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What Is Cognitive Flexibility, and Why Is It Important?

Author: | 18.01.2023

When someone is deemed smart, the popular connotation is that the person must have a high IQ, or intelligence quotient. It’s understandable, as many innovators and geniuses have been documented to have high IQs. However, intelligence cannot be confined to just the level of IQ. Several facets of intelligence encompass much more than just the academic side. 


The psychologist Robert J. Steinberg developed the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence in 1985. This theory asserts three distinct types of intelligence: analytical, creative, and practical. The ability to adapt to one’s surroundings is what is meant by the term “practical,” while the ability to generate new ideas is what is meant by “creative,”  and academic prowess is what is meant by “analytical.”


There are some problems with this theory, mostly because it isn’t backed up by evidence. But the idea remains that intelligence is much more complex, as evidenced by other theories and studies on this subject.


The brain’s ability to change how it thinks is a big part of how smart it gets. It allows you to welcome change and adjust to the environment that comes with it.


The same way that physical flexibility lets you move your body in different ways, mental flexibility keeps your thinking fresh and lets you build on what you already know. If you want to learn more about the subject and get a more in-depth answer as to why cognitive flexibility is essential, you’ve come to the right place! But before that, let’s look at what cognitive flexibility is.

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

We find our way through life through a series of trials and errors. As our brains develop since we were babies, we become capable of more advanced problem-solving.


As a child, you might have had to learn how to eat hot soup from a bowl without a spoon. This is a simple example of a trial. Will you give up and throw a tantrum? Will you just wait for a spoon to appear suddenly? With mental flexibility at work, no, you try to find a way.


Your first thought is to try drinking it with your hands, but you remember how liquids run through your fingers when you use the faucet. The next thought is to drink from the bowl like you would with a cup, which is a much more plausible idea. 


The bowl has no handle, so you cup your hands around it instead. However, because the soup has caused the bowl to become hot, you adjust your grip to a more comfortable position. Next, you tip the bowl and drink a mouthful at once, which scalds your tongue. Then you move slowly and only take a few sips at a time, which is a much better way to do it.


What cognitive flexibility skills are at play?


The first is the logical argument that, based on past experiences with similar situations, drinking soup with your hands is, well, inefficient on so many levels. The second is responding to stimuli, like the hot sensation, and adjusting the actions in response to them. Then there is task switching, focusing first on learning how to hold the bowl properly before drinking the soup. 


With every problem you solve, you gain experience. Whether it’s the mistakes or the victories, you learn something new from them. Thus, cognitive flexibility allows you to adjust to new experiences and your environment. 


As flexibility grows, you get better at doing new and more challenging tasks. Organizing these tasks becomes second nature, and your multitasking skills are refined.


The underutilization of flexible cognition, or the lack thereof, is analogous to living in a world that is only black and white, with no shades of gray. Everything belongs in its neat little box. You take the same actions every time, even when there are better alternatives. Anything that deviates will be subject to some kind of adverse reaction. 


The old saying goes, “You make lemonade when life gives you lemons.” The world and life itself are unpredictable. Intellectual flexibility says you can make a lemon tart or a key lime pie, then pluck the seeds and plant them to grow more lemons.


Cognitive flexibility is not limited to extraordinary people and feats. We use it in our everyday lives, even for something as simple as putting on our clothes.

Cognitive Flexibility Examples

Getting Dressed

You might not think much about getting dressed, but a lot goes into it when you break it down. 


When deciding what to wear, you consider many factors: the weather, the location, the occasion, comfort, and others. If it’s freezing outside, the last thing you want to wear is a pair of skimpy short pants and a tank top, right? On the other hand, if you’re going to work, you’ll have to wear corporate attire. 


Then next comes the step-by-step process of putting on your chosen outfit. You know the sequence of which goes on first and which to put on last, how to wear each part, and how everything fits and complements each other. There are even more processes at work when you factor in putting on makeup and talking on the phone.


Debates are like intense and constructed conversations. Whether it’s a spontaneous or planned event, debating skills test your ability to improvise, be ready, understand, and reason.


There might be a preparation period before the debate to allow you time to gather ideas and strategize how to present your case. But the most challenging part is coming up with rebuttals and answering the other side’s rebuttals. 


Can you think on the fly while focusing on the other party’s arguments? Can you come up with a logical and coherent rebuttal to their argument? How will you wrap up all the points you made in the most compelling way for the judges and the audience?

Playing an Instrument

As you become more familiar with the instrument, you won’t just learn how to play it but also how to change your technique to fit the instrument. You can get into a comfortable position that helps you do a better job. Along the way, you might find that your instrument has some unexpected characteristics in its structure, which will require you to make adjustments.


When playing the instrument, you have to play it right, pay attention to the quality of your tone, read the notes, and sometimes even tap your foot to count the beats. The creativity comes in with how you play a piece, your improvised tunes, or even unconventional methods to play your instrument.

Solving a Jigsaw Puzzle

Like any other type of puzzle, solving jigsaw puzzles requires you to zero in on each piece and have an effective strategy. You might first sort the pieces by color to know which part they belong to. Others will find all the edges of the puzzle and connect those first. 


There’s also a lot of trial and error involved. A piece might look like it would fit until you try slotting it in. When that happens, you don’t force that piece to fit; instead, you try again with another piece or move on to another part of the puzzle first.

Public Speaking

Public speaking is a cause of anxiety for many people, even those proficient at it. The way you deliver your piece should suit its content, the occasion, and the audience.


The audience is an unpredictable factor that is usually the major cause for adjustment. These are some of the questions you might ask yourself before going onstage: 


First, you must perceive the general atmosphere—are they bored, excited, or irritated? 


What do you want to accomplish—deliver a message, entertain, or elicit a reaction?


Does your content fit the major demographic in the audience? 


Is there room for improvised music that fits the situation and the people listening? 


Will you stay in one place, or will you move around?


Not every recipe is followed to the dot. Depending on the number of people eating, their preference, or even their health, you would need to adjust some things here and there. 


When cooking, you must do many different things at once, especially if you’re getting ready to serve a large group of people who want other dishes. There are many things to think about, like the ingredients you need to prepare for each dish, the cooking tools you’ll need, and maybe a quick look at the recipe instructions now and then.

Empathizing with Others

To empathize is to be able to look at and understand other people’s perspectives. While this skill is more mental than physical, it drives people into action for the sake of others.


Understanding these different situations makes you more open-minded and able to re-evaluate preconceived notions quickly. These perspectives are also the key to making things more inclusive and accessible for other people. For instance, adding tactile indicators to sidewalks as a guide for visually impaired people and creating better learning strategies to aid slow learners. 

4 Ways How to Develop Cognitive Flexibility

Intelligence is not fixed. No matter the age, status in life, past performance in school, or other factors, there is still room for improvement. Just as people learn differently, there is no standard method for training cognitive flexibility. So, here are some simple steps to becoming more mentally flexible:

1. Try learning new skills or hobbies.

It’s good to have hobbies that keep you occupied when you have nothing much to do. It’s relaxing when everything becomes second nature and every product you make improves in quality. 


But it’s also good to try new things every once in a while. When we diversify our skills, we learn to do more things, increasing mental flexibility. 


Lots of skills overlap, especially when it comes to certain situations. If you have a lot of different skills, you can come up with creative and useful solutions to your problems.


For example, if you know how to sew, you can learn how to mend your clothes. Then eventually, you learn to modify your clothing as you get better at your skills and get more interested in trying what else you can do.

2. Challenge yourself with brain games.

Games add fun to the learning process. Just because you graduated from the “playing phase” does not mean you should stop learning.


Brain games are a fun way to fire up your neurons and are akin to cognitive flexibility exercises for the mind. Besides the classics like chess, sudoku, and crossword puzzles, there is a lot more to be found on the internet, enough to keep you occupied and entertained for an extended period of time.


Teaching kids their essential life lessons and helping them become more aware of their surroundings can benefit them significantly. Playing games that require you to think through different scenarios is a great way to hone your deductive reasoning and creative abilities. You could try your hand at some mystery games like whodunits that put you in the role of a detective, or you could try your hand at some situational problems that require you to reason your way out of them.

3. Deviate from your usual routines.

Routines are helpful for efficiency and developing multitasking skills. It makes tasks feel easier to accomplish and is also a source of comfort for some people. However, it would also be beneficial to deviate from it occasionally. You might see and experience new things, making your day more exciting than usual. 


For instance, when going home from work, you immediately walk towards the waiting shed and hail a cab. Why not go for a walk and take in the sights? Did you see something for the first time despite riding past the area every day for a long time? This seemingly insignificant change in your routine is critical if you want to broaden your experiences and avoid becoming confined by your typical routine.


However, you shouldn’t draw the wrong conclusion from this. This in no way implies that you should give up or shake up the routines that you have established for yourself. The whole goal of this exercise is to break out of your normal patterns so that you can learn new things and get better at what you do.


Expose yourself to something new, no matter how small it is. Be it driving a different route, switching up your morning routine, or even trying another restaurant to dine in.

4. Take a break.

It might be surprising with all the advice to keep your brain active, but taking a break is part of increasing cognitive flexibility. Challenging your mind is good, but tiring yourself out would only do more harm. There should always be time for rest. 


When you don’t allow your mind to relax and process the events that happened, you risk the possibility of impeded memory and fatigue. If you’ve had a good night’s sleep and are awake, your thoughts are clearer and you’re better able to deal with whatever comes up during the rest of the day.

How to Improve Cognitive Flexibility Using the Noa App

Change is essential for development, not just for society but also for individuals. It’s how we go from being babies who can’t remember things to wiser adults.


It can be terrifying for some, particularly those who find comfort in their routines and are content with their current situation. But that is why developing cognitive flexibility is essential. It allows us to swim and stand our ground when facing these waves of change.


Why not seek the assistance of a personal wellbeing coach to help you get a good start on improving your cognitive flexibility? If you’re worried about budget or where you’re going to find a reliable coach in the first place, we recommend Noa Coach.


Noa is an online coach you can bring anywhere and talk to at any time. It is powered by artificial intelligence that takes in everything it learns about you in your sessions and shapes itself into a version that will suit you best. It is based on the best coaching frameworks and the most recent research in emotional and behavioral neuroscience. It has all the coaching tools you need without human bias.


Noa Goals will help on your journey because it is a fun and effective way to set goals. Say your goal is to try another route on your way home from work or to try knitting. Noa can guide you through using the C.L.E.A.R. model, breaking down the goals into more manageable chunks and making it easier to turn them into achievements.


Restructure your thinking with insights or a reset. Noa Insight helps you think of new ways to improve your performance, productivity, and health. Noa Reset, meanwhile, is for dealing with those vulnerable and emotionally charged moments.

Enhance the way you think. Let’s chat.

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