Years ago, New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz was running late to catch a flight at JFK airport. When he entered long-term parking, the ticket to the lot jammed in the machine, worsening his predicament.
As cars piled up behind him and the risk of missing his flight became pressing, Shortz went into problem-solving mode. He got out of the car and spied a paperclip on the ground. Thinking quickly, he twisted it into a hook, extracted his ticket, and dashed to the gate just in time to catch his flight.
When we’re cognitively flexible, we find novel solutions to challenges such as Shortz’s NYT crossword puzzles.
But mental flexibility goes well beyond puzzling. Mental flexibility allows us to see things from different perspectives and appreciate another person’s point of view. It’s what keeps us from getting emotionally stuck and helps us go with the flow of life. All of which not only supports problem-solving but enables us to get along better with others.
Mental flexibility is an essential life skill. And it’s one that appears all the more valuable in a climate of political polarization, outrage porn, and personal broadcasting where tolerant and reasonable exchanges about issues are as rare as shooting stars.
Fortunately, mental flexibility is a trainable skill. To get a sense of what it means to be mentally flexible, let’s try an experiment. Look at the picture below.
What do you see? Do you see a duck with its beak pointing to the left? Can you see a bunny with its nose pointing to the right?
If you can see both images, congratulations, you just exercised a bit of mental flexibility. This 100-year-old drawing has been used in studies to gauge creativity by how quickly people see one image and then the next. It might be relatively easy for us to toggle between a duck and a rabbit in a drawing. But it’s not so easy to be as mentally nimble in daily life.
Think back to the last time you argued with your spouse, a friend, or a co-worker? Was it easy to see their side of the story? Could you empathize with their point of view? Or was doing so as challenging as one of Shortz’s crossword puzzles?
When we become rigid in our thinking, we invariably get straight-jacketed in perceptions and behaviors that exacerbate our stress. Not only do we lose the capacity to see things broadly and create ingenious solutions we wind up locking horns with others. As a result, our efforts to solve problems or resolves disputes often devolve into anger and frustration.
Of course, this happens to all of us, particularly when we care deeply about situations, people, and issues. Training in mental flexibility, however, can allow you to enter problem-and-resolution mode more readily.
There are many ways to become mentally agile. You can do crossword puzzles, fix a broken paper shredder, or cook a recipe with alternative ingredients. You also can practice mindfulness.
A smattering of studies show mindfulness meditation improves cognitive flexibility. Research on how mindfulness affects the brain is still in its infancy and I’m hesitant to rely on it too heavily.
What I’ve experientially gained from practicing mindfulness meditation, though, is a widening tolerance for nuance, alternative perspectives, and the gray area of not knowing.
Mindfully observing the coming and going of thoughts, beliefs, and judgments lessens the investment in them, allowing you to hold them more loosely. It doesn’t mean that you don’t retain a point of view or that you don’t have strong opinions. But what once seemed like the only way to see something often gives way to an open field of other possibilities and outlooks.
In other words, you see both the duck and the rabbit.
Nobel Prize winner and legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was interviewed in the New York Times recently before the release of his latest album “Rough and Ready Ways.”
Asked why more people didn’t pay attention to Little Richard’s gospel music Dylan responded in a way that made me want to blare gospel music throughout the house. Dylan said:
“Gospel music is the music of good news and in these days there just isn’t any. Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum, and put on the run. Castigated. All we see is good-for-nothing news…On the other hand, gospel news is exemplary. It can give you courage…” Bob Dylan, NYT, June 12, 2020