4 min read
Twelve-step programs of various kinds often invoke the phrase that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” which at one time or another has been attributed to thinkers ranging from Albert Einstein to Ben Franklin.
. . . just focusing on the present moment and non-judgmentally observing our experiences can begin to change the way we think.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
This definition makes the psychologist in me want to cringe, but there is a certain truth to it. Difficulties with mental flexibility—the ability to shift perspective and encounter new problems with fresh eyes—have been implicated in numerous psychiatric problems, including depression, bipolar, and eating disorders.
So, how do we begin stretching our mental flexibility muscles? There are a number of ways to potentially improve mental flexibility. Here are five easy ways to get started:
Beyond boosting physical fitness, exercise seems to confer other benefits, including improving mental flexibility. The link between exercise and a flexible mind is likely due to several factors, such as improved blood flow in the brain and increased production of proteins supporting the growth and survival of brain cells. Only 20-30 minutes of physical exercise a day seems to be enough, although individuals who exercise five days per week are more likely see benefits compared to those exercising three or less.
Training and practice in mindfulness meditation has been shown to enhance a broad set of thinking abilities including mental flexibility. It turns out that just focusing on the present moment (e.g., noticing your breathing) and non-judgmentally observing our experiences can begin to change the way we think.
As a beginner, it can be difficult to know how to start practicing mindfulness. If that’s you, tune in for more later this week on how to get started with mindfulness meditation.
3. Engage Socially
Social interaction has also been shown to improve executive functioning, which is a broad set of thinking abilities that include mental flexibility. However, not all kinds of social interaction are equal when it comes to improving your mental capabilities.
In one study, people who were engaged in cooperative tasks with each other showed greater improvements than those engaged in competitive ones. However, when interactions allowed for a high degree of interpersonal engagement, even competitive tasks produced gains in executive functioning – a broad set of thinking abilities (e.g., thinking abstractly and focusing on relevant information) that includes mental flexibility. The researchers concluded “that people need to engage with others and take their perspective to realize cognitive boosts.”
4. Play Games
Specific games have been developed to increase the flexibility of the mind, including dual-task or task-switching training, which involves switching between or simultaneously performing two tasks with separate goals (e.g., walking while remember a string of numbers). Smart phone and computer applications, such as, Brainsoar and IQMindware, have been developed, so virtually anyone can try out these techniques, which have been shown to improve executive functioning for both older and younger individuals.
]It can be hard for some people to stay motivated and engaged in these “brain games,” which are typically not as interesting and dynamic as mainstream video games. The good news is that it turns out that video games, even ones not intended to improve thinking abilities, have also shown some promise in increasing mental flexibility. In particular, real-time strategy games, like StarCraft, have been shown to improve mental flexibility, even after just 40 hours of play.
5. Improve Your Mood
There is a clear connection between mood and mental flexibility, with individuals who rate their mood as happy being more likely to respond flexibly to mental tasks. When people are happy they seem to find ways to creatively transform tasks, even unpleasant ones, to make them more interesting and enjoyable.
Of course, if it were as simple as just deciding to improve our mood, we’d all be skipping down the streets whistling zippity doo dah. Still, there are simple and effective strategies to begin boosting your mood, like planning and carving out time everyday to engage in activities that you find pleasant, rewarding, or meaningful.
The best activities are ones that you would enjoy doing, but for whatever reason, they’ve fallen off your radar screen. Maybe you used to love gardening but somewhere along the way decided that you no longer have the time. Even a brief activity (e.g., taking 30 seconds to appreciate nature) can make a difference, as long as it’s done with the explicit intention of doing something nice for yourself.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, use this survey to learn more about activities that you might like. There are lots of other free resources available to help you identify and plan mood-boosting activities and keep you track.
So, give one of these mental flexibility tips a try and let us know how it goes. Please share your favorite mental flexibility techniques and experiences by leaving a comment below. We want to hear from you!