July 27, 2020

Flexibility is at the Heart of human Intelligence

By Brian Thuku

Mental flexibility can help in most professions and situations. New research shows it is critical to general intelligence.

Life is constantly throwing curve balls at us; we make plans hoping that everything will work out as expected but more often than not, something happens that can either delay the plan or render it entirely useless. In such situations, there are people who are able to adjust and work around the challenge; and then there are those who are stuck and cannot think of any alternatives. The ability to adjust to the new reality, re-plan and come up with a quick solution is what constitutes flexibility.

Linguistically, flexibility means being able to bend without getting broken or becoming damaged. From a psychological standpoint, flexibility is the mental ability to cope and adjust to unexpected circumstances (in addition to expected ones). Flexibility enables you to change your plan promptly to deal with unforeseen obstacles and still achieve your objectives.

Take for example the COVID-19 pandemic which has shifted the global working patterns in unexpected ways. With employees having to stay home, businesses have been forced to come up with ways to still meet their objectives or at least part of them; the situation has forced them to adjust. Rigid work-places have been forced to become more flexible and adjust to the current circumstances.

Biological understanding of inflexibility

Some people are naturally more flexible than others (although this does not mean that you cannot become more flexible if you want to). Studies show that there may be a biological basis for inflexibility, but biological factors are not the only ones. For instance, while some have conditions that may cause them to be inflexible such obsessive-complulsive disorders; there are those who expect things to go their way and get mad when this doesn’t happen, even with trivial things.

Of particular importance is the ACG (Anterior cingulate gyrus), which is an area of the brain associated with shifting attention. Studies have shown that people who have an overactive ACG tend to be inflexible. A person with a properly functioning ACG has no problem letting go of one line of thought and focusing on another, as opposed to getting stuck on something.

A new theory on flexibility

According to a new theory published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences journal in November in 2017, flexibility is indispensable to human intelligence. The brain’s wiring usually changes according to the new needs brought about by changing and evolving cognitive demands. Professor of psychology, Aron Barbey, from the University of Illinois says that we can predict human intelligence by looking at the ability of the brain to reorganize its networks.

According to the professor, there is a commonly expected train of thought when we hear of someone being described as smart. We automatically assume that the person is able to solve problems effectively and efficiently and make the best decisions at all times.

There has been, however, a new focus in neuroscience on trying to understand general intelligence by studying the brain, especially its structural and functional characteristics. The brain is understood to be modular i.e. different regions and parts of the brain have specific functions to perform (in other words, they have specific cognitive abilities).

The brain works as a whole despite the modularity

According to Professor Barbey, for the occipital lobe at the back of the brain to be able to actually perceive and identify visual objects, it also has to be able to classify them. This is conceptual knowledge which is handled at other brain regions, which shows that these regions are able to work together as a whole by coordinating and integrating information from one another.

Nonetheless, as the number of modules increases, requiring the brain to utilize more of its regions, the object of interest becomes more abstract. How the brain is able to operate and achieve this level of cohesion within itself has baffled scientists for long, as they are unable to identify a specific brain region that handles this integration function.

The prefrontal cortex may be responsible for general intelligence

Evolution has played a part in the functionalities of the brain, which have, according to Professor Barbey, expanded over that time; the prefrontal cortex which is traditionally known to handle several functions including planning and organization of one’s behavior is now suspected by scientists to be the one that drives general intelligence.

“But really, the entire brain,” Barbey said, “its global architecture and the interactions among lower- and higher-level mechanisms; is required for general intelligence.”

Types of Intelligence pathways in the brain

When a person is engaged in a task that requires cognitive skill, the brain modules activate intrinsic connectivity networks within it that enable the individual to handle the task. According to Barbey, neural networks are made up of two different types connections that support two types of information processing capabilities. The two are:

  1. Crystallized intelligence – this involves the pathways that have information based on prior knowledge and experience.
  2. Fluid intelligence – This is flexible intelligence that is dependent on adaptive reasoning and problem solving skills that change depending on the circumstances.

The pathways and connections on these two types of intelligence are different due to their nature of work and the tasks they handle. Those of crystallized intelligence are robust and rigid due to familiriaty. On the other hand, those of fluid intelligence are weaker because they handle unique and new or unusual challenges at times.

Brain flexibility is achieved when the brain is able to readily and willingly form and reform its connections and networks owing to changes in needs and circumstances. Over time, it acquires the ability to work better leading to higher levels of intelligence.

Flexibility as a basis and a factor in measuring and determining human intelligence is a relatively new concept to scientists. With this, general intelligence can be viewed as the ability to utilize both crystallized and fluid intelligence with ease to aid in problem solving.

“What my colleagues and I have come to realize is that general intelligence does not originate from a single brain region or network. Emerging neuroscience evidence instead suggests that intelligence reflects the ability to flexibly transition between network states.” Professor Barbey said.