- A brain imaging study suggests that entrepreneurs have greater cognitive flexibility than managers.
- Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift perspective, accommodate multiple views, and adapt to new data.
- Flexible thinking can be increased through practice.
If you've ever known someone entrepreneurial—from the person adding a third side hustle to get ahead to the person who was dreaming up new business ideas while their friends were figuring out whether they were going to their senior prom—it's clear that they have something different. An entrepreneurial spirit takes guts, creativity, and perhaps a higher-than-average tolerance for rejection.
Now, new research shows that such people also might have heightened levels of something else: cognitive flexibility.
Comparing Brains of Entrepreneurs and Managers
In a fascinating multidisciplinary study led by the School of Management at the University of Liège and Liège University Hospital, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of entrepreneurs and managers. And what they found was striking. The brains of entrepreneurs displayed significantly higher connectivity between the right insula and the anterior prefrontal cortex compared to the brains of managers. This combination suggested greater cognitive flexibility in the entrepreneurs.
What is cognitive flexibility? In short, it is the ability of your brain to shift its perspective when needed, to be able to accommodate multiple perspectives, and to adapt to new information. People high in cognitive flexibility are better able to find novel ways to address problems, show more skill in adjusting to new situations and obstacles as they arise, and are less likely to get caught in rigid thinking patterns like perseveration or rumination. People with high cognitive flexibility also may have a natural tendency toward higher creativity and the exploration of new ideas, and be better suited to changing mental gears "on the fly" when a situation calls for it.
Those qualities start to sound pretty important for someone pursuing a new business idea, don't they?
What made this study particularly important is that it assessed the brains of the participants while they were at rest, rather than solely while they were attempting to perform a cognitive task. This makes it even more likely that there are significant differences in neural connectivity across the board and across daily life.
Cultivating Cognitive Flexibility
However, such results might mislead someone to assume that they are not cut out to be an entrepreneur or that their brains simply aren't wired in the "correct" way to get ahead in the workplace. On the contrary, it's important to understand that cognitive flexibility can be increased through practice! There are all kinds of exercises to practice and cultivate flexible thinking, from seeking out novel experiences, to becoming a more astute observer of your inner voice, to challenging yourself in daily life by changing your behavioral ruts or trying something familiar in a new way (like taking a new route to work or brushing your teeth with your opposite hand.)
Moreover, it's important to note that this study was correlational, which means that it's not possible to be certain that entrepreneurs were naturally more cognitively flexible to start with. Might it be that the experience of being entrepreneurial simply built cognitive flexibility in itself?
To that end, why not challenge yourself to bring a little bit of an entrepreneurial spirit into your own daily life? You need not start a business, but perhaps you can flex your creative muscles to shave a few dollars off your grocery bill or make it a goal to learn how to solve a home maintenance problem yourself rather than automatically calling someone. It's not just about the money, but rather about improving cognitive flexibility, which is great for all of us—whether we were always the kid with the lemonade stand or not.
Frédéric Ooms, Jitka Annen, Rajanikant Panda, Paul Meunier, Luaba Tshibanda, Steven Laureys, Jeffrey M. Pollack, Bernard Surlemont. Advancing (Neuro)Entrepreneurship Cognition Research Through Resting-State fMRI: A Methodological Brief. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 2023; 104225872311702 DOI: 10.1177/10422587231170217