Flexible Thinking


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We all know people who appear to be rigid in their outlook or response to situations.  Flexibility is one of the Executive Functions and as such, has a big influence on our cognition, or thinking patterns. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, co-authors of the book “Smart but Scattered", maintain that flexibility is related to adaptability to changing conditions.  Others might refer to this capacity as 'resilience'.

Rae Jacobson, from the Child Mind Institute, writes: “Flexible thinking is the ability to think about things in a new or different way. It helps us deal with uncertainty, solve problems, adjust to changes, and incorporate new information into our plans and ideas. Flexible thinking is also a key aspect of self-regulation and handling big emotions." Flexible thinking has certainly been associated with problem-solving and creativity.

Norman Doidge, author of the book, “The Brain That Changes Itself" has highlighted the malleability of the human brain.   Research conducted by neuroscientists throughout the world has referred to 'neuroplasticity' emphasising the human brain's capacity to change neural pathways and therefore, the brain's structure.  Doidge, however, refers to the 'plastic paradox', stating that one of the ways in which the human brain can change is to deepen an existing 'trough' – in other words, for an existing thought/belief/pattern to become more established or embedded in the brain. It appears that individuals who learn rapidly may be more inclined towards the establishment of the 'plastic paradox'.

Based on these claims, neuroplasticity is related to flexibility, whereas it seems that the 'plastic paradox' is related to rigidity. Recent research conducted by Professor of Psychology, Theodore Beauchaine and his colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, has identified the role of various 'heuristics' or shortcuts used by the brain to be more efficient and support the conservation of cognitive energy. Through the use of these 'heuristics' or shortcuts, an individual may focus on pre-existing information and not be willing to accept newer, contradictory data.

The brain is a very hungry organ: it is only 2% of our body mass but uses 20% of the body's energy, requiring regular 'refuelling' in order to operate optimally – thus the use of shortcuts and developing cognitively efficient automaticity are strategies that seem to make sense. When combined, the 'plastic paradox' and the 'heuristics' used for cognitive efficiency might be factors associated with rigid thought patterns.

Through the development of self-awareness and the conscious development of cognitive flexibility, students can develop more malleable neural pathways and use their cognitive flexibility to respond to novel, sometimes challenging, experiences and solve associated problems.

​© Michele Juratowitch 

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Last reviewed 11 February 2022
Last updated 11 February 2022