New Paradigm of Thought Demystifies Cognitive Flexibility

New model of cognitive flexibility is based on four components.

Posted Sep 07, 2015

Agsandrew/Shutterstock
Source: Agsandrew/Shutterstock

Cognitive flexibility represents someone’s ability to shift thoughts and adapt his or her behavior to an ever-changing environment. Levels of cognitive flexibility are reflected by your ability to disengage from a previous task and respond effectively to another task—or to multitask. The more cognitive flexibility an individual has, the greater the chances are that this person can optimize his or her human potential.

At its best, cognitive flexibility represents what I call superfluidity of thoughts and actions, which is the highest form of flow and allows people to achieve personal bests. On the flip side, cognitive inflexibility is a hallmark of neurodevelopmental disorders such as Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD.)

Previous research has shown that cognitive flexibility requires the dynamic integration of multiple brain regions and results in fluidity of thought and performance. Previous studies have also shown that higher levels of cognitive flexibility are correlated with better reading abilities in children, resilience in adulthood, and higher quality of life in older age. The neural correlates and brain mechanics of cognitive flexibility are directly linked to executive functions and multitasking.

Last week, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Superfluidity: Decoding the Enigma of Cognitive Flexibility,” based on findings by an international team of researchers led by Danielle S. Bassett who identified some unexpected brain mechanisms associated with cognitive flexibility. Until now, the real-time aspects of how neural networks distribute the integration of various cognitive functions have remained enigmatic and poorly understood.

A few days ago, researchers at University of Miami released a review of existing literature and neuroimaging studies on cognitive flexibility and have created a new hypothesis regarding the fundamental neural mechanisms of cognitive flexibility. The September 2015 paper, "Demystifying Cognitive Flexibility: Implications for Clinical and Developmental Neuroscience," was published by Trends in Neurosciences.

What Are the Four Components of Cognitive Flexibility?

Researchers are still perplexed by the enigma of whether cognitive flexibility arises from neural substrates that are autonomous from the executive control network (ECN) or if cognitive flexibility is the result of the interplay of nodes within this and other neural networks.

The recent report from University of Miami reviewed a variety of neuroimaging studies on cognitive flexibility that focused on set shifting and task switching. Based on their analysis, the researchers propose a new model of cognitive flexibility based on four key components.  

Four Components of Cognitive Flexibility by Uddin & Dajani

  1. Salience Detection/Attention
  2. Working Memory
  3. Inhibition
  4. Switching ​​

​*Both achieve similar goals to direct attention to behaviorally relevant events.

Hopefully, this new model will help advance our understanding of ways to optimize cognitive flexibility throughout a person’s lifespan and lead to the development of more effective interventions for behavioral and neurological disorders associated with cognitive inflexibility. In a press release, Dina R. Dajani, Ph.D. student of psychology in the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences and first author of the study said, 

By understanding how the brain attempts to implement cognitive flexibility in a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism, we can better understand the nature of the disorder. The model will inform whether we should try to teach individuals with autism the strategies utilized by typically developing individuals, or instead improve upon already existing strategies of individuals with the disorder.

Our concept is quite different from other conceptualizations of cognitive flexibility because we describe it as arising from four separate cognitive operations, whereas other researchers have described it as a manifestation of a single cognitive operation. This novel hypothesis may help our understanding of this complex ability.

The researchers point out that knowing if there is a simple increase or decrease in connectivity between brain regions compared to healthy individuals—or whether people with autism use entirely different brain regions to implement cognitive flexibility—will allow researchers to design interventions that improve cognitive flexibility skills.

Lucina Q. Uddin, assistant professor of psychology at University of Miami, principal investigator of this study and co-author of the paper stated in the press release,

Our goal was to summarize and provide directions for future research on a topic that is relevant for understanding several prevalent developmental disorders. We believe that a better understanding of the neural systems mediating this critical ability will help clinicians design more effective treatments to help individuals who have difficulty with flexible behaviors in daily life, particularly those with autism.

Conclusion: Demystifying Cognitive Flexibility Is a New Frontier

The researchers are currently using functional neuroimaging to further test their "four components" hypothesis of cognitive flexibility. If the new model of cognitive flexibility hypothesized by Uddin and Dajani is validated in the future, it has the potential to provide a better way for researchers to determine exactly what may be going wrong in individuals with impaired cognitive flexibility and find ways to improve outcomes.

From a perspective of humanism and positive psychology, this new model could also help us better understand how-to improve cognitive flexibility in ways that optimize human potential and facilitate superfluidity for people from all walks of life.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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