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3 Ways to Improve Your Cognitive Flexibility

New research sheds light on how we are resistant to change.

Adapt, pivot, innovate. These traits are often associated with great leaders, entrepreneurs, and inventors—not bumblebees, rats, ravens, rhesus macaques, and chimpanzees (to name just a few). There is a common thread that ties them all together, however, and it is called cognitive flexibility.

Despite this similarity, there is one major difference. A greater proportion of individuals within those species appear to have an abundance of cognitive flexibility compared to humans. Before exploring what we can do about it, let me first explain what cognitive flexibility is, describe how other species demonstrate this behavior, and discuss why exhibiting this behavior is advantageous.

Broadly speaking, cognitive flexibility is about moving between different tasks simultaneously, applying concepts from one context toward solving a problem in another unrelated or new situation. It’s also about evaluating strategies and generating novel solutions. This ability is generally considered part of the executive function of the brain.

How do we know that other species have it and demonstrate it to a higher degree? We can turn to a recent study by Watzek et al. (2019) for some answers. They designed a simple, yet elegant, project designed to compare the levels of cognitive complacency (laziness) of capuchin monkeys and rhesus monkeys with that of humans. Before describing the results, I should warn you that capuchin monkeys are true innovators. They are notorious for generating novel solutions, behaviors, and cultural practices. Some, such as poking each other in the eye as a test of faith and potentially friendship, are perhaps less than spectacular, but nevertheless, avant-garde. You can watch videos of this and other “traditions” on the Capuchin Traditions website.

In the Watzek et al. (2019) study, all participants were taught a sequence of steps that led to a reward. After learning this sequence, they were presented with an alternative and significantly more efficient strategy. Immediately, 70 percent of the nonhuman primates (of both species) selected the new approach, compared to only 1 human, or a measly 1.7 percent.

Eventually we humans caught on, right? No. Rather than catching up with our primate cousins, where 100 percent of the individuals integrated the new and more resourceful tactic, 61 percent of humans never used the shortcut. Not even after they watched another human do it in a video! What does this mean? It means that most humans are pretty bad at optimal decision-making. It seems that once we learn something one way, we stick with it even if there is a faster, better, more effective approach. What’s worse, we are highly resistant to change, refusing to adopt innovations that run counter to our existing knowledge. In short, we are incredibly biased.

You may be wondering, what’s the big deal? Here's the big deal. Having greater cognitive flexibility confers a significant set of advantages, including being able to acquire and integrate new information rapidly, solve problems more creatively, quickly adjust responses to changing conditions, and inhibit automatic behavior. All of these benefits allow those individuals to outperform others in a variety of circumstances (social, academic, political, business, etc.).

If being cognitively flexible is valuable and the majority of us are falling short in the adaptability department, is there anything we can do about it? Yes. Fortunately, we are not bound by our rigidity and bias, even though the developmental trajectory is somewhat solidified by late childhood or early adolescence. How do we know? Some of this good news comes from rats.

Rats are truly spectacular, whether it’s displaying an enormous capacity for empathy as I discussed in my previous post, friendship, or fairness, there seems to be no end to the lessons we can learn from rats—including how to increase and strengthen the neural basis for cognitive flexibility.

In yet another fascinating study, Crawford et al. (2019) taught rats to drive little cars and the rats, in turn, taught the scientists quite a lot. First, learning a new skill can be stressful. Second, once rats learned the basics, they accepted more challenges, not fewer. Third, after the rats mastered the task, their stress levels went down. Fourth, those rats that had a richer environment with a diverse set of toys and opportunities learned faster and were better drivers. And finally, being a passenger is just as stressful for rats as it is for people! To watch rats driving their special rat cars, you can see a small clip here.

What this and other studies do is clue us in to some key ideas for how to improve cognitive flexibility, ultimately making us more resilient, creative, and confident.

1. Do something you know how to do, but do it differently (and often). If we think about the rats driving their cars, we can easily see how we can apply this to our own driving habits. Have you ever driven home from work and arrived there not quite remembering how you got there? Have you needed to run an errand that would have taken you out of your way and instead ended up at home?

We all have routines and they bring us a sense of predictability and even comfort. However, as I wrote about in a previous post, routines can become ruts, diminishing our cognitive abilities. To avoid this, you must shake things up. For driving, that may mean drive home a different way. However, it could easily be other things, like trying new foods, changing the time of day you exercise, even sitting in a new chair. It doesn’t have to be spectacularly different, just different.

2. Pursue new challenges and experiences. If rats can learn how to drive, surely we humans can learn how to do something new. Like the rats, it’s even better if you combine mental and physical learning. For example, dancing, martial arts, boxing, and painting all challenge your body and mind to work together to learn a new skill. Alternatively, learn a new language, change jobs, or travel to a new place. Once again, it doesn’t have to be grand and you can combine #1 and #2 easily by discovering a part of your town you aren’t as familiar with and eating in a new restaurant. Be creative.

3. Meet new people. One other place we converge with other species is that we tend to like people that are more like ourselves, birds of a feather and all. However, the research is clear. The more you expose yourself to different people and their views, cultures, and ideas, not only does your cognitive flexibility improve, but also your moral compass on right and wrong. Indeed, those species that exhibit less cognitive bias, also have a much stronger capacity for moral reasoning and fairness. One example, again from rats, is that rats tend to see all other rats as more similar to themselves, while we humans hold tightly to our in-out group tendencies. The answer? Talk to new people, exchange ideas and information, or simply help other people through volunteering.

At the end of the day, sprinkling your life with a few activities designed to challenge you and take you out of your comfort zone will improve your ability to adapt, decrease your anxiety and stress, and broaden your perspective. So go ahead and be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Who knows what you will discover.

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Crawford, L.E., Knouse, L.E., Kent, M., Vavra, D., Harding, O., LeServe, D., Fox, N., Hu, X., Li, P., Glory, C. and Lambert, K.G., 2019. Enriched environment exposure accelerates rodent driving skills. Behavioural Brain Research, p.112309.

Julia Watzek, Sarah M. Pope, Sarah F. Brosnan. Capuchin and rhesus monkeys but not humans show cognitive flexibility in an optional-switch task. Scientific Reports, 2019; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-49658-0

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