We have an incredible ability to accomplish all kinds of goals: We can choose to eat healthier foods, learn new languages, and find our way across town. Cognitive control refers to our mind’s ability to pursue goals by directing our thoughts and actions towards things that are consistent with our goals and away from things that are inconsistent with them. For example, while cycling to a restaurant in an unfamiliar part of town, cognitive control allows us to ignore distracting thoughts about what we plan to eat to pay attention to the route and the surrounding traffic. Sometimes, however, the outside thoughts are too tempting and we lose our focus. Why does this happen?
Balancing stability and flexibility
One idea is that our ability to become distracted stems from a trade-off between stable and flexible cognitive control. When our mind is stable, we are highly focused on a single task and can block out distractions. When our mind is flexible, we are more open to off-task information, so we become distracted more easily. At first glance, having a stable mind seems like a great way to accomplish our goals; however, there is also a downside: stability can make us overly rigid and unable to switch gears when the need arises. The benefit of flexibility is that we are also better at switching our task. For instance, if during our cycling trip we see another cyclist stranded with a flat tire, flexibility will help us mentally switch our goal and pull over to lend a hand.
In general, we need both stability and flexibility to work successfully towards our goals, and the optimal balance depends on the task we are trying to accomplish. Stability helps when we need to focus on a single task, whereas flexibility helps us when we need to switch often and also allows us to be more creative, by helping us think outside the box and come up with new ideas for how to solve problems. Indeed, most real-world tasks require both flexibility and stability. For example, when riding a bike we need to stay focused to follow our planned route and obey traffic rules, but we must also be flexible enough to notice and react to anything unexpected that might come across our path. So, the answer to the question of why our brains have the ability to become distracted might be: because sometimes it is beneficial to be flexible and open to outside thoughts.
What determines whether we are stable or flexible?
Our genes influence whether we tend to be stable or flexible in our cognitive control, but our current state of mind also has a great impact on where we fall on this stability-flexibility spectrum. For instance, when we are in a happy mood, we tend to be more flexible. Another important factor is motivation. When we are highly motivated to do something, we can often focus on that one goal and ignore all distractions, no matter how tempting. On the other hand, when we are more motivated to do something other than the task at hand, we can become easily side-tracked. This may help explain why even the most safety-conscious cyclist might have a hard time paying attention to the road when they are eagerly anticipating a nice meal with friends.
In sum, we can think of cognitive control as lying on a continuum from stable to flexible. Although we tend to value stability because it can help us accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently, some flexibility also offers benefits, by helping us “think outside the box” and switch tasks when needed.
Original language: English
Author: Rebecca Calcott
Buddy: Monica Wagner
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Translator: Wessel Hieselaar
Editor translation: Eva Klimars