Cognitive Flexibility: The Most Important Thinking Habit
“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” (George Bernard Shaw) or “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change” (Einstein). Life is neither static nor unchanging, it’s fluid. Nothing stays the same.
Elastic thinking (experts may call it cognitive flexibility) allows us to shift gears and think about something in more than one way. A fixed mindset can sabotage your efforts to thrive in a changing environment.
How elastic is your brain?
The ability to stretch beyond your core strengths when necessary and quickly rebound back to your core skills and discipline is a desirable trait. Elasticity is essentially responsiveness to change in an ever-changing world. To survive in an environment of constant stimulation and rapid change, elastic thinking is essential.
Elasticity is flexibility.
It’s the ability to adapt to new situations, break down complex tasks into bite size chunks, improvise, and shift strategies to meet different types of challenges. Flexibility gives the human brain the edge over computers is flexible thinking. Elastic minds are people who reimagine new ways to solve existing problems and create tools make things better, easier, faster and smarter.
The best innovators can quickly shift their perspective.
“Our new role as visionaries, decision makers, and strategic informants means we can’t rely on any rules. There are more stakeholders, more complicated products, and faster market cycles. In this environment, elasticity is more important than ever” explains Stuart Karten, the Founder and President of Los Angeles-based product innovation consultancy. To thrive now and in the future, you have to be willing to rise above conventional mindsets and wisdom. You become indispensable in the world by constantly outgrowing your existing roles. The questions you asked today may not unravel the answers you seek tomorrow. To stay competitive in life and business, you have to be open to new paradigms. You have to rely as much on your imagination as on logic.
Elastic thinking is about stretching your mind and using ‘bottom up’ processing in the brain rather than the top down executive functions that drive analytical thinking. It encompasses a range of processes including, but not confined to, neophilia (an enthusiasm for novelty), schizotypy, imagination, idea generation and divergent thinking,” explains Dhruti Shah of BBC Capital.
Elastic thinking, in combination with rational or logical thought, and creative thinking will make you indispensable. Elastic thinking endows us with the ability to solve novel problems and overcome the neural barriers that can impede us from looking beyond the status quo. Solving problems and drawing better conclusions requires a blend of logical, analytical and elastic thinking.
“Logical analytical thinking is really good when you are trying to solve a problem you’ve seen before. You can use known methods and techniques to approach whatever issue you are dealing with.
Elastic thinking is what you need when the circumstances change and you are dealing with something new. It’s not about following rules,” says Leonard Mlodinow, theoretical physicist, author of “Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change.”
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” — John F. Kennedy
The elastic mind of Leonardo
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. — Einstein
Leonardo da Vinci maintained a passionate curiosity throughout life. He simply wanted to know. He was an elastic thinker and a prolific creator. His mind wandered merrily across the arts, sciences, engineering, and humanities. More than 7,000 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks still exist. His genius came from being wildly imaginative, quirkily curious and willfully observant. His novelty was a product of his own will and effort, which makes his story inspiring for us and also more possible to emulate. Da Vinci’s work paved the path for artists, scientists, and philosophers alike.
Most of the people we admire often have the gift of the elastic mind. Today, more than ever, we must embrace the elastic mindset. In a stable world devoid of change, we can solve problems by applying the same old techniques, principles, and rules. But the age of unprecedented technological change constantly challenges us to find new solutions.
Do you give in when faced with a problem you have not seen before, or are you driven by the determination to achieve? How strongly are you driven to reach that “light” at the end of the tunnel?
Solving problems and drawing better conclusions within an existing framework requires a blend of analytical and elastic thinking. In the right combination with other traits, elastic thinking is a crucial predictor of total well-being.
“Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” says C. Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist.
How to develop an agile mind
For those wishing to tap into elastic thinking, Mlodinow suggests carving out time for daydreaming, talking to people outside your social circle, absorbing great art out of your comfort zone, listening to ideas or concepts you actively disagree with before disregarding them.
Always try to look at everything from more than one angle.
Change the context or your environment and you’ll feel your mind shift. Take a walk. Take a coffee break. Exercise offers another great mental boost. Mental flexibility is aided by novelty, and that contributes to brain growth and development throughout a lifetime.
The next time you encounter the stress of change, remember that you can adapt to thrive and become indispensable in the ever-changing world.
Author: Thomas Oppong
This article first appeared on Medium