IQ tests can’t measure it, but ‘cognitive flexibility’ is key to learning and creativity

But the truth is that some of the greatest achievements by our species have primarily relied on qualities such as creativity, imagination, curiosity and empathy.

Many of these traits are embedded in what scientists call “cognitive flexibility” — a skill that enables us to switch between different concepts, or to adapt behaviour to achieve goals in a novel or changing environment. It is essentially about learning to learn and being able to be flexible about the way you learn. This includes changing strategies for optimal decision-making.

Flexible thinking is key to creativity — in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions. It also supports academic and work skills such as problem solving. That said, unlike working memory — how much you can remember at a certain time — it is largely independent of IQ, or “crystallised intelligence”. For example, many visual artists may be of average intelligence, but highly creative and have produced masterpieces.

The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for example, is an evidence-based psychological therapy which helps people change their patterns of thoughts and behaviour.

Structure learning — the ability to extract information about the structure of a complex environment and decipher initially incomprehensible streams of sensory information — is another potential way forward.

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