Can we teach cognitive flexibility?

For the past three weeks, my class and I have been reading experimental neuroscience articles about stress and physiological stress responses. The message coming through these articles is that a stress response occurs when an organism perceives an event as a threat to homeostasis of some sort. The response functions to “restore” homeostatic balance. Too much stress is bad for you because the response is meant to get you out of threatening situations, life or death situation. It’s not good to activate this system day in and day out driving to work, studying for tests, dealing with the various social stressors that plague us.

Makes sense. We all in our society tend to think of stress as bad. We want to avoid stress, to live an unstressful life, etc. Sure, a little stress might be good, keep us on our toes, like the jitters before a piano recital. But, too much stress, bad news. This framework was so familiar to us in the course that we all read these articles within this mindset and everything seemed to make sense. This is the prevailing framework in the field of stress neuroscience. Then…..I turned things over, upside down, on my students.

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I started slowly. We read an article that provided some cool evidence of what we already know. That exercise can counteract some, many, of the bad effects of stress. A few times over the past few weeks, I had mentioned exercise and casually asked, “Why is exercise helpful in coping with stress?” Seemed like a common-sense kind of story.

But then I said, “Exercise triggers the same physiological profile as some pretty major stressors. So, why is exercise not bad? We can exercise every day, give our bodies a hefty stress response and actually get healthier. Why?” A few students began to look puzzled. I mentioned a few other examples of conditions that evoke in us the exact same stress response, but we do not think of this kind of response as bad (this is a G-rated blog, so I won’t go into it).

There’s an entirely different idea that has developed over the past few years or so about stress. This new idea is that these physiological/neurochemical/biochemical changes that we call a stress response are the “physiological support for behavior.” And if our capacity to provide that support is inadequate, or if the requirements are simply outside of our range to provide support, then, the outcome is not beneficial. But if we and our bodies operate within our physiological range, it’s all good. Very different idea. Very cool possible implications and new avenues of study. I used this different framework to re-interpret the conclusions of some of the articles we had discussed previously. Kinda mind-blowing, it was.

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In order to grasp this new conceptual framework, my students had to have cognitive flexibility. An ability and a willingness to look at things in a new light, to hold more than one conceptual framework in mind. Not everyone in the room felt comfortable doing this. Several students started squirming in their seats. A couple seemed to suddenly tune out. One even got red in the face and looked like he might cry. But one student smiled and looked excited by this new way of thinking.

Cognitive flexibility is a skill that isn’t often taught explicitly, particularly in many science classes. We tend to emphasize the explanations, the cognitive framework that is currently accepted by the broader scientific community. Not too long ago we figured that humans must have way more genes than other animals in order to be as complex as we are. Now we accept as a “no-brainer” that we have similar numbers and kinds of genes as chimps, mice and even nematodes. Not so long ago, we had the “Central Dogma” that gene begets mRNA that begets protein. One gene, one protein. Now, we favor a much more nuanced view of the many flavors of gene and the importance of non-gene DNA and RNA. Sure, we teachers change our framework, but we tend to provide our students with the newest idea as though it’s the only idea, or the right idea. We might take an historical approach, but the students themselves do not have to embrace first one cognitive framework and then transform their own thinking towards a different framework.

We all know that as we learn more about the world through science, or any field of inquiry, our conceptual frameworks change. We all hope that our students will develop cognitive flexibility by the very virtue of taking challenging courses that promote new ways of thinking. I think we need to make this hope into an explicit goal for our college education.

Cognitive flexibility is a critical skill for us to impart to our students so that they can embrace new ways of thinking. To embrace new ideas most fully requires an ability to “see” that there may be more than one explanation or process operating simultaneously. To hold one idea in one’s mind while at the same time seeing another.

When you think about your classes for next semester (I know, it’s a long way off), try to think about ways to introduce cognitive flexibility explicitly into your course.