Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen societal changes on a global scale. There’s been a reconfiguration of the “norm” in nearly every aspect of our lives, and as such, we’ve had to adapt our strategies across the board, from personal relationships to educational techniques to professional dynamics. Some people have had an easier time than others adjusting to this shift, and it could be due to a higher degree of something called cognitive flexibility.
Cognitive flexibility reflects the extent to which we are able to adapt our thought processes and behaviors in a changing environment. People with high cognitive flexibility can adjust ineffective strategies on the fly, recognize and avoid bias, and show resiliency in the face of adversity. People with less cognitive flexibility tend to struggle with change and problem-solving, because their thinking is more rigid.
The neural network
Our nervous systems communicate information throughout our bodies via neural pathways, which are the connections formed between the neurons in our brains. When we think of something for the first time, our brains identify a pattern and attach meaning. When we think of the same thing again, as we do during our routines, the same neural pathways light up.
Every time we learn something, it builds the neural circuits in our brains, increasing their efficiency. And each time we recall and utilize this learning, it reinforces the pathways, developing connections and creating a mechanism that allows our brains to access a variety of information more quickly.
As the number of connections in our brains increases, we’re better able to transition our thought processes or “shift gears” more quickly. These connections also allow us to develop better observation and reasoning skills, and deconstruct complex tasks more effectively.
Simply put, we can boost cognitive flexibility by making learning a priority.
Here are the five best ways to develop cognitive flexibility:
1. Change things up.
If we want to strengthen existing pathways and build new ones, we can do so by making small changes to our routines. Try taking a different route to work, mixing up your workout regimen, or using your opposite hand for an everyday task. These types of small changes don’t alter the essential nature of your routine, but they do force your brain to “think outside the box” and form new connections.
2. Take the road less traveled.
Modern life has provided us with an innumerable number of shortcuts that provide the easiest route to our destination, both literally and figuratively. However, improving cognitive flexibility requires that we challenge ourselves on a regular basis, so don’t allow yourself to take the easy way out all the time.
For example, instead of using a navigation system to guide you to your destination, pull out a map and plot your course on paper. As you drive, your brain will process the spatial relationships of the route rather than just listening for your next turn, which fires different pathways in your brain.
3. Try something new.
Each time you experience something new, your brain makes new connections. What’s more, our neural pathways work through a specific chemical messenger, called a neurotransmitter. Firing up those messengers has benefits; for example, dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, helps boost the excitement of learning something new. But its effects go far beyond buoying our mood; it also improves concentration, enhances movement and fine motor control, drives motivation, and boosts our ability to learn.
Seeking out new activities that engage our minds and bodies in creative ways such as language, music, dance and art have an especially positive effect on cognitive flexibility.
4. Apply context.
Forget the idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks; that simply isn’t true. Quite the opposite, in fact. Our brains have natural neuroplasticity, which means that they’re able to change and form new connections right up to the day we die. We see this in practice when brain damage occurs; certain functions lost to trauma can be restored as healthy parts of the brain take over, forming new connections.
If you want to strengthen how you apply knowledge, teach. Explaining a concept or idea forces you to reframe information in a way that makes it understandable to others. When we flip our perspective, it allows us to explore new ways of applying knowledge in different real-world situations.
5. Embrace diversity.
Turn your worldview upside down by seeking out people who see and experience life differently. Initiating a dialogue that challenges our ideas forces us to engage in divergent thinking. This free-flowing thought pattern allows us to generate a number of different ideas in a short period of time. Thinking in unconventional ways reduces mental rigidity and increases cognitive flexibility.
Plus, you’ll reap the essential rewards of having been exposed to diversity: different personalities, perspectives, and cultures. It’s a win-win.
Finally, an important thing to remember about our neural pathways is that all learning–both positive and negative–serves to build connections. Frequently used circuitry becomes more robust and more ingrained over time. Consider how you’re expending your energies and what patterns you’re strengthening, because these pathways form the foundation of your habits, thoughts, feelings and actions.