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Promoting Mental Agility through Cognitive Control and Mental Representation

The words, The Agile Mind captured my attention immediately. The title conveyed energy, innovation, change, bouncing on a trampoline in my head. I knew that investigating the book would be an adventure.

As soon as the book The Agile Mind by Wilma Koutstaal was in my hands, I explored the 24-page index, looking for my favorite topic, problem-solving thinking. On page 29 I accessed a brand new take on the intuitive versus rational problem solving challenge. A central aspect of mental agility is the ability to fluidly spring around in your mind and body while problem solving: restating the problem, attempting different thinking processes, testing out different solutions, unlikely or not, talking out loud to yourself, while taking breaks to read poetry or jump rope, watch a bad movie, or walk in the moonlight at midnight.

Brain imagery and solid research show that optimal problem solving occurs when the thinker is nimble-minded. He can cruise between abstract and concrete, detail and big picture, controlled and automatic thinking. She can zoom in and zoom out, keep feelings and thoughts connected and disconnected when needed, and regulate attention and distraction: Olympic quality thinking, and not impossible to acquire.

Mental agility relates closely to physical agility, the phrase generating a sense of quickness and flexibility in activity, combined with balance, coordination, and stamina. Not a characteristic of the person who says, “No, this is the way we’ve always done it,” but a description of the employee who says, “But let’s see what happens if we try X+Y-K!” Either could have a good solution in mind, but the person who tries X+Y-K will have gained more information, experience, and mental agility for future problem-solving on any topic, even if the solution is not the best at the moment.

Dr. Koutstaal, author and cognitive neuroscientist, describes two primary dimensions of mental agility.

•  The process or levels of cognitive control. We can have a controlled, disciplined step-wise process, a gut feeling, unconscious associations leading to a sudden revelation, and then further down the road, a totally unconscious habitual process of thinking with little insight. Levels of cognitive control can be stationary, can occur one at a time, all at once, or change frequently.

•  The content or levels of specificity of mental representation. We can have a visually abstract representation of a problem, a colorful paint blast bursting in air, a memory of the feeling of an event or time, a concrete representation such as the exact words written on a document, or a photograph of a geographical site.

In the past, arguments took place about whether skill in process or skill in content was most important in problem-solving thinking. Is unknowing and automatic thinking better or worse than knowledgeable controlled problem-solving? Koutstaal lets us stop dealing with that either-or choice. Many combinations and permutations of process and content can work well.

But we still have other concerns. How do we acquire and keep our mental agility? As The Agile Mind clearly reminds us, we need not only a healthy brain, but an exciting, changing environment, time to notice and pay attention, space to incubate our thoughts, different activities, routes, music, views, newspapers, books, friends, enemies. “Agile thinking involves ways of representing and processing (using) information and knowledge that is flexibly, creatively, and adaptively attuned to changing circumstances and goals.”

Unknowingly and unintentionally following Koutstaal’s integrated model of thinking, emotion and action, I moved a few years ago to an entirely different part of the U.S., leaving friends and family, lawyers and doctors, rituals and traditions. It was and still is like a shot of adrenaline. I am lost daily, wear entirely different clothes, let my hair grow white from blonde, stopped playing tennis, started hiking and climbing, gave up Mexican food, learned about the NW instead of the SW Native Americans, started meditating regularly with a group, and took up bird watching — to many guffaws from old friends. My mind is more flexible, my mood lighter, and I think I’ve become smarter too!

The Agile Mind is an encyclopedia of the newest thinking about thinking. I may never read all 763 pages but I’ll continue to be excited by a paragraph here, a research study there, a new model of thinking, emotions, and action explained clearly, and every topic referenced and tied together beautifully. I know the voyage through the book, inspires innovation, consistently recharges intellectual curiosity, and advances my brain fitness. What more could you ask?

To Learn More:


– Judith C. Tin­gley Ph.D. is a for­mer psy­chi­atric nurse, psy­chol­o­gist, author of 4 pub­lished books, and free-lance writer, cur­rently work­ing on a book on how to break the neg­a­tive self-talk habit. You can fol­low her via Twit­ter @drtingley

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