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The Importance of the Flexible Mind


Eating turkey will make you sleepy because it contains tryptophan.


You already knew that, right? It turns out you are wrong. This explanation at WebMD on why it’s not the turkey that makes you sleepy will set you straight.


Did you just change your long-held belief about turkey making you sleepy? If not, why not? Is it because of experience – that you always feel like taking a nap after the Thanksgiving meal? Or perhaps it is because your mother told you it was true and her advice was always sound?


You may or may not have clicked on the link I provided, but you would probably agree that WebMD is a more reliable source for health information than mom.


But changing our long-held beliefs is hard and if the beliefs are about bigger issues than the effects of eating turkey, such as political or social views, it is much harder.


That is why most of us don’t do change our beliefs very often and usually fight vigorously to hold onto them. Plus, your lizard brain doesn’t want you to change your beliefs because it doesn’t feel good.


Flexing the Belief Muscle


Cognitive flexibility is the ability to change your mind to adapt to a changing environment, especially when newly available evidence contradicts your prior beliefs. It is also called “mental shifting.”


It is an extremely important skill for high performers to have. In fact, cognitive flexibility is listed by the World Economic Forum as one of the top ten skills need to thrive in the future.


We think of ourselves as open-minded and flexible, but in truth we are extremely steadfast in hanging onto our beliefs. The longer and more firmly entrenched the belief, the harder it is to dislodge.


We also behave in ways that make it easier to hold onto those beliefs, such as only consuming information that confirms our beliefs or discounting the source of information that contradicts us.


Old and Rigid

Studies show that the older we get, the less likely we are to be cognitively flexible. Aging in the brain causes functional and physical brain changes that hurt processing and cognitive performance. So when you get to be a geezer (like me) it takes more effort to change your beliefs.


But in this era of rapid technological advancement (which is only accelerating further, by the way), it is more important than ever to be open to new information as it becomes available. Too often, however, we close ourselves off from that information because we either distrust the source (understandable in many cases) or we fear being proven wrong.


Inflexibility limits our potential for growth and improvement because growth requires us to open our minds to new ideas, even when those ideas are uncomfortable and hard for us to accept.


Becoming more flexible

Research on children and cognitive flexibility shows that it is a trait that comes more naturally for some people than for others. However, it can be learned and improved with practice. Here are some tips to improve your cognitive flexibility:


- Practice “divergent thinking.” This is the practice of approaching problems with the intention of generating as many unstructured ideas as possible, such as through brainstorming. This deliberate flexing of the brain in new directions increases the ability to consider alternative ideas and options.


- When making decisions, purposefully avoid selecting options that are familiar and easy. It is often the unfamiliar and difficult paths that can open our eyes to more accurate or truthful ideas and information.


- This is the most difficult - deliberately seek out ideas and evidence that challenges your beliefs and be open to changing your mind. You may or may not adopt new beliefs and you may increase your level of uncertainty, but you will certainly have a better understanding of other ideas, mindsets, and points of view.


Think well and be well.


- Steve.