Flexible Brains and Adjusting to a Changing World

Brain dynamics support our ability to flexibly adapt to novel situations.

Posted Feb 04, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

March 2020 was the last time I had a haircut inside a salon. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last time I did a lot of things. The early days of the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) feel like ancient history, despite the fact that the effects started to be felt a mere 12 months ago. This short time has been marked by an unprecedented need for flexibility on the part of individuals, institutions, and governments. Students have switched from attending classes in-person to attending online, restaurants closed their doors to diners and switched to delivery and take-out, and world leaders have struggled to enact policies to adequately respond to the labile situation.  

Cognitive and behavioral flexibility are what allow us to adjust our thoughts and behaviors and switch our actions in response to the changing world around us. Even during non-pandemic times, flexibility is associated with academic achievement, employment success, and other optimal life outcomes. Without flexibility, we would be unable to adapt to rapidly evolving public health and economic crises such as the ones we are currently facing.

My lab, the Brain Connectivity and Cognition Laboratory, studies how the brain supports flexibility, and how altered brain dynamics may underlie difficulties with flexibility such as that seen in children with autism. For example, we have found that individuals who have brains that spend more time in a pattern of loose connections among regions are better able to perform laboratory tasks of cognitive flexibility such as the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test  (Nomi et al. 2017). Children with autism generally exhibit an ‘insistence on sameness’, but they can perform as well as typically developing children on tasks of cognitive flexibility by successfully and dynamically engaging brain networks involved in guiding decisions – also referred to as ‘executive control networks’ (Kupis et al. 2020).

One thing scientists have learned from decades of research on animal and human brains is that there is no single brain region responsible for flexibility. Instead, multiple brain regions act in a coordinated and dynamic manner to enable us to switch between different tasks, come up with alternatives when our plans are disrupted, and creatively adapt to rapidly evolving situations. These areas of the brain, including lateral and orbital frontoparietal, frontostriatal, and midcingulo-insular regions, support flexibility across the lifespan. Interestingly, some of the same brain networks and regions that enable flexibility are also involved in creativity.

Dysfunction of these brain networks is thought to contribute to flexibility impairments in clinical conditions that emerge during adolescence, such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression, as well as dementias that emerge in late life and result in cognitive rigidity, the opposite of flexibility. Interestingly, there is some evidence that individuals who are bilingual may have an advantage when it comes to flexibility, and that bilingual experience might protect against cognitive decline in dementia (Uddin 2021).

Now that COVID-19 has drastically altered our daily routines, we’ve all had to cope by being more flexible in our day-to-day activities. Yet some of us are coping with these changes better than others. This leads to the question: Can we train ourselves to be more flexible?

Only a handful of computerized cognitive training programs have been shown to improve flexibility. These types of computerized interventions typically consist of multiple short sessions (around 30 minutes a day) during which participants complete increasingly difficult games involving switching between tasks. In general, the evidence for the efficacy of these programs is mixed. Exercise training interventions, particularly those involving challenging exercises like martial arts, can lead to measurable benefits in the area of flexibility (Diamond and Ling 2016). The cumulative effects of exercise on improving brain and behavioral flexibility are well-documented. However, there are still questions regarding the optimal type and “dose” of physical activity that is necessary to boost flexibility.

This pandemic has forced us to be flexible in ways we might never have imagined. Perhaps one silver lining is that the “flexibility training” this crisis has imposed on all of us may carry over to enhance our ability to respond flexibly in other aspects of our lives. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus reportedly said, "There is nothing permanent except change."

References

Diamond, Adele, and Daphne S. Ling. 2016. “Conclusions about Interventions, Programs, and Approaches for Improving Executive Functions That Appear Justified and Those That, despite Much Hype, Do Not.” Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience 18: 34–48.

Kupis, Lauren, Celia Romero, Bryce Dirks, Stephanie Hoang, Meaghan V. Parladé, Amy L. Beaumont, Sandra M. Cardona, et al. 2020. “Evoked and Intrinsic Brain Network Dynamics in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” NeuroImage: Clinical. 

Nomi, Jason S., Shruti Gopal Vij, Dina R. Dajani, Rosa Steimke, Eswar Damaraju, Srinivas Rachakonda, Vince D. Calhoun, and Lucina Q. Uddin. 2017. “Chronnectomic Patterns and Neural Flexibility Underlie Executive Function.” NeuroImage 147: 861–71.

Uddin, L. Q. 2021. “Cognitive and Behavioural Flexibility: Neural Mechanisms and Clinical Considerations.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience.