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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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