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Babies and Brain Matter: Cognitive Flexibility in Infants

How can we promote cognitive flexibility in infants?

Key points

  • A change in our behavior in response to a changing environmental situation is what psychologists call cognitive flexibility
  • In a recent study, infants as young as 12 months of age demonstrated cognitive flexibility.
  • Toys with multiple ways of playing seem to prime infants to adapt their thinking and behavior to a changing environment.

By Maithri Sivaraman and Tricia Skoler

Imagine you are on your daily commute that involves a few miles on the freeway. You see signs of traffic on the entry to the freeway, and you take a different route that still gets you to work on time. This change of behavior in response to a changing environmental situation is what psychologists call cognitive flexibility. We humans employ such adaptability and flexibility on a daily basis multiple times across situations. We are required to update our approach to a task whenever new information becomes available. This is also called flexible thinking.

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Child excited about bowling
Source: Unsplash/used with permission

Studies testing cognitive flexibility usually involve completing a task using a defined set of rules, and once the task has been accomplished, the participants are required to complete the same task using a modified set of rules. Recent research has demonstrated that infants can be cognitively flexible. In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers conducted a task in which 12-month-old infants were first rewarded for looking towards one side of a screen. They subsequently shifted to rewarding infants only if they looked at the opposite side of the screen. Infants were observed to quickly inhibit the originally rewarded response and demonstrate the novel response of looking towards the opposite side of the screen.

Why focus on cognitive flexibility?

Longitudinal studies have shown that infants with higher cognitive flexibility demonstrate better academic outcomes in school with respect to their reading abilities, math skills and science-related task performance. Furthermore, this skill may transfer to emotional flexibility in terms of updating one’s thought processes to handle a difficult situation during the later stages of development. For example, when my physiotherapist advised taking up yoga instead of running during recovery from injury, this involves adapting my initial emotional response to giving up something I love doing (running) and accepting the change to something I do not feel strongly about (yoga). Such flexibility affords greater happiness in an ever-changing world.

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Stack of blocks
Source: Unsplash/used with permission

How can we promote cognitive flexibility in infants?

A simple start is to engage with the same toy in different ways. Let’s take the example of a commonly found toy – a stacking set of rings. Typically, they offer a rather rigid version of play — a child stacks them in an ascending (or descending) order of size; it is a simple problem with only one way to solve it. However, other stacking sets offer multiple ways of play. Individual pieces are designed to be stackable in different orientations, leaving the child free to approach the stacking problem with multiple concepts beyond just size — including colours, construction, and balance. Playing like this prevents the inadvertent mental rigidity that may set in with infants thinking in only one single way when it comes to a toy. In effect, toys like this prime infants to adapt their thinking and behavior to a changing environment.


Buttelmann, F., & Karbach, J. (2017). Development and Plasticity of Cognitive Flexibility in Early and Middle Childhood. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1040.

Shinya, Y., Kawai, M., Niwa, F. et al. (2022). Cognitive flexibility in 12-month-old preterm and term infants is associated with neurobehavioural development in 18-month-olds. Scientific Reports, 12, 3.

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