4 Tips for Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is “the ability to shift attention from a previously learned representation to select context-specific, behaviorally relevant stimuli” (Vatansever, et. al., 2016).


In other words, it is the ability for a person to re-evaluate a previously held belief or understanding, and modify it after gathering more information. It can be understood in contrast to cognitive rigidity, which is when a person will not revise or modify their belief or understanding regardless of additional information or evidence which is available to them.

Cognitive flexibility…

  • is “key to creativity”

  • is “associated with higher resilience”

  • can improve our quality of life

  • improves empathy (Sahakian et. al., 2021)

It helps us make better decisions & improve our understanding of what’s around us.

Everyone can benefit from learning to be more cognitively flexible. However, cognitive rigidity can be especially challenging for gifted and 2e students. Gifted individuals can often jump quickly through several mental steps and arrive at a conclusion before others (Rimm et al., 2018). Impulsivity is a common trait for an individual diagnosed with ADHD (Armstrong, 2010). Cognitive rigidity has been associated with autism, dysgraphia (Zakreski, 2022), and anecdotally can be a common co-occurrence with dyslexia.


One way to approach cognitive flexibility is with a growth mindset. We often have an initial reaction to a situation (our ‘first thought’), but when we take time to pause, we are able to see the situation in a different light (our ‘second thought’). In order to improve their cognitive flexibility, students need practice with how to get to their second thought before taking an action.


Below are four tips to practice getting from your first thought to your second thought. Try these out for yourself, or make it into a game with your kids. Ask them the questions for each image and see what they say. Have a discussion about your first thought vs. your second.


Tip #1: Get the full picture

Sometimes we make assumptions before we have a chance to zoom out. For example:


What are we looking at here? You might look at this picture and assume we’re looking at the legs of a woman about to go out to a dinner party, or at a fancy event. But when we zoom out for the full picture, we see:


(image source: https://www.newyorker.com)


The full picture tells a very different story. This is a highly successful professional woman photographed in her work environment.


Here’s another - what are we looking at here? Perhaps a framed photograph?


But zooming out we get a different perspective:


(image source: https://betterfundraising.com)


Tip #2: Pay attention to detail

It pays to look closely. Is this a cave painting? Or a photograph? Are we looking at gray horses… or something a bit more striped?


(image source: flicker.com user reiternick)


And how many monkeys do you see in this photo? (The answer is zero! These are orchids.)


(image source: NatureVibes)


Tip #3: Take another look

Things are not always what they seem at first glance:


Are these legs? Or food?


(image source: https://www.reddit.com user tender_minx)


How many bagels? How many dogs?


(image source: https://www.boredpanda.com)


Tip #4: Shift your perspective

Sometimes you will see something entirely differently if you just change the way you’re looking at it. Consider this number:



Six, or nine? It depends on your perspective.


(image source: https://www.briansolis.com)


What animal do you see here?


What if we rotate it just a bit - now what animal do you see?


(image source: https://www.illusionsindex.org)


It’s always a good idea to get the full picture, pay attention to detail, take another look, and shift your perspective. Practice getting to your second thought before taking action. I hope these lighthearted examples help get you and your family talking and thinking about the importance of cognitive flexibility!




 

References

Armstrong, T. (2010). The power of neurodiversity. Unleashing the advantages of your differently wired brain. De Capo Press.


Rimm, S. B., Siegle, D., & Davis, G. A. (2018). Education of the gifted and talented (7th ed). Pearson.


Sahakian, B. J., Langley, C., & Leong, V. (2021). What is cognitive flexibility and how does it help us think? World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/06/cognitive-flexibility-thinking-iq-intelligence/


Vatansever, D., Manktelow, A. E., Sahakian, B. J., Menon, D. K., & Stamatakis, E. A. (2016). Cognitive flexibility: A default network and basal ganglia connectivity perspective. Brain Connectivity, 6(3), 201–207. https://doi.org/10.1089/brain.2015.0388


Zakreski, M. (2022). Cognitive Flexibility and Emotional Intensity: Communication and Intervention [Google slides]. Bridges Graduate School.


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