Understanding the Skill of Cognitive Flexibility

Have you ever been defined as close-minded or well, just stubborn? Without undermining the importance of being opinionated and confident about your political convictions - especially in a field such as international relations - it is worth trying to better understand how enhanced cognitive flexibility can facilitate both your personal and professional life.

First things first: what even is cognitive flexibility? Despite the difficulties in measuring its intensity across different people, cognitive flexibility is generally defined as someone’s ability to switch from one concept to the other - the quicker, the better. It refers to one’s capacity to spontaneously restructure one’s own knowledge, and promptly adapt to novel situations and stimuli. It is, essentially, a concept that relies on the idea that individuals are able to somehow manipulate the means and processes through which concepts and knowledge are manifested (see Cognitive Flexibility Theory, Spiro & Jehng 1990 for further information).

Based on a series of studies conducted by the University of Miami, cognitive flexibility is then allegedly made up of four main components: salience (detention/attention), working memory, inhibition and switching. In other words, it encompasses awareness of the surroundings, the transition between different “streams of thoughts” and attention, the changes - or lack of - in beliefs and cognitions, and - last but not least -  the constant deconstruction of thoughts and knowledge.

As knowledge is then very much context dependent, and definitely something that cannot be either oversimplified or easily deconstructed, cognitive flexibility therefore appears to come very handy in a variety of circumstances. Assuming that individuals are prone to actively engage with new contents from different perspectives (to a more or less extent), someone’s ability to develop their own representation of said content will determine their level of openness and flexibility, i.e. their ability to make use of their cognitive flexibility.

Interestingly, despite the required combination of attentional processes and active knowledge representation typical of, for examples, academics and experts, studies show that the automation of a skill can actually be associated to inflexibility. Henceforth, professionals do appear to be not only much greater rigid thinkers than others because of their maturity (cognitive flexibility peaks occur in a adult in its mid-twenties), but also due to their technical expertise and prolonged focus on one specific subject only.

Assuming we all wish to be experts in what we do and yet stay approachable and open-minded, how do we make sure we can maintain high levels of cognitive flexibility?

Here’s a list of tips and tricks to improve your fluidity of thoughts and openness to newness: 

  • Alter your everyday routine: change things a little every now and then, and see what happens. It does not have to be anything major.

  • Challenge your morals: questions your beliefs, discuss them with others. Think before saying no; the world may not be black and white.

  • Forecast scenarios: play boardgames, stimulate your inner statega. Write down options and solutions for your problems.

  • Exercise: Run, Swim, meditate. Distract yourself.

  • Think creatively: think out of the box, try to stop your train of thoughts from time to time.  Do some inner speaking if you wish.

  • Seek out new experiences: meet new people, visit new places, try new dishes. Grab and book and dream away.

Finally, do not forget to rest. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is also something directly correlated with cognitive flexibility’s enhancement. You wouldn’t want to miss out on that, would you?