Many years ago, I was supposed to test a young man to determine if I would be able to assist his school team in developing a plan for working with some of his underlying challenges. Per members of his team, this young man often seemed belligerent, short-tempered, and even oppositional at times. When I came to get him for testing, at a time that I had arranged with both he and his teacher beforehand, he seemed to demonstrate some of this “oppositional” behavior. He was on the computer, and he told me that he couldn’t get off the computer to come see me at that time. At first, seeing him through the lens that the other professionals had given me, I saw him as being resistant. But thankfully, I remembered that the teacher had told me earlier that he might have difficulty getting off the computer if he was on it when I came to see him. I took a moment before responding to reflect on what he was telling me. He couldn’t come with me right now; not that he wouldn’t come with me right now. This was not an active choice, but one dictated by his being stuck in the pattern that he was currently involved in. Once I considered this, I told him that I understood that he couldn’t see me at that time, but that I was sure that he would be able to see me at a later, specific, time when he wouldn’t be involved in the computer. When I came to see him later, I found him to be ready for me, and quite willing to participate in the testing that I had to do with him.
In many ways, it is quite simple to define, and come up with examples of, instances where we don’t exhibit flexibility. The example in the opening paragraph contains two such instances, both the young man’s difficulty getting off the computer, and the initial “lens” that I used to view this behavior through.
Rigidity. Being Stuck. Bias. Stereotypes. Rumination. Perseveration. These words all describe states that brought on by not having a flexible mind. Some of these states (i.e., bias and stereotypes) are short cuts that our brains take to simplify our thinking about others, situations, philosophies, etc. Others of these states (i.e., rumination, perseveration, rigidity, and being stuck) describe mental states that we get into when we are unable to shift our thinking. Having to adhere to a schedule, way to get to work, idea about how things need to be, or need to complete something before one can move on to other tasks may all be functional examples that many of us experience of this type of lack of flexibility.
What can be harder to do is define, and give examples of, what it means to have a flexible mind. Part of the reason for this is the very struggle described above with resisting inflexible, or rigid, thinking. We can feel so right, and even justified, in our “rigidity.” That guy is a “jerk” because his beliefs don’t coincide with mine. Those people are “wrong” because they don’t live their lives like I believe that they should. Everyone knows… These are such subtle, and yet powerful ways, that inflexibility, rigidity, seep into our everyday lives.
But, what does this have to do with the young man described in the beginning paragraph? It is so tempting at times to look at others, like those with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and make judgments about them. They need to stop perseverating on their “special interest” and settle down and just do their homework/work/chores around the house. They need to learn to be less rigid. They need to learn to interact in the “real world.” But, there were two people in the example who exhibited inflexibility, both the young man and myself. Luckily for the two of us, one of us could use other resources to become flexible in his thinking so that we both could move on from this situation where we could have been stuck.
To understand how I became flexible in my thinking, we first should explore a little bit about flexibility. Let’s start with considering a key concept in flexibility called, Set. Set refers to: “the preparation of neural resources for expected sensory input or motor response in the course of executive performance (Fuster, 2008).” Wikipedia goes on to further clarify that a set, in this context, is a “group of expectations that shape experience by making people especially sensitive to specific kinds of information. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Set_(psychology).” So, set is our brains’ way of guiding our current experiences through the lens of our past experiences. Our perceptions, beliefs, thoughts, ideas, and ways of thinking about others/situations, all have a reciprocal relationship with the current set we may have in an area; both with our past experiences influencing our current expectations, as well as our current experiences influencing our future expectations.
What do we do when we come to an experience/situation where expectations derived from previous experiences either don’t fit for the current experience, or are incompatible with the current experience? The flexible mind can recognize the differences between the current experience and past experience, or identify that expectations elicited by past experiences are incompatible with the current experience. In these situations, the flexible mind shifts away from the inaccurate or incompatible expectations and toward other mental states, rule sets, or responses that better fit the experience/situation (Best & Miller, 2010).
And, in many ways, that is what I did in the opening example. When I considered the young man’s response, that he couldn’t come with me, I found that this response was incompatible with the information that I had been given to me about the young man ahead of time, the he was oppositional. He wasn’t belligerent, rude, or resistant. He was just unable to honor my request to see him at that time. And so, I presented a response that was incompatible with previous responses that he experienced in situations such as this; I expressed my understanding and then primed him for future success when I would see him next. By doing this, I removed the obstacle that was getting us stuck, and allowed us to come to a solution that met both of our needs.
And, at its core, this is what having a flexible mind is all about. Having the capacity to shift my incompatible sets/expectations (thoughts, emotions, perceptions, awareness, etc.) to more compatible sets/expectations for my experiences. By doing this, I am then able to respond more adaptively to my environment. This practice also helps me to become aware of times when I am becoming rigid, and enact plans (coping strategies) that help me to return to greater flexibility.
Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010). A Developmental Perspective on Executive Function. Child Development, 1641-1660.
Fuster, J. M. (2008). The Prefrontal Cortex: Fourth Edition. London: Academic Press.