A Complete Guide to Fostering Cognitive Flexibility (And How Psychedelics Can Help)

Why We Need A Neurological Upgrade to Face a World Post Coronavirus

How do you feel like you’re navigating the current coronavirus pandemic? How quickly did you feel like you were able to wrap your mind around these drastic changes and adjust to a “new normal”? 

Looking forward to a world post-coronavirus, how capable do you feel to quickly adapt and pivot towards a more strategic direction in your personal life or business? Are you bogged down by these unexpected changes that have far-reaching, yet unknown consequences, or can you see new opportunities to improve your life and the lives of those around you?

Whether influenced by new technology like AI, environmental crisis, or global pandemics, no one is immune to the drastic, unprecedented shifts we are witnessing in our everyday lives. 

So how do we learn how to navigate these times where “rapid-fire change” seems to be the new name of the game? 

It starts by realizing that the skill sets and the mindsets we needed to thrive during the last century are very different from those required to navigate today’s rapidly changing reality, full of curveballs.

Whether you are an executive, an employee, or leading a company of 1 as a solo entrepreneur, whatever your financial position and whatever your field of occupation, we all need to learn the invaluable skillsets, mindsets (and heart-sets) we can draw upon to navigate these changing tides.  

It’s time for a neurological upgrade, and one place we can start is by fostering and strengthening cognitive flexibility. And as we’ll explore, psychedelics can help.  

Unfortunately, many of us were never taught how to cultivate cognitive flexibility (or creative mindsets for that matter). Almost everyone in the workforce today is the product of our extremely outdated educational systems based on the “factory model of education” that promotes uniformity and obedience.

These archaic institutions don’t foster creative thinking or cognitive flexibility; far from it. They were designed to shape and mold people into factory workers, overemphasizing convergent thinking, which means narrowing our focus to find “the only right solution” to any given problem, (rather than teaching “divergent thinking”, a crucial component of creativity).  

But no one could have imagined just how rapidly the world would change. And now here we are, and we urgently need to take matters into our own hands— especially as creative entrepreneurs who want to successfully navigate a world post-coronavirus and contribute to the whole in some positive, influential way.   

We can launch our personalized mental upgrade program by understanding what cognitive flexibility is, why it’s not only essential, but directly relevant to the world we now live in, and how we can cultivate it. 

Defining Cognitive Flexibility 

There are several different ways we can point to cognitive flexibility to understand what it is. 

Cognitive flexibility: 

  • Enhances your capacity to either switch between tasks or transition your thinking between topics or concepts more rapidly and efficiently;
  • Strengthens your ability to hold multiple ideas in your mind at the same time; 
  • Allows you to discover various pathways to a variety of solutions more successfully;
  • Increases your capacity to apply knowledge from one domain to solving a problem in another domain or unrelated situation; 
  • Allows you to fluidly toggle between zooming in and exploring the details of an issue, while simultaneously zooming out, holding the broader perspective and bigger picture in mind;  
  • Enhances your capacity to evaluate varying strategies or paths forward when facing roadblocks or challenges;  
  • Strengthens your ability to generate novel solutions to problems; 
  • It lends itself towards becoming more open-minded to differing perspectives and opinions. 

(Note that cognitive flexibility is different than the clinical definition of psychological flexibilitydefined as the ability to connect with the present moment and manage one’s feelings—another highly valuable skillset to have. These two terms are used differently but are significantly related.)

Along with other mental capacities like self-control, self-awareness, motivation, problem-solving, and organization, cognitive flexibility is an executive function primarily governed by the prefrontal regions of the brain. 

Why is Cognitive Flexibility Important? 

Based on the exploration of what cognitive flexibility is, it’s likely already apparent to you why it’s so important to cultivate. Cognitive flexibility allows you to find solutions to problems you face—especially when the unexpected happens—and adapt to new situations more rapidly.

Most of us have been feeling the increased pressure of juggling more and more responsibilities. By improving your capacity to think more flexibly, you are training your mind to be more resilient, while more effectively managing chronic stress levels. 

Cognitive flexibility is also crucial for supporting and enhancing creativity, arguably one of the most important mindsets required for the 21st century. And with the growing complexity of our world, the exponential changes we’re witnessing, and our constant exposure to distractions, it’s become clear that cognitive flexibility is an increasingly important mental capacity that we can indeed learn to foster.

Related Article: Can Psychedelics Support the Creative Process? 

Dr. Jennifer Verdolin stats the importance of cognitive flexibility succinctly in an article published in Psychology today: 

“You may be wondering, what’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal. Having greater cognitive flexibility confers a significant set of advantages, including being able to acquire and integrate new information rapidly, solve problems more creatively, quickly adjust responses to changing conditions, and inhibit automatic behavior. All of these benefits allow those individuals to outperform others in a variety of circumstances (social, academic, political, business, etc.).

Companies that will be willing to shake up the status quo and foster a culture of creativity and cognitive flexibility will undoubtedly be able to pivot their focus much more quickly and effectively during unprecedented times. 

How Do We Learn to Foster Cognitive Flexibility? 

Being cognitively flexible is incredibly valuable, yet many of us fall short in this department. I was pretty shocked to discover that studies show that even monkeys and other primates are quicker to catch on when it comes to cognitive flexibility than humans are!

By understanding what cognitive flexibility is, why it’s important, the underlying mechanisms that support cognitive flexibility, and what you can do to start cultivating cognitive flexibility, you’re already well on your way to beating our primate friends to the cognitive punch.   

When we look at the list of the following suggestions, and what they have in common, we notice that strengthing cognitive flexibility strengthens and prevents the decline of:

Understanding Neuroplasticity 

It seems strange to imagine that only a couple of decades ago, common medical knowledge believed that once the brain matured, that was it; the brain was fixed like that. How depressing! 

One of the most revolutionary discoveries in neuroscience was that the brain is highly plastic, meaning that it’s continuously changing throughout our lives. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning, changes in our environment, and new experiences. 

Let’s take a look at a variety of different ways you can support cognitive flexibility. 

How to Enhance Cognitive Flexibility 

Psychedelics, Sacred Plant Medicines 

When reading most articles on cognitive flexibility, it’s unlikely that you’ll come across people recommending psychedelics as a potential support— let alone as a place to start. 

The US government’s unwarranted ban on psychedelic research slowly started lifting at the beginning of the 21st century. With dozens of institutions in the US and around the world focusing on psychedelic research, coupled with the advent of modern functional neuroimaging techniques (fMRI), the effects of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, psilocybin, and ayahuasca on the neural activity in the brain is becoming much better understood–– and is increasingly becoming a very hot topic. 

Recently, there’s been an emergence of research supporting claims that psychedelics and plant medicines like ayahuasca enhance and support neuroplasticity. 

Research is also discovering that psychedelics can support cognitive flexibility, likely due to what we now understand about increased entropy in the brain when ingesting hallucinogenic substances.

One study found that ayahuasca’s ‘afterglow’ improved mindfulness and cognitive flexibility in ayahuasca drinkers The study showed that mindfulness, decentering, and cognitive flexibility increased significantly in the 24 hours after drinking ayahuasca. 

Interestingly, the study suggests that this increase may be the underlying psychological mechanisms responsible for supporting the well-documented reduction in depression and anxiety. This makes intuitive sense. If you are depressed and can find a way to increase your mental flexibility, you can potentially reframe your situation, take a broader view and explore various and potentially less psychologically damaging perspectives.   

If you’ve never journeyed with psychedelics, and clearly feel the intuitive call to explore what they might have to offer you, then please read my disclaimer and consult with an experienced practitioner who can help guide you on your journey. 

Here’s a guide to having a safe psychedelic trip at home. Before journeying, please read about the importance of psychedelic and plant medicine integration.

Microdosing Psychedelics

Maybe a deep dive into your psyche and full-blown visual hallucinations isn’t exactly what you had in mind. Microdosing psychedelics, which means ingesting a tiny amount of psychedelics, could be an alternative you might want to explore that comes with many potential mind and mood-enhancing benefits. 

Although almost all evidence of microdosing benefits is currently anecdotal, research on microdosing psychedelics is slowly becoming more prevalent. 

A recent open-label study on microdosing found that psychedelics still support cognitive flexibility even at smaller amounts. 

The authors of the study state:

“Based on these preliminary results, we speculate that psychedelics might affect cognitive meta-control policies by optimizing the balance between cognitive persistence and flexibility.”

Microdosing psychedelics might also enhance a protein known as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is an element of protein synthesis for constructing neurons—think of as miracle-grow for your brain that helps support neuroplasticity. 

Never Stop Learning

“The world is a university and everyone in it is a teacher. Make sure when you wake up in the morning, you go to school.” ―T. D. Jakes 

Cultivating a love for acquiring knowledge is one of the best things you can do to strengthen cognitive flexibility. This is because learning is one of the primary ways we can support neuroplasticity.  

Every time you learn, your brain forms, strengthens, or connects new neural pathways. The more you repeat what you learn, “neurons that fire are wire together”, strengthening those neural connections. 

As author Jo Boaler explains in her book Limitless Mind, Learn, Lead and Live Without Barriers: 

“When we learn something new we grow the brain in three important ways. The first is that a new pathway is formed. Initially the pathway is delicate and fine, but the more deeply you learn an idea, the stronger the pathway becomes. The second is that a pathway that is already there is strengthened, and the third is that a connection is formed between two previously unconnected pathways.”

Having a depth and breadth of knowledge comes with some significant creative and cognitive advantages. The more you learn and understand different fields of study, the wider the knowledge base you can draw upon, the more you’ll be able to connect ideas in new and novel ways. 

You don’t need to go to school to keep learning. Being self-motivated to continuously learn will prove to be an invaluable mindset for the rest of your life. 

Jim Kwik taught me that one of the secrets to quicker learning is to get involved in your learning process, rather than just passively learning. The more you actively and physically engage in the learning process (like taking notes or mind mapping while reading), the more likely you are to improve your memory and retain greater amounts of information.

Here are a few suggestions to encourage you to keep learning: 

  • Get curious and keep asking WHY; 
  • Learn how to learn faster and more efficiently;
  • Stretch your mind by learning something completely new, in an area you know nothing about, and explore new areas of interest; 
  • Start mind mapping by drawing connections between different fields of interest you’re studying;
  • Read a wide range and different genres of books, both fiction and non-fiction; 
  • Take an online course; 
  • Pick up a new hobby; 
  • Explore an ancient philosophy;
  • Learn a new language;
  • Learn to draw; 
  • Learn about sustainable living and how to grow your food;
  • Learn a musical instrument; 
  • Engage in conversation with new people;
  • If you’re going to watch something, join the Masterclass series or explore the educational content on YouTube is full, not just hilarious cat videos. 

A few of my favorite YouTube channels include the PBS Space Time show, and Quantum Gravity Research exploring all things quantum physics. I also love videos from the Royal Institute, exploring the latest ideas in science, and routinely tune into the content that Tami Simon at Sounds True shares.

Expose Yourself to New and Novel Experiences

Like learning new content or information, exposing yourself to new experiences has the same effect on the brain, along with the added benefit of a surge in dopamine, the motivational, pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter that enhances your focus and improves memory and learning. 

As an interesting side note, the more neurochemicals present while learning, the more likely you’ll retain and remember what you learned. This is why microdosing for flow can be such a powerful way to learn and process a lot of information more rapidly.  

Who knows how leisure travel will resume in a world post-coronavirus, but you can always explore your own backyard. There is beauty in every part of the world. You can:

  • Get outside and explore new areas, and walk through a new part of town;
  • Take a weekend getaway to a hot spring;
  • Embark on an extended hike (with or without psychedelics);
  • go camping, or take a road trip;
  • Visit a museum, go to a music concert;
  • Try a new yoga class;
  • Watch stand up comedy and try writing your own skit;
  • Explore a new writing style, even if it’s just in your own journal;
  • Experience a sound healing ceremony;
  • Participate in ecstatic dance (even if it’s in your living room);
  • Talk to a (friendly-looking) stranger–with consent of course;
  • If you really want to try something new and novel, you can also take a different kind of trip and embark on a psychedelic journey

Ignite that sense of adventure in yourself, expect the unexpected and stay open to where it may lead you while listening to your intuition and internal guidance system.    

Finding yourself in radically new situations will push you to look beyond your habitual perspectives, allow you to learn new and even surprising things, and boost your cognitive flexibility.  

Shake Up Your Routines 

We can leverage habitual routines to up-level our lives, but often, many people find themselves gripped by habits they find challenging to shake. 

Routines allow us to navigate our daily lives with more predictability, which can bring us a sense of stability — something humans are so geared towards cultivating––primarily because it saves us mental energy. But when we fall into old familiar ruts of doing the same thing every day, it leads to mental rigidity, mental stagnancy, and even mental sluggishness. 

You can start cultivating greater cognitive flexibility simply by consciously changing up your routines and the way you do things. You can take the things you do every day and get creative about how you can do them differently, also cultivating your divergent thinking. 

Shake up your workouts, switch up the music you listen to, shake up the way you make meals, and explore new recipe ideas. Take a different route to work. Try eating with chopsticks or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Have fun with exploring all the ways you can shake things up while still building on healthy, supportive, and grounding routines.

Doing things in various ways allows you to form new neural pathways and strengthen that sought-after capacity to flex your brain in a multitude of ways.  

Get Physical 

We’ve long known that mind and body are intricately connected. Keeping your body strong and healthy has innumerable benefits for your brain and mind, including supporting cognitive flexibility.  

A 2015 study lead by Art Kramer, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Cognitive & Brain Health at Northeastern University, found that people who exercise demonstrate more moment-to-moment fluctuations in spontaneous brain activity. 

According to Agnieszka Burzynska, an author on the same study:

“People who have higher brain variability also performed better on complex cognitive tasks, especially on intelligence tasks and memory.”

Kramer states:

“Our study, when viewed in the context of previous studies that have examined behavioral variability in cognitive tasks, suggests that more-fit older adults are more flexible, both cognitively and in terms of brain function, than their less-fit peers.” 

Another study indicates that acute aerobic exercise may facilitate cognitive flexibility as well as other executive functions. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)––that miracle grow compound mentioned above––is also enhanced by exercising. 

Exercise and White Matter

Think of the white matter in your brain as a neural information highway. It contains microfibers essential in carrying nerve impulses that relay messages at mind-blowing speed and coordinate far-flung areas of the brain. White matter plays a vital role in brain function and learning, and we now know that the very structure or architecture of your white matter is directly associated with greater cognitive flexibility.

Unfortunately, cerebral white matter degenerates with age and is associated with declining cognitive function. As this study shows, adults who exercise demonstrate a greater degree of white matter structure in the brain.

Exercise is proving to be a strong protective and preventive factor against the degeneration of white matter and cognitive impairments due to age, so get your move on in a way that inspires you the most!

Add Music to Your Workouts

Who doesn’t love good workout jams? One study found that compared with exercise alone, physical activity with music induces more significant positive effects on cognitive function and leads to subtle neuro-anatomical changes in the brains of older adults.

Exercise doesn’t have to be boring; the more you explore new ways of staying fit through various activities like yoga, swimming, dancing, and rock climbing, the more you get the physical benefits and the added bonus of learning something new. 

Gamify your workouts by getting a Fitbit or an Oura Ring to track how active you are. You can also get more serious about your training and explore high-intensity workouts using a heart rate monitor like the Polar H10 to track and adjust your workouts to meet your cardiovascular goals. 

My Oura ring also shows me a “readiness” score, which is a helpful indication of my recovery from the day before and can influence how hard I choose to work out that day. These new bio-tracking technologies can be useful tools if you want to explore and enhance your peak performance. 

Lately, I’ve been having a blast teaching myself how to dance through these learn-it-yourself choreographed dance videos, and going on hikes through the jungles of Costa Rica exploring new waterfall spots to swim. 

PLAY!

As adults, we easily forget the importance of play and take ourselves way too seriously. There are so many ways you can engage in play, whether it’s playing card games or charades with friends, or playing one of the many available “brain games.” 

Brain games are becoming increasingly popular. More than 50 studies researching the benefits of brain games on cognition have shown positive results. Brain games can keep you sharp and improve your mental agility. They’re also just plain fun. 

Different games are designed to support, cultivate and foster various cognitive capacities. Some games are great for improving memory, spatial intelligence, concentration and focus, creative and divergent thinking, and cognitive flexibility. 

SLEEP

We all know that feeling of trying to maintain focus after a lousy night of sleep. Lack of sleep impairs our focus, concentration, cognitive creativity, and emotional intelligence. 

If you haven’t read “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, I highly suggest adding this to your “read next” book list. After reading this book, you’re not only going to be shocked by the 30 plus years of research Walker has amassed on sleep and what the results point to, you’ll also never want to skimp on sleep again. 

Here are a few compelling quotes from his book to help you rethink the value of your zzzzz’s:

“The physical and mental impairments caused by one night of bad sleep dwarf those caused by an equivalent absence of food or exercise.” 

“Within the brain, sleep enriches a diversity of functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices.”

“After being awake for nineteen hours, people who were sleep deprived were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk.”

“After thirty years of intensive research, we can now answer many of the questions posed earlier. The recycle rate of a human being is around sixteen hours. After sixteen hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours.” 

Sleep is one of the most overlooked essential ingredients for learning. When we sleep, especially when we drop into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, we transfer what we learned that day from working memory and process it into long term storage. If you want to stay sharp, focused, and cognitively fit, prioritize your sleep. 

I use the Oura ring to track my sleep patterns, so I’m better equipped with the information I need to improve my sleep cycles. 

Stay Open to Other People’s Perspectives & Opinions (…Without Reacting) 

Unfortunately, we are living through highly polarized times, and that trend seems to be getting worse. It seems as if people have less tolerance for listening to different opinions and perspectives. 

In one sense, it’s understandable why our social climate has become more polarized. Take the latest coronavirus, for example. It’s exhausting to wade through the ever-expanding chaos, confusion, and misinformation as everyone seems to be pushing their own information agendas.

When crisis strikes, it’s human nature to search for meaning and try to make sense of what’s happening. We all do this. As a result, we create and buy into whatever story that makes the most sense to us. Then we go on to vehemently defend that story — when what we are really protecting is our “models of reality” and self-identity, in hopes of maintaining psychological “stability.” 

But this “stability” comes at a steep price. It enforces rigid ways of thinking and perceiving the world. These views solidify and concretize into beliefs, and some people are even willing to go to war to defend these beliefs. 

By learning to hold all perspectives lightly and more fluidly, you’re doing yourself a huge favor; you’re fostering cognitive flexibility—not to mention basic kindness towards your fellow humans. 

You don’t have to agree with other people’s beliefs to keep an open mind about differing perspectives. Cognitive flexibility allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and even for a brief moment, discover a deeper understanding of why someone might think that way. 

Cognitive flexibility can reduce our judgment towards other people. (And so can psychedelics.)

People have the right to think differently or hold different values than you, and if you’re willing to stay open enough, you may also learn something new. Getting curious about what other people value––people from different countries, cultures, political parties, races, or even your next-door neighbor––can directly expand your cognitive flexibility. 

Get Curious About Other People’s Opinions

Besides just tolerating other people’s perspectives, lean in, and get curious about them. Whether having conversations in person or online, instead of just trying to defend your position relentlessly, go in the other direction and use questions like: 

  • I’m so curious to understand your perspective. 
  • Tell me more; I’d love to understand.
  • Can you clarify what you mean by using an example so I can better understand? 
  • What do you think are your underlying beliefs that contribute to this perspective? 

You might even want to go out on a limb and put out a trigger-rich topic (like cultural mis-appropriation) in a room full of people from different backgrounds, and listen to everyone’s differing opinions.

If you ever experiment with something as radical as this, see if you can notice your physiological response when someone says something you disagree with.

Look deeper: what’s really triggering you here? What can you learn from this? How are you staying stuck in a narrow perceptual view of reality?

Meditation 

When listening to the opinions of others, especially ones you vehemently disagree with, and you notice your heart starts pounding, you might want to add meditation to your daily practice. Not only can it help you keep your cool and not get triggered, but it can also foster curiosity and kindness, and enhance cognitive flexibility. 

This study, titled Meditation, Mindfulness and Cognitive Flexibility investigated the link between meditation, self-reported mindfulness, and cognitive flexibility as well as other attentional functions. The authors of the study state: 

“Overall, the results suggest that attentional performance and cognitive flexibility are positively related to meditation practice and levels of mindfulness. Meditators performed significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention.”

Mindfulness meditation can also enhance cognitive flexibility by reducing cognitive rigidity. Think of the brain as a prediction coding machine. The mind is constantly taking it’s best guess at what’s happening and what’s about to happen based on past experiences. Because of this continual reliance on the past, there’s a hidden tendency to overlook novel solutions and new, adaptive ways of perceiving or responding. Mindfulness meditation can help prevent this tendency to continually rely on the past to anticipate the present and future.  

In another study, the authors conclude that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be “blinded” by experience, thus allowing us to see new opportunities.

If you don’t yet have a meditation practice, just start small, with 5 minutes a day, using a guided meditation like this one. 

Take Action

What are a few things you can start doing right now to enhance and support your cognitive flexibility so you can strengthen your resilience, as well as your capacity to problem solve, innovate and create?

What were your main take-aways from this article?

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