Cognitive Flexibility: What is It? Do You Have It?

When I was about four years old, I vaguely remember participating in an Easter Egg Hunt. We were given little straw baskets and told to go find the eggs. The person who found the most eggs would win a giant chocolate Easter bunny. And I desperately wanted that bunny.

Then a whistle blew and we were all off and running. I looked through the grass and found a few brightly colored eggs just like the ones I had colored at home. But then I stumbled upon another thing shining in the grass. It was wrapped in foil. What was it? As I crouched over it to see more closely what it was, an older boy swooped past me and grabbed it, putting it in his basket.

Moving on in my pursuit, I again came across something that looked like an egg. But this one was wrapped in red foil and was smaller. Again, I wondered if I should pick it up. The lady told us to find eggs and this was not a real egg. Then, whoosh! Another kid dive bombed in and picked it up.

The race was over and it was time for everyone to count their eggs. As I looked into the other baskets, I could see that the term “eggs” was relative. There were foil-wrapped chocolate eggs along with the real eggs. I remember feeling profoundly sad that I had lost out on my chance to win the giant bunny.

Psychologists would call this story an example of “cognitive inflexibility.” Briefly defined, cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to combine knowledge and experience in new ways and to be able to apply thinking to situations that have not been previously encountered. For a four year old, this capacity is still developing. The older kids understood through their greater life experience that “eggs” can mean more than one thing.

As adults, we can struggle with cognitive inflexibility too. In trying to solve a difficult problem or make a life transition, we can find ourselves resorting to old behavior patterns and thoughts and then brood about why “nothing ever seems to change.” The ability to make creative shifts throughout our life span can be the difference between realizing our passions and mentally filing them under “Never Going to Happen.” Too often, we hold ourselves back with fears that begin with, “What if?” What if I fail? What if I make the wrong decision?

Creativity experts talk about the importance of tapping into the willingness to play with possibility. Entertain the opposite side of the “What if?” question for a moment, even if it seems absurd. What if I didn’t have all these barriers? What if there was not one single solution but many possible solutions? Critical thinking says, “Yes, but — ” whereas creative thinking says, “Yes, and — ” How might your thinking shift if you applied this simple substitution?

The cognitive flexibility folks say that advanced knowledge must be acquired in a real-world context. This means that sometimes we must be willing to experiment, to actually walk up to the thing we want, and touch it. Inherent in this is the willingness to make a mistake and to ignore that voice that says, “Mistakes are always terrible.”

Are there “eggs” in your life that you are afraid to pick up? Are you willing to experiment a bit to find out if they actually belong in your basket? If so, there just may be a giant chocolate bunny in it for you.