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7 Ways To Increase Your Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to transition thoughts between multiple concepts or perspectives.  It also refers to the ability to process multiple concepts simultaneously such as the color and shape of an object or perspectives of republicans and democrats.  An individual who is able to switch quickly from thinking about one concept, characteristic, or perspective to another – would be said to possess a high degree of cognitive flexibility.

People who are unable to transition their train of thought or perspective to another would be said to have “cognitive rigidity.”  Think of cognitive rigidity as being akin to a concrete sculpture that is highly resistant to change.  Individuals with rigidity of thinking are unable to adjust their thoughts and perspectives to accommodate novel stimuli and unexpected situations; these are people that are “set in their ways,” closed-minded, and set in their ways.

By comparison, cognitive flexibility would be like a pile of dough that is capable of quickly morphing into new shapes to adapt to the environment and novel stimuli.  Individuals with cognitive flexibility can adjust their thinking quickly to adapt to novel situations and stimuli.  A high degree of cognitive flexibility is associated with increased fluid intelligence, superior reading and comprehension, as well as a healthier brain.

7 Ways To Increase Cognitive Flexibility

There are many scientifically proven methods that can be utilized to increase cognitive flexibility.  If you are serious about increasing the speed by which you’re able to consciously alter your thinking and process multifaceted aspects of stimuli simultaneously, the techniques listed below should help.  Understand that the degree by which certain tactics increase cognitive flexibility is subject to significant individual variation.

1. L-Tyrosine supplementation

Research published in 2015 supports the idea that L-Tyrosine (an essential amino acid) promotes cognitive flexibility.  L-Tyrosine is present in a variety of foods and is known as a monoamine precursor, converting to the neurotransmitter dopamine.  Ingestion of L-Tyrosine tends to increase dopamine levels in the brain, and may enhance cognition (as a nootropic) while bolstering your flexibility of cognition.

Prior to the 2015 publication, L-Tyrosine supplementation was associated with increased cognitive control in response to scenarios with high cognitive demands.  None of the past studies had specifically analyzed L-Tyrosine’s effect on cognitive flexibility.  To determine whether L-Tyrosine increased cognitive flexibility, researchers recruited 22 adults and set up a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study.

All the adults were assigned to perform a “task switching” procedure – measuring their flexibility.  Results suggested that individuals receiving L-Tyrosine supplementation had increased cognitive flexibility compared to those receiving a placebo.  Researchers speculate that the increased cognitive flexibility was a result of an increase in dopamine concentrations.

It was noted that L-Tyrosine enhanced the usage of various cognitive resources.  One easy way to possibly increase your cognitive flexibility would be to purchase L-Tyrosine, or eat foods that increase dopamine (most of them will contain Tyrosine).  It could be suspected that individuals with low dopamine (or suboptimal levels) may display decreased cognitive flexibility compared to those with normative levels.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25598314
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25170792

2. Tweak your Gut Microbes

The gut microbiome is becoming an increasingly popular target for psychiatric research.  It is well-known that the brain and gut are interconnected.  Activity within the gut often influences activity within the brain such as neurotransmission – and vice-versa; the two have a symbiotic relationship.  While the gut may not contain as many neurons as the brain, it still contains over 100 million neurons and is rightfully considered the “second brain.”

New research indicates that certain gut microbes are associated with reduced cognitive flexibility, while others may be associated with increased cognitive flexibility.  In one study, researchers analyzed the effect of a Western diet characterized by high fat and sucrose on gut microbes, which can alter cognitive flexibility.  Although the study was conducted in mice, it appears that gut microbes change when the mice were fed diets high in fat, and high in sucrose.

There were notable increases in Clostridiales associated with both increased fat and sucrose intake.  Those eating high amounts of sucrose had considerable decreases in Bacteroidales.  Lactobacillales were increased in high-sucrose diets and Erysipelotrichales were altered by the high fat diet.

Researchers discovered that cognitive flexibility was associated directly with percentages of Clostridiales and Bacteroidales.  Specifically, increases in Clostridiales and reductions in Bacteroidales are associated with poorer cognitive flexibility.  Despite the fact that this was a study conducted in mice, there is reason to believe that your diet is influencing your cognitive flexibility.

To maximize your cognitive flexibility, you may want to reduce intake of sugar and unhealthy fats (e.g. canola oil) and eat an optimal diet for mental health.  In addition, you may want to include fermented foods in your diet and consider taking a high quality probiotic for maximum cognitive flexibility.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25982560

3. Mindfulness Meditation

In recent years, the benefits of meditation have received more mainstream attention and have been subject to significant scientific investigation.  In a study published in 2007, researchers decided to analyze the effect of Mindfulness Meditation on cognitive flexibility and other elements of attention.  This study involved comparing a group of meditators to a group of non-meditators in a Stroop “d2-concentration and endurance test.”

The results from the study determined that both cognitive flexibility and attention were enhanced by the practice of mindfulness meditation.  The more advanced a person was with their meditation practice, the greater their cognitive flexibility on the Stroop test.  Moreover, meditators were noted as significantly outperforming non-meditators on all attentional measures.

There is reason to believe that practicing mindfulness meditation can significantly enhance your cognitive flexibility and attention.  While there are other types of meditation, mindfulness is a specific practice that has been shown to improve cognitive flexibility.  Individuals with low cognitive flexibility may derive significant benefit from a meditation practice, especially mindfulness.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19181542

4. Aerobic Exercise

There are many psychological benefits of exercise including: mood boost, anxiolytic effects, and cognitive enhancement.  Regular physical exercise is associated with increased BDNF levels and the growth of new brain cells in a process called neurogenesis.  Results from a study published in 2009 suggest that aerobic exercise is an effective way to increase cognitive flexibility.

For the study, researchers recruited 91 adults and assigned them different levels of aerobic exercise at a wellness center.  A control group was active 0 to 2 days per week, whereas the “aerobic group” was active either 3 to 4 days per week or 5 to 7 days per week.  One of the measures included within the study was cognitive flexibility.

Researchers controlled for age, gender, education, and psychomotor speed and noted that the only measure demonstrating significant improvement was cognitive flexibility.  It was concluded that 10 weeks of aerobic exercise should be associated with heighted cognitive flexibility.  If you want to improve your ability to rapidly shift your thinking between multiple concepts, consistent aerobic exercise is an effective method.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19330430

5. REM Sleep (Rapid-Eye Movement)

If you aren’t getting proper sleep and/or are missing the REM stage of the sleep cycle, you may have less cognitive flexibility than others.  REM sleep, also known as “rapid-eye movement” is associated with information processing across various neural networks.  Specifically, it has been noted that REM-dreaming is linked to increased creativity and abstract reasoning abilities.

In a study published in 2002, researchers compared the effects of REM sleep to those associated with NREM (non-REM) sleep.  A total of 16 participants were assigned to engage in a cognitive flexibility performance test with anagram word puzzles following awakenings during REM or NREM.  Results suggested that awakening during REM resulted in a 32% increase in anagrams solved compared to awakening during NREM sleep.

Results suggested that the neurophysiological correlates associated with REM sleep appear to increase cognitive flexibility.  This suggests that getting proper sleep (especially REM) could result in superior flexibility of cognitive processing.  Therefore, behaviors and substances that decrease REM sleep should be avoided.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12421655

6. Inner Speech

Not everyone conducts inner speech, or “silent expression of conscious thoughts to oneself in coherent linguistic form.”  That said, if you want to increase your cognitive flexibility, it may be time to start incorporating inner speech in your cognitive arsenal.  A study published in 2010 involved reviewing relationships between language, inner speech, and cognitive control in both adults and children – they specifically analyzed cognitive flexibility.

Results from the study discovered that development of inner speech in childhood enhances development of cognitive flexibility.  There was a close relationship between cognitive flexibility and inner speech among both children and adults.  It appears as though inner speech may increase top-down control during shifting of thoughts (i.e. flexibility).

While it isn’t well-known whether someone can learn to incorporate inner speech in their daily routine during adulthood, it may be worth testing.  If you’re going to add inner speech as a “to-do” for cognitive flexibility, focus on coherency and maintain linguistic format.  Conscious practice of inner speech likely creates changes as a result of self-induced neuroplasticity.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25164047

7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There are many benefits of omega-3 fatty acid intake, specifically DHA and EPA.  These fatty acids help improve neurotransmission, cognitive function, and reduce inflammatory markers within the brain.  A person can attain omega-3 fatty acids from a diet high in fatty fish, but most people aren’t able to consume sufficient fish for these omega-3s.  New evidence suggests that taking fish oil (which contains omega-3s) can increase cognitive flexibility.

A study published in 2015 analyzed the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids, neural activation, and APOE e4 carriers (a biomarker indicating that individuals are at risk for cognitive decline).  Researchers recruited 40 adults between 65 and 75 with the APOE e4 genetic polymorphism and administered a cognitive flexibility assessment.  They compared the effect of omega-3 supplementation on neural activation in these individuals.

Results demonstrated that increased intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may prevent dysfunction of the aging brain.  Specifically, it appears as though there is a direct relationship between cognitive flexibility and omgega-3 biomarkers.  Understand that omega-3 fatty acids may increase cognitive flexibility in all age groups, not just those at risk for cognitive decline.

Therefore, you may want to take time to consciously assess your omega-3 intake.  Using the best fish oil or the best krill oil could provide immense benefit if your dietary intake of omega-3s is suboptimal and/or nonexistent.  In addition to increasing cognitive flexibility, there is evidence that omega-3s enhance other mental processes.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4439554/

Other Potential Methods to Increase Cognitive Flexibility

In addition to the aforementioned 7 techniques, there are several other methods that may increase cognitive flexibility in certain individuals.  These include things like: brain training, targeted psychosurgery, and various pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical substances.

Video games: A study published in 2013 investigated the effect of training in action video games on cognitive flexibility.  Researchers attempted to determine whether the video game training would increase cognitive flexibility, and if so, the mechanisms behind the increase.  The evidence from their study suggest that training in video games that emphasize rapid modulation of multiple information sources could increase cognitive flexibility.

Authors of the study speculate that neural networks involved in cognitive flexibility become trained as an individual is playing these video games.  If your goal is to increase cognitive flexibility and you like video games, train yourself in a game that requires manipulation of multiple streams of information nearly simultaneously.  Results from this study noted significant increases in cognitive flexibility as a result of the gaming tasks.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23950921

Neurosurgery: A report published in 2014 suggested that removal of the “extracellular matrix” within the auditory cortex increases cognitive flexibility.  It was noted that as the brain matures, the extracellular matrix decreases brain plasticity.  However, when this region is removed, the brain reconnects via different sensory pathways.

In studies conducted in rodents (Mongolian gerbils), removal of the extracellular matrix increased cognitive flexibility in a reversal learning.  It was noted that frontostriatal circuitry was increasingly active and connectivity in this region was altered.  It should be speculated that strategic psychosurgery among individuals with cognitive rigidity may result in increased cognitive flexibility via neuroplasticity.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24550310

Cognitive stimulation program: A study published in 2014 suggested that using a mHealth cognitive stimulation program may increase cognitive flexibility among individuals suffering from alcohol dependence.  Those that abuse alcohol tend to have deficits in the prefrontal cortex, and ultimately reduced cognitive flexibility.  In this study, researchers used the neuropsychological intervention of mobile technology (mHealth) and compared the results with a control group.

The results indicated that participants demonstrated increases in cognitive function and flexibility.  It was believed that increases in frontal lobe function as a result of the group receiving the “mHealth” intervention were more significant and ultimately contributed to enhanced cognitive flexibility.  This suggests that increases in cognitive flexibility could reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms and improve outcomes among those with alcohol dependence, and perhaps be effective for those with other forms of drug dependence.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24742381

Working memory training: A study published in 2013 suggested that working memory training programs may increase cognitive flexibility.  This study recruited 36 individuals between the ages of 75 and 87.  A total of 18 were assigned to receive working memory training, while the remaining 18 served as a control group (receiving a placebo).

The 18 adults assigned to the working memory training displayed increased plasticity in mechanisms of cognition.  While the researchers didn’t specifically measure cognitive flexibility, it could be suspected that cognitive flexibility may have increased as a result of the training.  Actively engaging in working memory training with protocols like “Dual N-Back” should theoretically enhance cognitive flexibility due to rapid transitions in recall processing.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23615578

What about pharmaceutical drugs to increase cognitive flexibility?

There are certain pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and supplements that have shown promise for increasing cognitive flexibility.  That said, just because they increase cognitive flexibility in rodents does not necessarily translate to improvements in humans.  Further, it is important to avoid assuming that everyone taking these substances and/or drugs will experience improvements in cognitive flexibility – certain substances could theoretically increase rigidity in some individuals.

For example, someone taking a drug like Memantine for mild forms of dementia may experience increased cognitive flexibility.  However, a person without mild dementia taking Memantine may not experience enhanced flexibility – theoretically they could experience increased rigidity or no significant change.  Therefore it is important to avoid jumping to conclusions with these substances based off of preclinical trials and non-human research.

In addition it is also important to consider the fact that short-term increases in cognitive flexibility as a result of treatment do not account for long-term changes.  Due to lack of long-term research with many of these compounds, it is unknown how long the increase in cognitive flexibility is sustained, and/or whether potential rigidity may result from consistent long-term administration of a specific drug.

Antipsychotics: Among individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, it appears as though antipsychotics may increase cognitive flexibility.  In a 2011 study, researchers analyzed changes in cognitive flexibility as a result of antipsychotic treatment.  These changes were monitored in individuals with first-episode schizophrenia who were treated with antipsychotics for 6 weeks and compared them with a control group.

Researchers determined cognitive flexibility with a Test for Attentional Performance (TAP).  Following short-term antipsychotic treatment, performance on the Test for Attentional Performance (TAP) significantly increased.  The conclusion from these results was that treatment with antipsychotics increases cognitive flexibility.

It is important to note that antipsychotics are linked to brain damage over the long-term and are among the most dangerous psychiatric drugs.  Perhaps only improvement in cognitive flexibility stems from symptomatic reduction of schizophrenia and short-term treatment.  Among those with normative mental health and/or undergoing long-term treatment – it is unknown whether cognitive flexibility would increase.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22044531

Memantine: Individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease tend to experience reductions in cognitive flexibility.  A study published in 2011 analyzed the effect of memantine on cognitive function.  Researchers noted that administration of 5 mg/kg and 10 mg/kg to mice increased cognitive flexibility.

The increase in cognitive flexibility was evidenced by performance in a water maze involving platform re-location.  It appears as though when the memantine administration was discontinued, cognitive flexibility decreased.  Therefore, it is logical to conclude that among those with forms of neurodegeneration, memantine could increase cognitive flexibility.

It is unknown as to how memantine administration would affect those without neurodegeneration and/or of normative psychological health.  Furthermore, it is unknown as to whether memantine elicits a sustained increase in cognitive flexibility over an extended duration.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21860092

MLC 901 (NurAiDII): This is a compound used in traditional Chinese medicine.  It has been noted to improve stroke rehabilitation in rodents, particularly the aspects of motor and cognitive recovery.  A study published in 2015 analyzed the effect of MLC901 in rodents with no brain injury (e.g. mice with normative cognitive function).

Results from the study suggested that MLC901 promoted hippocampal neurogenesis as evidenced by an increase in the number of neurons within the hippocampus.  In addition, it appears as though the substance improves novel object recognition and learning in a water maze.  Researchers imply that the substance may improve cognitive flexibility, and that the substance may prove therapeutic in human populations.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25821139

Amantadine: Individuals with Parkinson’s disease (PD) tend to have reductions in impulse control, which can contribute to behaviors of excess gambling, sexuality, and shopping.  Various antiglutamatergic drugs such as Amantadine have been shown to decrease impulsive behaviors among those with Parkinson’s and those without Parkinson’s.  A 2014 study analyzed the effect of Amantadine on cognitive function, emotion, and reward processing among individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

Results from the study demonstrated that Amantadine reduced risky decision-making, while increasing non-risky decision-making.  Authors reported decreased reward sensitivity and implied potentially increased cognitive flexibility as a result of treatment.  This suggests that antiglutamatergic agents (e.g. Amantadine) may activate certain neural mechanisms associated with increased cognitive flexibility.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24971012

Things That May Reduce Cognitive Flexibility…

There are several things that may work against your existing cognitive flexibility, and could promote rigidity of thought.  These include things such as: epigenetic influences, altitude changes, hormone changes, neurotransmitter imbalances, high stress, and illicit drugs.  Keep in mind that all of the things that deplete cognitive flexibility are not necessarily yet known and/or documented by science.

Dopamine signaling dysfunction: It is thought that individuals with abnormally low levels of dopamine and/or dopaminergic dysfunction may have poorer cognitive flexibility.  There seems to be a link between striatal dopamine concentrations and cognitive flexibility.  It is thought that sufficient dopamine and proper dopaminergic signaling promote flexibility of cognition.

Individuals with psychiatric conditions characterized by altered dopaminergic signaling, particularly in the frontostriatal circuit may have impaired cognitive flexibility.  Based on animal studies, researchers speculate that flexibility of cognition is dependent upon D2 receptor signaling.  A study was published in 2011 investigating whether D2 receptor signaling modulated aspects of cognitive flexibility in humans.

The study incorporated the usage of bromocriptine, a D2 receptor agonist and incorporated pretreatment with sulpiride, a D2 receptor antagonist.  Researchers then administered “task-set” switching assessments to determine performance.  In addition, they accounted for genetic baseline dopaminergic differences, they used the VNTR polymorphism associated with the DAT1 gene.

Results demonstrated that bromocriptine administration improved cognitive flexibility, but only among individuals with polymorphisms associated with low baseline levels of dopamine.  Bromocriptine did not increase cognitive flexibility when sulpiride was administered pretreatment.  Researchers concluded that various aspects of cognitive flexibility are modulated by D2 receptor signaling.  Dysfunction of D2 signaling and low baseline dopamine may contribute to poorer cognitive flexibility.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21611724
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24204329

Genetics / Epigenetics: Certain genetic polymorphisms may be associated with reductions in cognitive flexibility.  It has long been suspected that genes influencing the transportation of dopamine throughout the brain may increase and/or decrease cognitive flexibility.  A study published in 2010 analyzed a polymorphism associated with the presence (+) or absence (-) of the 9R allele of the DAT1; a dopamine transporter gene.

DAT1 is a protein that transports dopamine from the synapse to cytosol, allowing for other transporters to seize dopamine and norepinephrine into vesicles for storage and/or release.  To determine how DAT1 influenced cognitive flexibility, researchers assigned a task-switching protocol to a sample of individuals and determined differences based on polymorphisms.  Researchers noted that those without the 9R allele of the DAT1 had reductions in striatal dopamine concentration.

Individuals without the 9R allele also had increases in sensory change and task-set reconfigurations.  Those with the 9R allele had higher striatal dopamine levels and larger reaction time costs associated with sensory changes.  Evidence from this report suggests that certain genetic underpinnings (or correlates) can likely decrease cognitive flexibility, but others may increase it.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20141527

High altitude: It appears as though altitude changes can influence cognitive flexibility.  A study published in 2014, researchers documented the effect of “simulated” hypoxia (less oxygen) at altitudes of 3600 meters.  The researchers recruited 23 participants with no history of prior hypoxia experience.

They used a “task switch” paradigm to determine how the altitude changes influenced cognitive flexibility, while simultaneously recording participant anxiety levels.  Results suggested that anxiety prior to the hypoxia actually improved cognitive flexibility, but anxiety post-hypoxia lead to a decrease in cognitive flexibility.  This suggests that hypoxia associated with high altitude could temporarily improve cognitive flexibility.

However, should a person experience anxiety following the hypoxia, their cognitive flexibility will likely decrease.  Despite the fact that this was a small scale study, it is worth noting that altitude changes associated with lack of oxygen could trigger anxiety.  This anxiety has potential to decrease performance in a “task switch” paradigm which is indicative of cognitive flexibility.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25016857

High stress: Slight increases in stress can improve cognitive function temporarily, while sustained increases in stress and/or abnormally high stress are thought to decrease cognition and damage the brain.  A study published in 2007 analyzed the effect of high stress on cognitive flexibility.   Researchers accomplished this by administering a pharmaceutical medications or a placebo to individuals in conditions of stress or no stress.

The individuals received either propranolol (a beta blocker) or a placebo.  Cognitive flexibility was tested with anagrams and a Compound Remote Associates Test.  Results suggested that stress impaired performance on cognitive flexibility tasks.  Cognitive flexibility improved after stress exposure when the pharmaceutical (propranolol) was administered.

Researchers note that cognitive flexibility in normal adults may be impaired under significant stress.  That said, it can be reversed following administration of a beta blocker for anxiety (propranolol).  This suggests that impaired cognitive flexibility as a result of stress could be related to the noradrenergic system, a target for the propranolol.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17335395

Hormone imbalances: It appears as though hormone imbalances could decrease cognitive flexibility.  A study published in 2013 discovered that individuals with low levels of cognitive flexibility also had high testosterone.  While high testosterone may not have been the direct cause for their poor cognitive flexibility, it could have been a contributing factor.

Since there are established associations between stress levels and cognitive flexibility, and also symbiotic relationships between stress and hormones, it is possible to consider that levels of certain hormones could alter both stress and/or cognitive flexibility.  The elevations in testosterone may contribute to poorer cognitive flexibility indirectly via effects on the noradrenergic system or via some other mechanism.  Perhaps the high testosterone is a direct contributing factor to reduced cognitive flexibility in certain (violence-prone) individuals.

It is unknown specifically which hormone(s) and threshold levels are most likely to decrease cognitive flexibility, but it is still a logical possibility to consider that imbalances may have detrimental effects.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23677518

Low serotonin: Some research has suggested that 5-HT (serotonin) plays a role in cognitive flexibility.  In animal studies, 5-HT abnormalities tends to cause rigidity of thinking and behavior.  Due to the fact that serotonin (5-HT) influences cognitive flexibility, researchers designed a study in which they would manipulate serotonin levels and determine changes in cognitive flexibility.

For the study, they used a method called “ATD” (acute tryptophan depletion) in which tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin) is depleted.  This method is completely reversible, but temporarily lowers both plasma tryptophan concentrations and serotonin in the brain.  In addition to the ATD method, they used an fMRI and determined Blood Oxygen Level Dependent (BOLD) response during cognitive flexibility tasks.

The acute tryptophan depletion (ATD) alters processing of negative feedback and reduces cognitive flexibility.  While the results from this research aren’t considered definitive, there is reason to believe that abnormal serotonergic neurotransmission may impair cognitive flexibility.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18220735

MDMA: In rodent studies, it appears as though consistent administration of MDMA (ecstasy) triggers dopaminergic neurotoxicity.  It had been suspected that MDMA-induced neurotoxicity would alter cognitive function and/or cognitive flexibility.  In 2013, a study was published that determined the effects of neurotoxic and non-neurotoxic MDMA doses in mice.

One of the measures for this study was an attentional “set shifting” task, which allowed researchers to note cognitive flexibility.  Results from the study indicate that the MDMA-induced neurotoxicity resulted in significantly decreased cognitive flexibility, and the decrease was noticeable 5 days after administration.  It is apparent that MDMA administration (at high doses) could have similar effects in humans.

It was speculated that the high MDMA decreased dopamine transporter (DAT) functionality.  It took approximately 7 days for cognitive flexibility to recover after high-dose administration.  Consistent high dose administration over a long-term may permanently impair cognitive flexibility and/or result in a protracted MDMA withdrawal, during which it takes significantly longer to reestablish a homeostatic cognitive flexibility.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22260267

Why you should increase cognitive flexibility…

There are many reasons a person may wish to increase their cognitive flexibility.  Greater levels of cognitive flexibility will increase efficiency of brain functioning, help you solve complex problems, and understand new perspectives.  Those with poor cognitive flexibility often have brain damage, substance abuse problems, or neurological conditions.

  • Abstract thinking: Cognitive flexibility is associated with superior ability to think abstractly. In other words, a person can process information by considering other elements other than what is solely observable in the “here and now.”  Abstract thinking allows a person to connect commonalities between previously known concepts and process multifaceted aspects of observation rather than fall victim to centration (the ability to focus solely on one element of a situation).
  • Analytical skills: Whether you’re analyzing a complex scenario, problem, or object – cognitive flexibility improves analytical skills. Individuals with poor cognitive flexibility such as extremely young children are only able to process one aspect of an object (e.g. its color).  Individuals with cognitive flexibility are able to simultaneously perceive the object’s color, shape, size, location, texture, fragility, density, etc.
  • Behavior change: People who are “set in their ways” often have poor cognitive flexibility – they are unable to change their behavior because their way of thinking is nearly set in stone. By increasing cognitive flexibility, it becomes easier to embrace behavioral change and adapt to novel or unexpected situations.  Someone who is cognitively flexible would have an easy time adjusting their behavior to fit in with social customs in a foreign country, whereas someone who is inflexible may have a difficult time with the adaptation.
  • Comprehension: To understand what you read, hear, or see – cognitive flexibility helps. Studies demonstrate that individuals with greater cognitive flexibility have significantly higher reading comprehension than those who don’t.  The ability to comprehend is not necessarily limited to reading either – it may help someone understand the complexity of something they hear on the radio, a movie, or TV show.
  • Coping strategies: Coping strategies are simply ways in which a person copes with certain stimuli. People use coping strategies for a variety of situations, including: stress, grief, depression, and social isolation.  Individuals with cognitive flexibility are open to new ideas and are able to draw upon more information in regards to coping modalities.  Someone with rigid thinking may only know one way to cope (e.g. drinking alcohol) and may refuse to try something new (e.g. mindfulness).
  • Eradicate “black and white” thinking: This is a concept in psychology referred to as “splitting” in which a person perceives an event as “all” or “nothing.” Black and white thinking is generally in terms of polar extremes such as “good” or “bad.”  People who have poor cognitive flexibility are unable to understand that there may be a gray area – or spectrum between a good outcome and a bad outcome, or whether someone loves them or hates them.  Increasing cognitive flexibility helps a person realize that the black and white paradigm is flawed and often inaccurate.
  • Expanded awareness: Increasing cognitive flexibility allows a person to experience an expanded sense of awareness. They are able to switch their thinking between different concepts and understand preferences of multiple people.  As an example, someone with a low level of awareness may think that their particular religion is the only correct way to live.  Someone with cognitive flexibility may understand ideas of many different religious groups – integrating the concepts that best suit their individuality and situation.
  • Fluency: One study has demonstrated the fact that increased cognitive flexibility is associated with increases in reading fluency. Fluency refers to reading quickly, accurately, and with proper expression.  Someone with poor fluency may read slowly and/or inaccurately with improper expression.  High cognitive flexibility may not be solely associated with reading fluency, it may be linked to increased fluency in other domains (e.g. mathematics).
  • Intelligence increase: There is scientific evidence that people with higher levels of fluid intelligence have greater cognitive flexibility. This was determined by scores on a Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices test in which the speed of updating and binding stimuli was related to a person’s fluid intelligence.  If you increase your cognitive flexibility, chances are good that you’ll simultaneously increase your IQ.
  • Learning: It isn’t a stretch to think that individuals with high cognitive flexibility have an easier time learning than those who don’t. Cognitive flexibility is associated with increased operating efficiency (of the brain), higher intelligence, and improvements in binding information.  It makes logical sense to assume that greater cognitive flexibility is associated with heightened learning speed, retention, and capacity.
  • Memory: There appears to be associations between cognitive flexibility and various types of memory including working memory and long-term memory associated with perceptual binding. Individuals with increased cognitive flexibility are able to bind together more sensory information during memory formation.  In addition, it is thought that increases in working memory may be directly related to degree of cognitive flexibility.
  • Neural efficiency: Those with greater cognitive flexibility have more efficient brains. In other words, their brains are able to process information quicker and alter activation more rapidly as an adaptation to novel stimuli.  Research suggests that individuals with high cognitive flexibility are able to bind together perceptual, episodic, and semantic information quicker and more efficiently than others.
  • Observation skills: Cognitive flexibility is directly associated with observation skills. The more information you can process simultaneously (e.g. color, smell, size, shape, etc.) – the more cognitively flexible you are.  Individuals with cognitive rigidity, neurological impairments, and/or very young children – often have poorer observation skills.  If you increase your cognitive flexibility, your observation skills will become enhanced.
  • Open-mindedness: People that are “set in their ways” of both thinking and behavior are often said to be “rigid.” This rigidity of thinking leads to a lack of open-mindedness.  Lacking open-mindedness leads a person to become increasingly neurotic, isolated, and may contribute to inaccurate perceptions.  By increasing your cognitive flexibility, you’ll be able to maintain an open-mind to new ideas, thoughts, and perceptions.
  • Perception of reality: Individuals with greater cognitive flexibility have more sensory-rich perceptions of reality. They are able to process many stimuli simultaneously rather than solely processing one stimuli at a time (i.e. centration).  Individuals with significant cognitive flexibility are capable of binding a lot of sensory information in “event files” and also updating old beliefs with superior information.  This results in increased perceptual accuracy and richness.
  • Performance enhancement: Those that want to perform better, especially at elite or professional levels may want to consider increasing cognitive flexibility. In one study involving 30 professional soccer players and 40 professional baseball players, researchers tested their cognitive flexibility using the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST) and Trail Making Test A & B (TMT A&B).  The results showed that cognitive flexibility was associated with superior performance, likely due to modulation of stress.
  • Problem solving: Solving problems often requires complex thinking and the ability to view a problem from multiple perspectives and deconstruct larger problems into smaller segments. Those with rigidity of thought may have a difficult time with problem solving, especially if solving the problem requires shifting their homeostatic perspective.  People with a high level of cognitive flexibility are able to quickly shift their way of thinking to solve complex problems.
  • Reading skills: Individuals with higher cognitive flexibility are better readers than those with cognitive rigidity. It seems as though cognitive flexibility promotes increases in both comprehension (the ability to understand what you read) as well as fluency (the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression).  Among second graders, reading skills were significantly superior among children (second graders) with heightened cognitive flexibility.
  • Strengthen prefrontal cortex: Many regions of the brain are involved in cognitive flexibility, but one of the most involved regions is the prefrontal cortex. More specifically, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) has been suggested to play a specific role in the process.  Individuals that increase their cognitive flexibility may be strengthening the prefrontal cortex, allowing for improvements in working memory, planning, and reasoning.
  • Stress reduction: Research has discovered that cognitive flexibility is associated with lower levels of stress, especially in competitive events. This is perhaps due to the fact that those with greater cognitive flexibility often have better coping strategies, increased neural efficiency, and healthier brain functioning.  Ironically enough, many activities that lower stress (e.g. meditation) also increase cognitive flexibility.
  • Thought deconstruction: Deconstructing complex thoughts and perspectives isn’t easy for someone who is cognitively inflexible. An individual with rigid thinking may struggle to understand their own thinking and why they think the way they do.  They may also struggle to understand the complexity of thinking displayed by others.  Cognitive flexibility helps a person understand how larger complex concepts can be deconstructed into multiple elements or parts.

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24966842
Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17484433
Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21994509

Conditions associated with poor cognitive flexibility

Certain individuals lack cognitive flexibility, and are said to have “rigidity of thought” which usually translates to rigidity of behavior.  Various disorders such as ADHD, OCD, and substance dependence are often accompanied by rigid thinking and individuals with these disorders seriously lack cognitive flexibility.  While it is unknown as to whether the disorder lead to poor cognitive flexibility or vice-versa, there is evidence that cognitive flexibility can be increased.

  • Addiction: Individuals suffering from any kind of addiction tend to have reduced cognitive flexibility. Regardless of whether you are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, etc. – the addiction itself will likely reduce flexibility of cognition.  To maximize your cognitive flexibility, you may want to read the article, “How to Overcome Any Addiction.”
  • ADHD: Those with attentional deficits are thought to be at increased risk of cognitive rigidity. Certainly not everyone with ADHD nor all types of ADHD exhibit poor cognitive flexibility, but it’s more likely.  This may be due to hypoactivation of the prefrontal cortex coupled with altered concentrations of dopamine and/or norepinephrine.  Seeking proper treatment and/or management for ADHD may improve cognitive flexibility.
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: Those diagnosed with ALS often have significant reductions in cognitive flexibility. The reductions are often the result of brain atrophy, specifically gray matter degradation in the inferior frontal and insular regions.  In addition, decreases of white matter in the corpus callosum and inferior fronto-occipital region may also play a role.
  • Anorexia: Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are associated with rigidity of thought. It is unknown whether the lack of cognitive flexibility contributed to the disorder, or whether the condition resulted in cognitive inflexibility.  That said, engaging in corrective therapies and working to overcome anorexia could reverse rigidity of thought.
  • Anxiety disorders: Individuals with anxiety disorders often struggle to maintain a sense of relaxation. High levels of anxiety are synonymous with stress, hormone changes, and neurotransmitter alterations.  For example, anxiety could be associated with low serotonin, high cortisol, and high norepinephrine – all of which are thought to reduce cognitive flexibility.  It seems as though seeking proper treatment to manage anxiety can prevent stress-induced rigidity.
  • Autism spectrum disorder: People diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often exhibit rigid thinking and behavior. In other words, they have a difficult time performing “task switching” tests and coping with the introduction of novel stimuli.  While not everyone with ASD has cognitive inflexibility, most are considered rigid thinkers.
  • Dementia: Those diagnosed with dementia tend to have decreases in cognitive flexibility. In part, this may be due to certain genetics influencing dementia, but also a result of neurotransmitter and receptor alterations, particularly dopamine.  Treatment with drugs like memantine are shown to increase cognitive flexibility to an extent.
  • Depression: It is thought that individuals with depression exhibit abnormalities of neurotransmission, electrical activity, regional activation – often a byproduct of certain genetic polymorphisms. In addition, it appears as though synaptic strength and stability may be altered in depressed brains, thus leading to less cognitive flexibility.  It should be hypothesized that certain treatments for those with major depression may increase cognitive flexibility.
  • OCD: Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition associated with decreases in cognitive flexibility. Some researchers suspect that various endophenotypes are responsible for the inflexibility of cognition.  Abnormal signaling of transporters, densities of receptors, and/or levels of neurotransmitters may also dictate severity of cognitive inflexibility.
  • PTSD: Individuals diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) often have reduced cognitive flexibility. Reductions in cognitive flexibility are most likely associated with altered neurotransmission, hormones, and neurochemical activity stemming from the trauma.  That said, it appears that among those with PTSD, increased cognitive flexibility leads to greater optimistic expectations for the future.  Therefore, training individuals to increase cognitive flexibility may help them overcome PTSD.
  • Schizophrenia: Those with schizophrenia tend to have reduced cognitive flexibility. There are many potential contributing factors including: brain volume loss, lack of treatment, dopaminergic dysfunction, altered neuroelectrical activity, and various genetic biomarkers (schizophrenia is 8 different diseases).  It appears as though treatment with certain antipsychotics helps increase cognitive flexibility over the short-term.
  • Substance dependence: If you are dependent on alcohol or any specific drug, regardless of whether it’s illicit or legal – you may want to seek help. When a person becomes dependent on a drug, they rely on it for mental performance and to avoid physical symptoms associated with discontinuation.  Dependence on certain substances may lead to poor brain functioning and reduce cognitive flexibility.
  • Traumatic brain injury: Those with traumatic brain injuries, regardless of the cause, tend to have less cognitive flexibility. This could be a result of regional impairments, connectivity errors, abnormal brain waves, and/or even altered neurotransmission.  For this reason, partaking in a neurological rehabilitation program is strongly recommended.

Do you think further cognitive flexibility research is warranted?

While cognitive flexibility is associated with improvements in brain performance, functionality, and increased intelligence – there remain a plethora of (perhaps more important) other neuroscientific realms that warrant further research.  Feel free to share a comment discussing the importance of cognitive flexibility research.  Do you think it’s important to specifically study the mechanisms of cognitive flexibility?

If you were to estimate your own level of cognitive flexibility, how would you rate yourself?  Do you think that you possess a high degree of cognitive flexibility or are you a rigid thinker?  Have you taken any assessments like the Stroop Test to confirm your estimates?

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