How to be more cognitively flexible
The world is changing so fast, the way we do things has changed so much in my lifetime, it’s hard to remember how we used to survive. I was talking to a friend who is in her 20s recently, and she asked me how we survived when we were travelling around the world in the 80s, without cell phones or internet. And I tried to remember . . . how did we survive? We had a Lonely Planet book and we talked to other travellers and we just winged it a lot! Somehow we survived without ever making a reservation or really having much of a plan at all. We just did it.
There is no argument that things are changing quickly, and it seems that many of us, especially those of us born well before cell phones and internet, are running just trying to keep up. But what I’ve noticed a lot lately is that some of us are adapting and learning more quickly than others. So I’ve been fascinated to read about some of the research about how these changes create new demands on how we must think in order to thrive in this era.
There is a fascinating article in Psychology Today, ‘Your Elastic Mind’, by Leonard Mlodinow, Ph.D., a theoretical physicist and the author of Elastic. In this article Mlodinow explains that there are certain talents, or qualities of thought that are now essential in these rapidly changing times. He gives us some examples:
“The capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction, the capability to rise above conventional mind-sets and reframe the questions we ask, the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open ourselves to new paradigms, the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas, and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant of failure. That’s a diverse bouquet of talents, but as psychologists and neuroscientists have elucidated the brain processes behind them, those talents have been revealed as different aspects of a coherent cognitive style. I call it elastic thinking.
Elastic thinking endows us with the ability to solve novel problems and overcome the neural and psychological barriers that can impede us from looking beyond the existing order. It’s important to understand how our brains produce elastic thinking, and how we can nurture it. In a large body of research one quality stands out above all the others — unlike analytical reasoning, elastic thinking arises from what scientists call “bottom-up” processes.”
In an interview in Scientific America, Mlodinow explains that:
“In my field, science, researchers are overwhelmed by something more constructive, the more than three million new journal articles each year. In personal technology, we must all learn to navigate a landscape in which the number of websites has been doubling every two to three years, and the way we use and access them is subject to frequent “disruptive change.” More importantly, social attitudes are changing just as fast — compare the pace of the civil rights movement to the speed at which the campaign for gay rights swept the developed world. Or look at the overnight rise of the “me too” movement.
The failure of businesses to adapt has led to the quick demise of countless companies, and major power shifts in industries from taxis to hospitality. But we must adapt to thrive in our personal lives, too. We have to be willing to rise above conventional mindsets, to reframe the questions we ask, to be open to new paradigms. We have to rely as much on our imagination as on logic, and have the ability to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas, to welcome experiment, and be tolerant of failure. I call that manner of thought elastic thinking, in contrast to rational or logical thought.”
The way that this has shown up in my life recently has been the challenges that I have faced as I’ve embarked on a new adventure in my career, pushing me way outside my comfort zone. I’ve had to learn how to use new platforms for my New Online Workshop; had to learn new tools on You Tube and new ways to connect with people around the world. It has pushed me way beyond what I thought I could do, and my fear of failure and doing it wrong has been rampant.
I have absolutely had to practice what Mlodinow described:
‘I’ve had to ‘reframe the questions I ask; I’ve had to be open to new paradigms; have had to rely as much on my imagination as on logic, and I’ve had to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas, to welcome experiment, and be very tolerant of failure!’
If this topic interests you, I encourage you to take the time to watch this very interesting ‘Talks at Google’ by Leonard Mlodinow — ‘Elastic Thinking in Times of Change.’