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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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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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