Cognitive Flexibility: An important cognitive skill
Do you have cognitive flexibility? Are you flexible?
No, I do not mean flexible in the typical sense of the word which means limberness of the body. I am referring to cognitive flexibility—the ability to think about multiple topics simultaneously and to switch from one concept to the next. Cognitive flexibility is a critical executive function used daily.
What is Cognitive Flexibility?
Along with attention, working memory, planning, organization, and impulse control, cognitive flexibility is a type of executive function. Executive functions are the cognitive processes necessary to control behavior and meet attainable goals. These processes make complex thinking possible and facilitate abstract reasoning.
When a person has cognitive flexibility, they can alter their thinking to meet the demands of environmental stimuli. Cognitive flexibility is flexible thinking. Essentially, it is the ability to think flexibly to transition from one train of thought to the next, as well as to perform or think about more than a single concept simultaneously. It is how we “go with the flow” when life does not quite turn out as we expected.
Cognitive Flexibility: Task Switching VS. Cognitive Shifting
Cognitive flexibility is comprised of two main functions—task switching (also known as set-shifting) and cognitive shifting. While the two subcategories of cognitive flexibility sound similar, there are key differences. Task switching is the unconscious ability to switch action and attention from one task to another. The process was founded in 1927 by educational psychologist Jersild after finding that test subjects performed slower when alternating between two tasks. Cognitive shifting, however, is an unconscious shift in attention. It is prevalent amongst cognitive therapists because it shows a willingness to dominate cognition. Both task switching and cognitive shifting are crucial to adapting to environmental situations.
Why Cognitive Flexibility Is Important
Possessing it is immensely important because it helps us readily adapt to obstacles in the environment. You have certainly faced “roadblocks” in your life. Getting a poor grade on a math test, settling an argument with a friend, or realizing your car will not start on your way to work—those are each instance in which you use it. Upon learning new information, making a mistake, or when the unexpected interferes with your plans, it allows you to think of a solution despite the setbacks you encounter.
Brain Areas for Cognitive Flexibility
Neurons, specialized nerve cells in the brain, communicate signals through specialized pathways. Neural pathways aid in a variety of functions, including cognitive flexibility. fMRI studies reveal increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus during task-switching procedures (Kim et al., 2011). The prefrontal cortex is an area in the brain’s frontal lobe that is involved in decision making, personality, and complex cognitive behavior. The thalamus is responsible for housing all of the sensory pathways except for olfaction. Together, the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus control it.
Cognitive Flexibility and Age
The brain matures throughout development. As the number of neurons increases, so do the connections needed for it. Although all ages have activity in similar areas of the brain, the developmental stages explain contrasting abilities in cognitive flexibility.
The capacity for cognitive flexibility begins in infancy and is seen when babies shift their attention from one person or object to another. While infants display the basic foundation, it rapidly matures between ages 3 and 6 due to changes in the prefrontal cortex.
Cognitive performance improves with age. For example, children aged 4 switch between two tasks more easily than those who are 3 years old. Children are constantly finding new ways of thinking and learning. As they transition into school, they are likely to succeed if they display cognitive flexibility. The children with optimal cognitive flexibility learn from their academic mistakes. Additionally, they learn to interact with their peers and authority figures respectfully even when the interaction does not go as planned (i.e. arguments, etc.). According to scholars in the Frontiers in Psychology, by age 11, adolescents have reached adult level switching abilities, whereas task maintenance continues to develop throughout early adulthood.
Measuring Cognitive Flexibility
It relies heavily on mental speed. The current tools to measure it are limited. However, available tools focus on assessing how quickly an individual completes a succession of tasks.
A-not-B task is based on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. It is used to test cognitive flexibility in infancy and young children. During the test, an experimenter presents an object and two locations. With the child watching, the experimenter places an object under Location A, and for several trials, the child is prompted to search for the object. In a separate trial, the same object is hidden under Location B. Children older than one year typically search for the object under Location B on subsequent trials, which is indicative of satisfactory cognitive flexibility.
Observing a set of cards, participants of the Stroop Test view a colored card that has the name of that color written in an ink of a contradictory color. For example, a blue card would be written in green. Participants are expected to name the color while ignoring the contradictory color name. The test is scored by the amount of time until the participant arrives at the correct answer.
Wisconsin Card Sorting Test
The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test is an all-inclusive neuropsychological test for children and adults. Participants are given cards in a range of colors, shapes, and numbers. They are prompted to sort their cards according to their preference. The participant is then given a second set of cards and directed to match those cards to the previous cards, altering their approach. The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test tests cognitive flexibility because it measures abstract reasoning, as well as the ability to change problem-solving strategies.
Multiple Classification Card Sorting Task
The Multiple Classification Card Sorting Task entails sorting cards based on two-dimensions into four piles within a matrix. For example, four (a green dog, a red rabbit, a green ball, and a red bicycle) are sorted with the animals being in one vertical column and the toys in the other and alike colors share a row. Children younger than 7 years are unable to sort cards based on two dimensions simultaneously.
Dimension Change Card Sorting Task
The Dimensional Change Card Sorting Task (DCCS) is an activity that tests the cognitive flexibility of children by sorting cards of various dimensions. The first task is to sort cards by one dimension such as color. It is tested through the capacity for strategic alteration, as the next task calls for sorting the cards using a second dimension. Accurately switching dimensions reflects it.
Conditions That Reduce Cognitive Flexibility
With testing to measure the cognitive flexibility of diverse groups of people, it is no surprise that this ability varies. Having a deficit in it is possible. Some conditions impair this ability and make complex thinking difficult.
Malnutrition is an inadequate intake or absorption of nutrients. Over time, the inadequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals from malnutrition has negative consequences on cognition. Children are most susceptible to the stunting of cognitive flexibility because the prefrontal cortex does not have the opportunity to grow during its prime developmental stage.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic anxiety disorder causing repetitive, often irrational behaviors (compulsions) aimed to reduce the stress of unwanted thoughts, feelings, or impulses (obsessions). People with OCD find it challenging to shift their attention to incoming stimuli while already completing a task, suggesting issues with their cognitive flexibility. Past studies including OCD patients found a “relation between higher obsessive beliefs and neurocognitive inflexibility” (Sahin, 2018).
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder affecting how a person interprets reality. They experience hallucinations (seeing/hearing/feeling things that are not there) and delusions (false beliefs). The influence on thoughts, emotions, and behavior has a profound impact on cognitive function. The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test reveals that schizophrenic patients with excessive paranoia have poorer outcomes in task shifting and overall cognitive abilities than non-paranoid patients (Waltz, 2017).
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a disorder characterized by inattention, impulsive behavior, and hyperactivity. Symptoms of ADHD begin in childhood and can persist throughout adolescence and adulthood. Current studies on ADHD’s effect on cognitive flexibility do suggest a task-switching deficit. However, further studies have been inconsistent. The inconsistencies in results are thought to be from the wide range of ages of ADHD patients.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism spectrum disorders are a set of neurodevelopmental disorders distinguished by impaired social skills, nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Deficits in executive functions like cognitive flexibility stem from the fact that those with autism struggle with rigid thinking. Their challenges in shifting from perspectives and plans impede their ability to adjust to environmental demands.
How To Improve Cognitive Flexibility
Improving cognitive flexibility is centered on optimizing the pathways that connect neurons by generating new synaptic connections, increasing myelination (the outer coating of nerve cells to send electrical messages), and increasing white and gray matter volume. The following activities improve cognitive flexibility:
Brain games are any fun, stimulating activities that improve one’s executive functions. While crosswords and puzzles are brain games, electronic games in an online format are becoming prevalent in today’s modern society. The majority of these games train memory and attention, which are integral components of cognitive flexibility. They assist cognitive flexibility because they require switching tasks and considering updated strategies to exceed in the game. In studies at the University of Amsterdam, groups with task switching training incorporated into their brain games scored higher on performance for cognitive flexibility tasks. CogniFit offers a variety of science-based brain games.
Divergent thinking is a creative thinking method. The goal of divergent thinking is to explore many creative solutions to a problem in a spontaneous, free-flowing manner. Divergent thinking and cognitive flexibility share the central goal of problem-solving. Keeping a journal, freewriting, brainstorming, and subject mapping are divergent thinking techniques.
Physical exercise triggers the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins that modify the structure of the brain. A protein known as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is enhanced by physical activity. BDNF is an element of protein synthesis for constructing neurons.
Studies conducted at the University of Illinois investigated physical activity’s effect on cognitive flexibility, proving that older adults who engage in moderate activity have higher brain function than those with a sedentary lifestyle. Existing neurons became more effective in allowing communication cell to cell because of the heightened blood flow to the brain. Exercise to improve cognitive flexibility does not have to be rigorous. Moderate aerobic exercise is sufficient to reap the benefits.
Maintain an Active Social Life
Believe it or not, socialization also has benefits on cognitive flexibility. The University of Michigan confirmed that friendly conversation boosts problem-solving abilities. Even brief conversation less than 10 minutes has short-term effects on cognitive flexibility, yet competitive interactions in which the individual does not attempt to understand the other person’s view are actually a hindrance. Going into a conversation with an accepting mindset definitely influences your mental state.
Foods High in Tryptophan
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a role in cognitive flexibility. Reduced levels are detrimental to cognition. Tryptophan is an amino acid needed for the body to produce serotonin. Consuming tryptophan-rich foods improves cognitive flexibility indirectly by increasing serotonin levels. Tryptophan rich foods consist of:
- Fruits: Banana, avocado, peaches
- Vegetables: Spinach, broccoli, onions, asparagus
- Poultry: turkey, chicken
- Nuts and seeds: Flax, sunflower, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, almonds
- Seafood: Shrimp, tuna, sardines, salmon
- Dairy: milk, low-fat yogurt, cheese
- Legumes: Chickpeas, lima beans, black beans
- Grains: Wheat, rice, corn, oats, barely
The brain builds new synaptic connections and rewires existing synapses through new environmental stimuli. That includes the process of learning. Traveling, learning a foreign language, attending lectures on a class you find interesting are all ways to improve cognitive flexibility.
Cognitive flexibility is affected by the sleep-wake cycle. REM sleep is the stage in the sleep cycle characterized by rapid eye movement, vivid dreaming, and faster respiration. REM sleep stimulates areas of the brain vital to learning. Sleep deprivation, specifically a lack of REM sleep, leads to cognitive deficits in task switching. A Harvard study compared problem solving-across REM and non-REM participants. REM awakenings associated with abstract reasoning and strengthening weak synapses “provided a significant 32% advantage” in solving the tasks.
Buitenweg, J., van de Ven, R. M., Prinssen, S., Murre, J., & Ridderinkhof, K. R. (2017). Cognitive Flexibility Training: A Large-Scale Multimodal Adaptive Active-Control Intervention Study in Healthy Older Adults. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 11, 529. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00529
Burzynska, A. Z., Wong, C. N., Voss, M. W., Cooke, G. E., Gothe, N. P., Fanning, J., … Kramer, A. F. (2015). Physical Activity Is Linked to Greater Moment-To-Moment Variability in Spontaneous Brain Activity in Older Adults. PloS one, 10(8), e0134819. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134819
Buttelmann, F., & Karbach, J. (2017). Development and Plasticity of Cognitive Flexibility in Early and Middle Childhood. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1040. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01040
Kim, C., Johnson, N. F., Cilles, S. E., & Gold, B. T. (2011). Common and distinct mechanisms of cognitive flexibility in prefrontal cortex. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(13), 4771–4779. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5923-10.2011
Şahin, H., Köşger, F., EşSizoğlu, A., & Aksaray, G. (2018). The Relationship Between Obsessive Belief Level and Cognitive Flexibility in Patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Noro psikiyatri arsivi, 55(4), 376–379. doi:10.5152/npa.2017.21648
University of Michigan. (2010, October 28). Friends with cognitive benefits: Mental function improves after certain kinds of socializing. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 24, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101028113817.htm
Waltz J. A. (2017). The neural underpinnings of cognitive flexibility and their disruption in psychotic illness. Neuroscience, 345, 203–217. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2016.06.005
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.