered different cognitive flexibility measures such as the A-not-B test (ages 1+), Dimensional Change Card Sorting task (ages 5+), Multiple Classification Card Sorting task (ages 7+), and the Wisconsin Card Sorting task (ages 9 to 11).  Adults generally are administered a test too difficult for children to perform called the “Stroop Test.”

Adolescents’ cognitive flexibility continues to improve, and some evidence suggests that they learn faster from negative “reward prediction errors” compared to adults.  The ability to learn quicker from reward prediction errors means that they may display heightened cognitive flexibility in certain capacities compared to adults.

Following peak brain development in the mid-20s, it is thought that cognitive flexibility can be maintained and/or enhanced for a long period of time.  There is a transition between mid-life adulthood and elderly adulthood in which the cognition declines and neurodegeneration sets in.  The elderly tend to have significantly reduced cognitive flexibility compared to younger adults.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25234119
  • Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17983277

The Importance of Maintaining Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is immensely important for shifting attention and thoughts quickly.  Those with low levels of cognitive flexibility are unable to shift from one concept to another, and often become “stuck” in a single train of thought or aspect of focus (i.e. centration).  Being cognitively stuck is akin to watching just one TV channel or reading one book for the rest of your life; you’ll have a difficult time adapting to changes and novel stimuli.

What is helpful, is to be able to rapidly shift your thinking between concepts and alter your perspective to accommodate new information.  With cultural evolution continuing to outpace biological evolution, cognitive flexibility helps you update your old belief system as an adaptation to novel stimuli.  Just think of all the people that weren’t able to learn how to use a computer or cell phone; these individuals may be stuck in their ways and still fail to understand the perspectives of a newer generation.

In addition to improving a person’s ability to adapt when faced with novel stimuli, cognitive flexibility is associated with improved brain functioning.  It allows your brain to function more efficiently, with various regions operating in orchestra.  Those with high levels of cognitive flexibility tend to have superior comprehension and fluency associated with reading, higher levels of fluid intelligence, and an expanded sense of awareness.

Individuals with low levels of cognitive flexibility are generally “stuck in their ways” and dislike the intake of novel stimuli.  These are people that have a difficult time adapting to change, whether it be behavioral, psychological, environmental, technological, etc.  If your goal is to maintain peak mental performance, engaging in activities that increase cognitive flexibility may provide substantial benefit.

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