| Journal of the Arizona Dental Association, June-July 2013
I experienced in that moment what behavioral
scientists call cognitive inflexibility. More than just a
lack of spontaneity, cognitive inflexibility entails the
incapacity to accommodate multiple ideas or endeav-
ors at the same time. Males are notoriously inflexible,
as are left-handed people and obsessive-compulsive
types. For me, that’s three for three. What’s more,
my daily activities are dedicated and focused, which
makes me good at concentrating on small spaces in
dark places for long periods of time and bad at both
bright cocktail party conversation and improvisation.
In my brief sputtering instant of psychological disar-
ray I was pushed into action by a friendly third-party
intervention. Just as I began to frown, Jilly’s instruc-
tor Sue Harris burst into the hallway and shook
my hand. “Oh, I’m so sorry to bother you,” Sue
bubbled. “Thank you so much for helping us. The
students would be simply stuck without you.” Jillian
smiled and nodded.
I quickly switched mental gears. Putting Mainpat out
of my mind, I wrapped myself into a gauzy dispos-
able gown, snapped on snappy pink examination
gloves, and sat down to greet the first patient. Jillian
grinned triumphantly.
Cognitive flexibility concerns the ability to adapt
thinking to fit the problem at hand, to shift from
task to task at work, or subject to subject in conver-
sation, smoothly adjusting to unexpected changes.
It helps people pursue complex activities, multitask,
and find new, adaptable responses to developing
needs. Such suppleness of mind helps us produce
diverse ideas, consider alternatives, and modify our
behavior to manage changing circumstances.
Related to reading comprehension and fluency, fluid
intelligence (the ability to think abstractly, as opposed
to the other kind of mental aptitude, crystallized intel-
ligence, which is the knowledge that derives from expe-
rience and training) and the capacity to solve problems
in unfamiliar situations, cognitive flexibility is impor-
tant for creativity, learning, and redirecting attention.
To be sure, before engineers and computer scientists
elevated the concept of multitasking to a state of grace
among the general population, cognitive flexibility was
considered outside the norm. As Wonderland’s Queen
told Alice, in a line that undoubtedly embodies the
apotheosis of multilayer thinking, at least in nonsense
literature, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as
six impossible things before breakfast.” But these days,
cognitive flexibility is considered an essential trait of
effective executive functioning, involving as it does the
ability to control thinking, including memory, emo-
tions, planning and organization.
As critical to happiness and success as cognitive
flexibility must be, I suspect that in many instances
dentists like me are no good at it. Dentists are
trained to the glories of crystallized intelligence. We
are disciplined perfectionists, intolerant of variance
and uncertainty. We are determined. Unyielding.
Conservative. Authoritative. Driven. We don’t al-
low wrinkles in our timetable, so we reschedule late
patients and people who unexpectedly break cusps
and whose occlusal composites turn into root canals.
Such rigid traits can make us excellent producers. We
settle into routines that maximize efficiency, but that
unfortunately also tend to harden into mental ruts.
Males are notoriously
inflexible, as are left-
handed people and
types. For me, that’s
three for three.
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