This post is also available in Dutch.
Nico, I don’t know how you manage to do so many things at once! Gaming, social media, texting, listening to the radio…
Nico: Hmm? Well, I don’t actually do everything at the same time. Like while I’m waiting for my friends to text me back tonight’s plans, I’ll play videogames. While gaming, if I receive a Facebook notification, I’ll pause to check it. As for listening to the radio, I’m not really fully paying attention; I only zoom in if the content is something interesting. So in actuality what I’m really doing is switching quickly between different activities.
Maya: Well, this doesn’t really work for me.
Nico: That’s okay Maya, it’s normal to not be able to focus on many things at once. Yesterday, while you were shopping with Grandma. Mom explained to me that the ability to switch one’s focus between tasks is called ‘Cognitive Flexibility’. This requires a lot of working memory and the ability to inhibit distractions. Do you remember when Mom said that your working memory hasn’t quite reached its greatest potential yet? Well, this also applies to the case of your cognitive flexibility.
Maya: Well, whatever, I don’t need it anyway!
Nico: Ha! I’m not so sure about that. Cognitive Flexibility doesn’t simply help you switch between tasks but also helps you switch between points of view, to see different perspectives.
Let’s take for example, our spatial point of view. Try to imagine what the room would look like if you were standing next to that plant, as oppose to where you are now?
You could also consider things from an intrapersonal perspective. For instance, when you create images in your mind while thinking.
Maya: Hmm, let me imagine: If he goes out tonight, who will play video games with me?
Maya: Um, but I don’t understand how the ability to change points of view is related to inhibition and working memory.
Nico: Think about it. To change your point of view, you first need to deactivate your current point of view – this is the role that inhibition plays. Then, to adopt a new point of view, you need to place new information in your mind, and in doing so you make use of your working memory.
Nico: In other words, this flexibility allows us to solve a problem with a different strategy when the current strategy doesn’t work. So actually, for tonight’s plans, I should have realised that my friends’ ability to make use of cognitive flexibility will likely results in a really slow decision for tonight’s plans…
…Marc doesn’t like change, so he has a hard time adjusting his agenda, and Joe doesn’t want to admit booking laser tag at an inconvenient location was a bad idea. Then there’s Jerome, who didn’t even consider asking his uncle to stop a bit later so that he could give us a ride to laser-tag on his way home.
Nico, is currently making use of his cognitive flexibility in multiple ways. He considers the different options his friends could consider. He also places himself in Maya’s shoes by taking her perspective. In doing so, he is displaying empathy – the ability to understand another person’s feelings.
Nico: You know what? You’re right. What’s the point of switching between several tasks if most of them are rather pointless? Let’s put get off social media, and turn off my phone and the radio, and instead… How about we play a video game together?
Maya: Ahuh… that’s what I was thinking. Yes, let’s play.
Nico: Don’t worry, Grandma’s cognitive flexibility can’t be that great anymore, unfortunately, it depreciates with age.
Maya: I don’t know… She seems to be in pretty good shape!
Text and illustrations: Roselyne Chauvin
Editing : Nietzsche Lam – Sophie Akkermans – Marpessa Rietbergen – Jeroen van Baar
– Brain mechanisms of flexible cognition https://www.psy.ox.ac.uk/research/duncan-lab
– Diamond, A., and Ling, D.S. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience