Irish playwright, critic, and polemicist George Bernard Shaw said, those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. And change is not only indispensable but also inevitable, since life is not static or immutable, but rather fluid. Therefore, it is convenient to have an elastic mind, or what experts call cognitive flexibility, the ability to adapt our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings according to the circumstances.
Few times have we required it in such a dramatic and urgent way as the period we have been living in since the beginning of 2020. In the face of the global pandemic, governments, institutions, companies, and people were forced to make the necessary and creative adaptations to face an uncertain and rapidly evolving situation.
Responses to the pandemic, from denial and maintenance of the status quo to swift and decisive action to reduce the spread of the virus, provided a living example of why this resilience of mind is vital.
But long before covid appeared in our lives, its importance was widely recognized: Various developmental and lifespan research shows that flexibility promotes academic performance, job success, successful transition to adulthood, and even in old age it can mitigate the effects of cognitive decline.
What does it mean for your mind to be elastic?
Everything indicates then that it is worth having an elastic mind. But how do you know if you have it?
The neuroscientist and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett said, when your brain cannot predict something, or when you have to assimilate new information that you did not predict, your brain can update itself that is what we call learning or it can ignore the data of the senses and simply insist on its own prediction.
Psychologist Volker Paten said, there is a well-known demonstration of flexibility called the Stroop test.
In it, they show you the names of the colors written with inks that do not coordinate and you have to press the colored buttons that correspond to what the word tells you, not its appearance.
The idea behind that is that in order to do this you have to change different pieces of information in your mind. In simple terms, what happens is that when you scan the color of the word, the automatic processes of reading the word interfere with the ability to indicate color out loud. The more difficult it is for a person, the less cognitively flexible they are generally.
Being psychologically flexible allows you to make the best use of the resources you have available to deal with stress, for example.
Those who suffer from psychological inflexibility tend to use a very narrow range of their resources to adapt.
The idea in psychological flexibility is to get people out of a state of what psychologists call languishing to one in which they can achieve more of their potential. What prevents them from changing their lives from a state of low satisfaction to one of greater satisfaction often has to do with the inflexibility in the way they approach the problem they face.
For Dr. Feldman Barrett, there is a profound lesson.
You can take more control over your environment. You are not just a passive recipient of what the world gives you.
You exercise to make your thinking more elastic
The idea is to be proactive: spend the time cultivating experiences and searching for new information. They are opportunities to expose yourself to prediction errors so that your brain can solve problems more flexibly in the future.
Exposing yourself to things that you do not know, and perhaps even ideas that you do not like, can make you feel bad at the moment, but it turns out to be a very good investment for your well-being.
And if you don't know where to start, don't worry: here are some exercises courtesy of physicist Leonard Mlodinow, author of Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World.
Pick an idea you don't believe in
I call this idea of the day.
I don't mean to go pretend. I mean honestly trying to imagine how someone who thinks differently than you, but someone you respect, might accept this idea and try to convince you of it.
Reflect on your mistakes
When we make mistakes we often try to forget it.
Well, in this exercise you are going to think about when you made a mistake. Remember a time when you were wrong - the more wrong the more important it was, the better - and focus on it.
Realize that you are not always right.
One of the barriers to elastic thinking is our tendency to always think that we are right and to keep moving in the same direction.
This exercise will help you get rid of that.
Try new foods
This is fun.
Pick a restaurant at random or one you wouldn't normally go to and order something you wouldn't normally order.
Make sure it is not the most popular dish, rather, the least popular.
Or buy ingredients that you have not tried, learn how to cook them and try them.
Studies indicate that stretching in a simple way like this increases your creativity and imagination.
Talk to strangers
Your parents taught you "Don't talk to strangers."
Well, your fourth exercise is to disobey them.
In fact, talk to people who are as different from you as possible, people who believe in a different way, or just random people and try to understand how they think.
And the more you are exposed to the way other people think, the broader your own thinking will be.
I don't mean a Rembrandt, I mean art that is different, even if you don't like it.
Look at an exhibition that exposes you to different art than the kind you normally see (you can do it online). That will help you think differently.
Research shows that if you do exercises like these five, your mind will be more elastic, it will be easier for you to adapt to change and you could even be the one to change everything, says Mlodinow.
* This article was adapted from the BBC Ideas videos "Five ways to be more elastic in your thinking" and "The benefits of flexible thinking".