This is part 4 in a series about executive function. After wrapping up the discussion of regulatory functions with some thoughts about Cognitive Flexibility, it talks a bit about some models of EF and how the various pieces fit together. Looking for the other parts? Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Cognitive flexibility is all about change. Changing your mind. Changing your opinion. Changing your beliefs. Coping with change. Understanding why change happens.
In a more formal sense, it’s the ability to shift your thinking or attention is in response to changes in the environment or situation (such as new rules, information, demands or goals). If you’ve ever wondered where the autistic tendency toward rigid thinking and routine comes from, this is it. Change requires cognitive flexibility. It’s not necessarily that we don’t want to do things differently. Impaired executive function makes it harder to adapt to change by forming new thought or behavior patterns.
Variation in executive function capacity can explain why one day it’s not a big deal if the bus is five minutes late or your favorite shirt is in the laundry but on another day, this kind of small disruption to routine triggers a meltdown. What appears to be a fit of irrationality is actually a failure of the prefrontal cortex to cope with change in the expected way.
Cognitive flexibility also refers to considering multiple aspects of a situation at the same time, such as seeing opposing points of view or multiple characteristics of an object. When you think about it, there is little difference between “lack of empathy” or “impaired theory of mind” and impaired cognitive flexibility. Not seeing the other person’s point of view can be as simple as having difficulty seeing multiple aspects of a situation at the same time.
Finally, cognitive flexibility includes task switching, which is sometimes listed as a separate component of executive function. Difficulties with task switching are what make it hard to stop playing World of Warcraft and start making dinner. Or to pick up where you left off on a task after being interrupted. Poor task switching is also why people will often say that autistic people are so good at doing repetitive tasks. It might be more accurate to say that we’re not very good at stopping. Continue reading Executive Function Primer (Part 4)