IQ Tests Can’t Measure It, but ‘Cognitive Flexibility’ Is Key to Learning and Creativity

Summary: Cognitive flexibility, an ability to switch between different concepts, or adapt behavior to achieve goals in a novel or changing environment, is a key player in both learning and creativity.

Source: The Conversation

IQ is often hailed as a crucial driver of success, particularly in fields such as science, innovation and technology. In fact, many people have an endless fascination with the IQ scores of famous people. 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. In our ongoing research, we are trying to work out how people can best boost their cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it. If you normally take the same route to work, but there are now roadworks on your usual route, what do you do? Some people remain rigid and stick to the original plan, despite the delay. More flexible people adapt to the unexpected event and problem-solve to find a solution.

Cognitive flexibility may have affected how people coped with the pandemic lockdowns, which produced new challenges around work and schooling. Some of us found it easier than others to adapt our routines to do many activities from home. Such flexible people may also have changed these routines from time to time, trying to find better and more varied ways of going about their day. Others, however, struggled and ultimately became more rigid in their thinking. They stuck to the same routine activities, with little flexibility or change.

Huge advantages

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.

Contrary to many people’s beliefs, creativity is also important in science and innovation. For example, we have discovered that entrepreneurs who have created multiple companies are more cognitively flexible than managers of a similar age and IQ.

So does cognitive flexibility make people smarter in a way that isn’t always captured on IQ tests? We know that it leads to better “cold cognition”, which is non-emotional or “rational” thinking, throughout the lifespan. For example, for children it leads to better reading abilities and better school performance.

It can also help protect against a number of biases, such as confirmation bias. That’s because people who are cognitively flexible are better at recognising potential faults in themselves and using strategies to overcome these faults.

This shows a paint brush adding a bright pink to a painting
Cognitive flexibility is essential for society to flourish. It can help maximise the potential of individuals to create innovative ideas and creative inventions. The image is in the public domain

Cognitive flexibility is also associated with higher resilience to negative life events, as well as better quality of life in older individuals. It can even be beneficial in emotional and social cognition: studies have shown that cognitive flexibility has a strong link to the ability to understand the emotions, thoughts and intentions of others.

The opposite of cognitive flexibility is cognitive rigidity, which is found in a number of mental health disorders including obsessive-compulsive disordermajor depressive disorder and autism spectrum disorder.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that cognitive flexibility is dependent on a network of frontal and “striatal” brain regions. The frontal regions are associated with higher cognitive processes such as decision-making and problem solving. The striatal regions are instead linked with reward and motivation.

There are a number of ways to objectively assess people’s cognitive flexibility, including the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test and the CANTAB Intra-Extra Dimensional Set Shift Task.

Boosting flexibility

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. For example, a person with depression who has not been contacted by a friend in a week may attribute this to the friend no longer liking them. In CBT, the goal is to reconstruct their thinking to consider more flexible options, such as the friend being busy or unable to contact them.

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. We know that this type of learning involves similar frontal and striatal brain regions as cognitive flexibility.

In a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and Nanyang Technological University, we are currently working on a “real world” experiment to determine whether structural learning can actually lead to improved cognitive flexibility.

Credit: Cambridge CARES

Studies have shown the benefits of training cognitive flexibility, for example in children with autism. After training cognitive flexibility, the children showed not only improved performance on cognitive tasks, but also improved social interaction and communication. In addition, cognitive flexibility training has been shown to be beneficial for children without autism and in older adults.

As we come out of the pandemic, we will need to ensure that in teaching and training new skills, people also learn to be cognitively flexible in their thinking. This will provide them with greater resilience and wellbeing in the future.

Cognitive flexibility is essential for society to flourish. It can help maximise the potential of individuals to create innovative ideas and creative inventions. Ultimately, it is such qualities we need to solve the big challenges of today, including global warming, preservation of the natural world, clean and sustainable energy and food security.


Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian receives funding from the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Foundation and the Lundbeck Foundation. Her research is conducted within the NIHR MedTech and In vitro diagnostic Co-operative (MIC) and the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) Mental Health and Neurodegeneration Themes. She consults for Cambridge Cognition. The University of Cambridge and Nanyang Technological University Centre for Lifelong Learning and Individualised Cognition (CLIC) research project is funded by the National Research Foundation, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) programme.

Christelle Langley is funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Victoria Leong receives funding from the Ministry of Education, Singapore and the Centre for Lifelong Learning and Individualised Cognition (CLIC). CLIC is supported by the National Research Foundation, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) programme.

About this cognitive flexibility research news

Source: The Conversation
Contact: Victoria Leong, Christelle Langley and Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

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  1. This is a very interesting and informative article. However, there is one point that this article brought in which I think was not well covered. Namely, bringing OCD, Autism, and Major Depression in as examples of cognitive rigidity; and them leaving them without properly addressing their intricacies and individuality. Yes, people with these disorders can definitely have cognitive rigidity; however they can also have cognitive flexibility alongside their rigidities. One of the key points that I have found in my own experience with Depression, OCD, and Autism – and with the people I have met who have these disorders – is that we are incredibly creative, empathetic, and also flexible. The hallmarks of these three conditions do bring in cognitive rigidity; however this article brought these examples in without addressing how incredibly diverse individuals are, and how rigidity in some aspects does not equate rigidity in all aspects. Example: I can be almost certain that my rigidity in my OCD is not normal or healthy; I can see how illogical my fears can be, and why others would view them as unnecessary, yet I cannot quite convince my brain to the point where my obsession and compulsion for the issue are not necessary. And, in other aspects of my life – like with ideas and societal issues such as politics, human rights, problem solving, etc. – I am incredibly flexible in my thinking, and I have found that most of the interesting and well-thought-out counter arguments I hear in conversation on these topics are from other neurodiverse people with the same ‘cognitively rigid’ disorders. Furthermore, most of these neurodiverse people are very empathetic and will listen to your argument on subjects and give creative solutions. I have found that if I walk into a room of neurodiverse people and mention to each one that I’m Non-Binary and Gay; then most of them if not all of them will readily accept this as fact and I have never received homophobia or transphobia from these people. However, with neurotypicals I am more likely to have to slowly explain to them my “reasons” for being gay and Non-binary, or to patiently listen to their homophobic/transphobic reasoning on why they think it’s wrong. So, the use of these disorders in this article is not entirely wrong – there are definitely aspects of rigid thinking in certain areas for these people – however I think that if you bring in a disorder for example, then you should explain your studies that you used to back up this evidence. These disorders are already highly stigmatized and I have encountered many people who will generalize the rigidity in my disorders as a basis to not listen to me. I think you need to be careful in what you bring into papers such as these, especially when they are scientific and therefore likely to be believed and wholly trusted and not questioned by the average reader. Next time, maybe mention how in certain aspects of life these disorders display cognitive rigidity, but then also mention how people with these disorders can be extremely cognitively flexible in many areas of life, including and especially human rights and general acceptance of others just the way they are. People with Autism, OCD, and other neurodiversities face stigma in so many aspects of our lives; it would be appreciated if scientific articles could use our disorders as examples with thought to how it may affect the general public’s perception of our already highly generalized and misunderstood disorders.

    Thanks again for the interesting article.

  2. I asked my elderly mother, how do you keep going with all these things, potentially emotionally devastating, happening to you in your life and she said “go with the flow”.

  3. General good points, but missing the major one. That is IQ test do measure cognitive flexibility. The IQ test is comprised of many sub tests requiring the subjects to flex constantly between different tasks and knowledge, etc.
    The total score is very much a reflection of flexibility. Low scorers are by definition, less flexible!

  4. Very interesting insights! I’ve heard that cognitive behavioral therapy is sometimes regarded as controversial, but it seems like the practice is gaining more traction as the neuroscience community studies it more. Interested to see future trends in this area.

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