Episode 7: Exploring Cognitive Flexibility - The Personal Brain Trainer Podcast

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Exploring Cognitive Flexibility


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Full Transcript for Episode 7

Welcome to the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast.

I'm Dr. Erica Warren and I'm Darius Namdaran and we're your hosts.  Join us on an adventure to translate the scientific jargon and brain research into simple metaphors and stories for everyday life.  We explore executive functions and learning strategies that help turbocharge the mind. Come learn how to steer around the invisible barriers so that you can achieve your goals.  This podcast is ideal for parents, educators, and learners of all ages.

This podcast is brought to you by Bullet Map Academy. We have free dyslexia screener app called dyslexia quiz.  It's a fun, engaging and interactive app.  Try it now.  Just search for dyslexia quiz on the app store and see how your score differs from your friends and family.

This podcast is brought to you by www.goodsensorylearning.com where you can find educational and occupational therapy lessons and remedial materials that bring delight to learning.

Finally, you can find Dr Warren's many courses at www.learningspecialistcourses.com .  Come check out our newest course on developing executive functions and study strategies.

Okay Erica, what have we got to talk about today, I am so excited about today.

It's another piece of executive functioning and its cognitive flexibility.

So, we're going to really be exploring what this is, and cognitive flexibility is a part, as we were saying, of executive functions that helps us switch gears to any kind of change in demands priorities or perspectives.

And it also helps us to consider different rules for different situations.

It can open up pathways to creative thinking and it can allow us to update goals so that we can achieve them.

So, in a nutshell cognitive flexibility is a critical skill that enables individuals to respond to their changing environment accurately and efficiently.

So do different people have different levels of cognitive flexibility then.


In fact, for some people, it's really easy and for other people it's extremely hard.

So, we're looking at another continuum and you know some people that they have a plan, and they just can't let it go.

They have to stick to the plan, they don't want to change, they want it to stay the same.

And then there are other people that can you know, oh I can go along, we'll do this instead.

Okay And oh and you're in the middle of doing something and something pops up and you can come up and you can distract them, and they can just follow you.

Well, it's kind of funny and wonder whether people with attention deficit disorder have more cognitive flexibility.

Well, that's one of the things that I've been thinking about as well as executive function difficulties often co-occur with dyslexia or A D.


And that's often an overlap between dyslexia and A.



Is this executive function difficulties.

And yet cognitive flexibility is not necessarily somewhere where we're often deficient at or lower at.

That's an area where we're probably spike high on in terms of flexibility.

I've got an interesting story about this; I went on holiday with my Children to Africa and Malawi.

One of the things we said to them, our Children liked to have a routine.

They were quite young.

So, there's a little bit of cognitive inflexibility.

It's like mommy daddy, what are we doing today?

And you're like, this is the plan.

But we said to them, this is we're going to call it plan B.

Because in Africa we don't always know what plan A is going to be, but we're going to go on a journey.

We're going to start with Plan B.

We're going to do this, we're going to go there, we're going to go there.

But we're going to discover what plan A is going to be.

And that's cognitive flexibility, isn't it?

Yeah, it is.

It's being able to kind of switch gears to apply different rules to different situations.


But what we noticed when we were doing that if we took that as an example, just because something new came up, it didn't mean we would have to follow, it was not so flexible that we would just immediately change.

But there were times as a family would get together and we go, yes, we were meant to go and have lunch here and eat this and do that.

But if we wait a bit longer, we could maybe go and do it over here and that would be quite nice, what do you guys think?

And we go, we would look at each other and we go, yeah, that's plan A, or we would go, no, I think we should stick to our plan.

That's not plan A Yeah, it doesn't always have to change.

Do you know what I mean?

Because some people can be so cognitively flexible.

They'll just go whatever comes, I'll just change, right?

And that's not going to help necessarily.

That could actually create a lot of problems.

What the problem is that they're not able to in him that's another piece of executive functioning.

That's where we're bringing in the symphony, right?

You want to have some cognitive flexibility, but you don't want to be so flexible that you can't inhibit and then you need to use your working memory which is the other piece in order to make sure that everything is, you're fully in the present, right?

Very complex.

But you can see how they start to work together.

And that's I think what we're going to be talking about next time is really pulling all the pieces together.

But for now, let's go deeper on switching gears Because when I first talked about switching gears, I talked about a change in demands, priorities, and perspectives.

Let's go into each one of those.

So, when we're switching gears and we're switching demands, we have to learn how to kind of manage unexpected things that happen.

So, we have this kind of plan for our day.

We have these unexpected things that happen and their demands and sometimes it's really important.

Maybe your goal is to get something done on your computer and all of a sudden, your computer shuts down or you lose electricity.

Well, you can't follow your plan anymore.

You have to switch.

And how are you going to deal with that?

Some people deal with it a lot better than other people again.

How you deal with.

It actually brings in that emotional piece which is kind of under the inhibitory control.

But if you lose your cool about it, you're not going to move through it very carefully.

So, it's really about being comfortable switching those gears.

Makes me think about your gear shifting metaphor.

You want to shift smoothly, you don't want to be racking the gears, you don't want to be racking your own self forgetting to dis regulated about these kinds of changes.

You want to be able to shift in a smooth and regulated way.

Well, I think I like to frame things in analogies to help understand all of this and that's one of the things that we're wanting to do on this sort of journey is to start framing them into accurate analogies and interrogating them to see whether it's a decent analogy or not.

I think if you imagine your brain is a car, some cars have got automatic gearboxes and other cars have got manual gearboxes and you need to know what your automatic at and what your manual at.

And I often share this with people with dyslexia and say look your manual at learning to read your manual at spelling your manual at prioritizing your time.

It's not as automatic for you as it is for others.

You don't just put your foot on the gas and then you go up the gears.

You have to do put your foot on the gas and put your foot on the clutch and engage the gear in a much more intentional way.

And I suspect there's some people with dyslexia because that's where I think most of the time about dyslexia, is there some people with dyslexia who are much automatic at being creative or three-dimensional thinkers and problem solving, they just automatically go through the gears.

Whereas sometimes you with other people you need to have a system and you go this is step one of solving a problem as a step two.

And this is how you shift into step three, and you have to be much more intentional teaching them that skill because their manual at it and what you're doing is you're teaching them cognitive flexibility.

Yes, but you're right, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be the same.

So, a student with dyslexia might need to learn how to switch the gears and be flexible when it comes to reading, but they might be able to be fine when it comes to cognitive flexibility and creativity.

So, one way of thinking about this is cognitive flexibility.

Sometimes when you think about these kinds of terms is how do I get myself to be more flexible, how do I get myself to be more adaptable and switch gears or is it just fixed?

And I just have to live with the consequences of it?

Or like I'm terrible at dealing with daily demands and emergencies or I'm terrible at ordering my day and my tasks and switching gears with priorities.

I know you're going to talk about that, like with the stick shift is if you accept that this area in my life, I have to be very intentional and go through the gears on.

You can become automatic at it, flexible at it, as it were by but you're still manual.

You still have to be intentional, but you're very smooth at it because you've learned the gears to go up and you shift gears according to circumstances.

So that's why I think this analogy could work because life is like drive down the road and sometimes something jumps out on the roads, Traffic slows down.

You say, no, I'm staying in third gear.

I don't want to drop down gears.

Well, if you stay in third gear and you slow down, you're going to stall, and you start wondering why is life stopped?

Why am I stalled?

There's something wrong with my car?

No, there's nothing wrong with your car, you just haven't shifted the gears down to match the road conditions or the circumstances, whether changing demands, emergencies, etcetera.


So, let's look at switching gears priorities.


And when you think of priorities, that's when you're taking the time to order tasks, that's where your bullet mapping comes in, where you're trying to decide or see.

Well, how do I organize this information?

What should come first?

What should come second or if you're trying to get through an afternoon of tasks?

I have a lot of still struggle with this.

They'll do the easiest stuff first and then it becomes late in the evening, and they don't have the cognitive energy to do the hard stuff and prioritizing to really consider all the factors that are going on in the moment and in the coming moments to figure out what order should I do things in.

Can you be like for example, I'm really good at switching gears according to unexpected demands and emergencies, but I'm really bad.

I'm not automatic at switching gears with regard to prioritizing and so on.

Can you be kind of good at one and bad at the other.

Absolutely, absolutely.

And so, you can't necessarily say that somebody has a full-blown problem with cognitive flexibility necessarily because in some situations they may be very flexible but in other situations they may not.

So, I can think in some ways I'm extraordinarily flexible.

But there are other situations where I'm not.

So, I think with all of these different areas of executive functioning.

We should never really consider them as overarching, and I'll give you a perfect example.

I often get students that come to me and the reports and the parents and the teachers and everything says this is a kid with a slow processing or they have a slow processing speed and they've kind of taken on that label that they have a slow processing speed.

And every time I see that I get very frustrated because it's typically going back to an intelligence test which categorizes students is having a slow processing speed based on two or three sub tests.

In fact, those sub tests, I'm thinking about the whisk for Children in the waste.

For adults, they also involve a lot of visual processing.

So, what I tell people is based on those tests.

No, we cannot conclude that the child or that you have a slow processing speed, but we can conclude for some visual tasks you have a slow processing speed, but we shouldn't generalize to all of cognition, and I can tell you right now, when you say I'm terrible at prioritizing, I bet there's some situations where you're not.

The interesting thing about this is that I've learned about myself with regard to prioritizing.

I'm very good at prioritizing in an emergency where I can see everything that's going on.

I'm very bad at prioritizing when I can't see everything that's going on.

But you have a strategy bullet maps which enable you to then order things and see them and you can move through it.


So, you are a master of prioritizing when I'm intentional about it.

But if I decide not to be intentional about it, I default back to my natural state, which is diabolical at it.

But I think what fascinated me when I was learning about this with you over the last year, I've been reflecting on this a lot of executive function skills and so forth.

Is that if I've got say a group painting project at a primary school and all the teachers decide we're going to paint all of this and paint all these rooms and I'm going to be the coordinator.

I can coordinate that because I can see all the rooms that are happening, see all the people see what's happening.

All this is a bit of a problem.

They're going to end up all converging in one place.

We need to reallocate someone so that we can keep the flow going and so on.

I can do all of that because it's very visual and I can see what needs to be done next.

But if I had to organize it as a whole series of lists and it being theoretical before I got there and hands on, then it becomes much harder.

But then there's other people who are really good at prioritizing it in the list form and really bad at doing it when daily demands and emergencies get in the way and having that flexibility.

So, I have to compensate by creating a visual map of everything.

So, I can picture the unseen as it were.

That's right.

And I would work very differently with an individual that for example couldn't visualize very well and maybe they're not visual, maybe they're more auditory, which I would use other strategies.

You want to accommodate someone's way of learning and their comfort zones.

However, you also want to flip it and say, okay, how can we strengthen those areas of weakness so that they don't have to get in the way.

So, I love to work with individuals that can't visualize or that struggle with visualization because if we can open that door, it really changes cognition.

So, there's really a combination of things that we want to do.

We want to strengthen weaknesses, but we also want to honor strength.

So, you mentioned switching gears when it came to demands, switching gears when it came to priorities.

You also mentioned switching gears when it comes to perspectives.

What does that mean?

That means seeing a situation through a different lens.

Uh If you have an argument with somebody and you have a disagreement, we rarely let go of our perspective and look through their lens.

However, when we do it builds compassion, right?

And it also gives us kind of a new way of viewing life.

So, for example you are talking initially that oh I'm terrible at priorities.

But we switched your lens a little bit and discovered that, wow and in some ways, you're gifted at priorities, particularly when you can see it or visualize it.

So sometimes we have to switch our perspective.

Sometimes we have to switch our perspective to get through a difficulty instead of looking at, you know, feeling like we're in the woods and we're stuck in the woods and there's no way out.

Can we try to find a path?

You know, sometimes it's baby steps.

Sometimes it's looking at the big picture and saying, okay, well that forest, there's somewhere on the other side of the forest, how can we get there?

You know what's interesting there?

I remember someone saying to me that the most important thing in life is not finding the right answers by asking the right questions because once you start asking the right questions, you start getting the right answers.

You can ask the wrong questions, get the right answers to the wrong questions.

So, you've got the right answer, but you're asking the wrong question and in a way that's cognitive flexibility when it comes to perspectives, switching gears and perspectives because sometimes you go reframing things with another question is helpful.

Yeah, I love that.

I think that makes a lot of sense.

A lovely kind of analogy of switching gears and perspectives as you often hear of people that have a health crash.

I mean I know I did in my thirties where I had all sort of colitis and cancer and all of these issues, and I felt like my life was ending.

However, once I moved through it, I had a new perspective which was, I was so grateful that I had a warning in life and that I had the opportunity to learn about other ways.

I could change bad habits.

I learned how to take care of myself and all of a sudden that crisis became a gift.

It became a gift for me to have a healthier life and to feel better about myself.

And yeah, I mean, I changed things like I stopped eating starch and sugar and really have a very clean diet and so many beneficial things happened.

I found that my cognition changed significantly.

My emotions changed significantly.

I just had more control over everything, and I felt better about life because I was feeding my body what it needed to be more optimal.

So, it's kind of funny how anytime I work with students and they're in a very difficult space or even when I work with adults and they're in a difficult space, we try to flip it.

How can we flip this if you feel like you're in a sinking boat, how can we flip that?

I was doing this with a friend of mine where she felt that she was in a situation with her daughter and she felt that the situation was kind of pulling her under and she felt that she was sinking and we were able to shift and she said, well, all right, maybe I need to change my boat.

All right, I want to be in a party barge.

I want to be in a pontoon boat that's strong and fun.

And I can pull my daughter into the boat instead of feeling that she's pulling me out and just by shifting that perspective, she felt so much better and so much stronger whenever she was struggling.

She thought of the party barge.

Then it was an opportunity to bring humor and joy into her relationship with her daughter.

And it worked.

That's fantastic.

And it's making me think, what's the practical takeaways?

How do we work with cognitive flexibility?

Because basically what we're talking about is when things aren't going our way, when things aren't going as expected, unexpected demands, changing priorities and having to change our perspective on something.

You know, we thought we understood something, we thought we knew where we were going, and things have shifted.

So how do you what are the practical things psychologists recommend for switching gears?

You know, I think there's a huge emotional piece and just getting more comfortable with change.

And I think part of what we do is we learn something to automaticity sometimes and maybe that's not always the best thing because it doesn't make us that able to change gears to beef flexible because it's automatic.

It's unconscious.

So maybe part of the answer is to be more conscious to stop slow down at times be more conscious because when we're conscious I think we're more comfortable with flexibility because when something's become automatic, and someone wants you to change that's really uncomfortable.

But the beautiful thing about cognitive flexibility is that's the key to creative thinking.

It's the key to creative thinking.

It's the key to out of the box learning and that's what we need for growth.

So, accepting that that flexibility will bring on growth if you're overly flexible, it can be completely disorganized.

So, we have to use that other piece which is the inhibitory control of executive functioning and the working memory.

We have to bring in all those pieces and evaluate things in such a way that we make conscious decisions.

Okay, I've got a game here, I want to play a mental game here.

What you're talking about inhibitory control, which is kind of like putting the brakes on something right?

And we're talking about cars, aren't we?


And gears?


So, could inhibitory control be the breaks?

I could I'm just thinking if you've got a manual car right, you've got the accelerator, you've got the brakes, you've got the clutch and you've got the gears.

So, you're talking about shifting gears, cognitive flexibility.

What's the clutch?

What's the break and what's the accelerator in this sort of executive function analogy.


So, I guess the brakes would be inhibitory control.

Okay the accelerator.

Perhaps that's working memory, that’s where you really do drop into the moment.

It could be, I mean, I think the analogy works pretty well and perhaps executive functioning is like driving a car, What's the clutch, engaging and disengaging so you can get into a gear and out of a gear.

That would be working memory, that would definitely be working memory.

Is that that moment where you're bringing everything together?

Oh yes, because it's connecting the power of the engine, the thoughts to the reality of the world and ultimately the person driving the conductor of cognitive skills.

Like we've talked about how in order to do executive functioning really well, you have to pull all these pieces together.

And you had said earlier that many dyslexics struggle with executive functioning, and I agree with that.

But I also feel that each dyslexic struggles with different pieces of executive functioning.

And then there are those dyslexics that don't actually have outstanding executive functioning skills and their problems reside perhaps in visual or auditory processing.

But I think everybody needs to work on executive functioning.

We all have that puppy brain.


Everybody we learn managed our puppy brain or that wild horse.

Yeah, I mean the wild horse is can you have a car that has a mind of its own like a horse would or a puppy would, you know, that would go in its own direct if you did nothing, which our brains would go in its own direction if we did nothing or actually would it go in its own direction, it would be more directed by circumstances outside of it, other people saying come this way, do this, do that, watch this, think about this, being influenced by the outside and not navigating your own way through life.

You're being led by the nose by others.

Like a horse would be That's so interesting because it makes me think of our inner voice and I have multiple inner voices and sometimes I have a very negative inner voice that's very critical and sometimes I have a very positive inner voice that really drives me in different directions.

So yeah, I mean a car is an adamant object.

So, we're taking the consciousness by calling executive functioning a car or taking the consciousness out of it.

So, I think part of the car we have to assume that there's someone behind it driving it to bring the consciousness into the car and then that would be what if we can we just shifted a bit and said if our brains were horse and we were being the conductor of the horse, what would be the different elements.

So, the rains would be that inhibitory control I suppose right.

And you know, just squeezing the horse's belly uh encouraged him to move a little bit faster.

You can even use like a sound well it makes it very multisensory and frankly remember that all of executive functioning is what helps it to grease the gears is bringing in that sensory information.

So, it's, it's a very multi-sensory thing.

I think trying to put executive functioning in any metaphor is creating too many limits.

So, although it's fun to do it just to wrap your mind around it and make it simple.

Executive functioning isn't simple, it's really, really complex.

So, I think that we can embrace the idea that if we want to get the general gist of it, that we can use metaphors to help us wrap our minds around these pieces, but understand that it's its own universe, which, yeah, extraordinarily complex.

I'm liking thinking about it as a car because sometimes you're sitting in your car and you're wanting to go down the road or go down the route and you're frustrated because the car stalled or you know, something's gone wrong or it's not handling quite right or you're not going the direction you wanted and you're, you're not quite sure and really what we're talking about is you need to train personal brain trainer, you know, you need to learn to drive your own mind, you need to learn to drive the car and that that's fundamentally what we're talking about in this podcast is learning how to drive your own car.

And so, learning how many gears your car has in certain circumstances are you a four-gear car or 18 gear truck, what terrain does your brain suit is a four-wheel drive?

Or is it like a slick racing car, Formula One, which is absolutely amazing on a really nice tarmac, but atrocious off road if we can go out of the box and say, yeah, some cars can fly and some cars can float.

I mean, yeah, why not?

So, we can analogy work by being very for flexible, flexible with the image of the car.

So I will embrace that notion that executive functioning is like a car, as long as car means something much bigger that would work sold because it is because think about it, we're just souls in the in a vehicle and the vehicle is our body and what drives our body is our brain filled with all these cogs or gears that and we just want to experience this world and move through it with as much grace as possible, I guess at least that's what I want, but it's not necessarily what other people want.

We want, we want to get what we want, you know, people want different things and you mentioned at the beginning of this, which is a lot of this and in this podcast, it's about how to achieve your goals, how to get to the destination or along the route travel along that route.

Oh, I've got another analogy talking about vehicles.

One of my favorite vehicles is a sailboat and so I, one of the things I love about sailing is the wind has a mind of its own.

You have to have that flexibility to say, right, that's the way the winds going, this is the way the current's going, this is the lie of the land, that's where the rocks are.

I can't argue with that, that's the wind.

I can't argue with the wind, I can't argue with this, I'm going to have to adjust my sales to the circumstances that are here.

How about using that as a sort of executive function analogy.

I really like that analogy for what we're talking about today, which is the cognitive flexibility.

True, yes, absolutely.

And that reminds me of hot air balloon riding, which is one of my favorite things to do.

I've done it three times now and it's phenomenal and it's the same concept where you're in the wind.


You know, and the beautiful thing about being in the wind is it's completely quiet, which I just didn't expect because you just flowing with the wind, you've not got the wind coming through your ears or anything like that.

Yeah, yeah.

But I love I love sailing too, you know, and the idea is that you're being so, so sensitive to the environment around you and that you're learning to work with the environment instead of against it.

And so, sailing is a beautiful, I think a beautiful analogy for cognitive flexibility.

Well, I think that's a really great place to leave it, isn't it?

Because I think we didn't start off this whole journey this podcast episode knowing where we would go whether we get to sailing or not.

I was pretty fixed on your switching gears, and I think it's not just switching gears, is it's changing tack, changing tech?

Well, there you go now, you could really go into the whole metaphor and use all the terminology behind sailing to understand this cognitive flexibility but under.

But I think for the audience, what's really important that if you want to learn to be more cognitively flexible, having a metaphor that's comfortable for you is going to be very helpful so that you can learn how to manage your mind that so that you can learn how to deal with changing demands.

And I'm thinking about that If there's a listener who's listening and thinking right, cognitive flexibility, I think one of the key things with it is where in life do you meet a non-negotiable obstruction and have to adapt to it.

So, when you're sailing you meet a non-negotiable obstruction, which is the water, the wind, and the rocks.

That's the ultimate when you're driving.

You've got the road you've got the engine or when you're playing golf the course and the wind blows your thing off or whatever.

That's cognitive flexibility.

I think that's a really good prompt there.

Erica, you know, that we think about something in our lives where we experience cognitive flexibility raw.


And maybe it's something that we're an expert at.

For example, golf.


You could use golf and finding something in your life that helps you to hold on to the idea of cognitive flexibility so that you can navigate through your life to meet the demands, priorities and perspectives and step into a more creative way of thinking, handle the different rules and situations and make the adjustments that you need to make to sail through life smoothly.



Let's wrap it up here.

I think that's wrap it there.


And thank you so much for being a part of this discussion.

And we look forward to the next I think the next week we'll be talking about more of the higher-level executive functioning and strategies so that we can strengthen executive functioning at large.


I really liked how you started to do that in this episode where you started talking about inhibitory control, putting the brakes on something and then the cognitive flexibility.

This this tension between the two, but it's not just a dual tension.

There's what's the third one that we covered, inhibitory working memory.

So, there's this this trio.



So, it's kind of like inhibitory control cognitive flexibility and then working memory in the middle.

It's going to be fascinating to see how that all ties into things like time management and organization.

So, I'm looking forward to Erica.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed this podcast guys.

I have definitely.

Alright, well, see you in the next discussion.

See you next time.

Bye bye.

Thank you for joining our conversation here at the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast.

This is Dr Erica, Warren, and Darius Namdaran. Check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the podcast, and please leave us a review and shares on social media until next time.

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