Science Solitaire

[Science Solitaire] ‘CF’: A shape-shifting spell

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] ‘CF’: A shape-shifting spell

Raffy de Guzman

You have the innate ability to shape-shift. It is not going to be easy but our wicked problems are more than worth it.

Before I turned 13, I have gone to six completely different schools. Growing up, I thought it was a normal thing to be yearly saying “hello” and “goodbye” to a whole new set of friends and adapting to an entirely different set of conditions in new municipalities/cities. I am sure many share my pattern as well. How much of that shapeshifting we had to do as kids got to do with the adults we have become?

My parents were barely out of their teens when they had me, their first-born. As with most, if not all, first-borns, I was my parents’ joint experiment on how to raise a human being from the proverbial “scratch.” Their changing fortunes and relationships took our family through a lot of interesting changes and school was only one of them.

Now that I am in mid-life and engaged in exploring the “the science of things” and the natural bridges they have with our life experiences, I get to work with supremely interesting people from whom I learn the stuff that really makes me make an imaginary triumphant hand/arm gesture and say to myself, “Yes, I am glad am still around to learn this!”

One of them is a neuroscientist, Pireeni Sundaralingam. We were in a creative workshop together last June with other people from various disciplines around the world, as we all tried to consciously work on how we can forge futures together.  She struck me as a very passionate and eloquent scientist and that was because, I later found out, she was also a poet. I later asked her to work with me to keynote a conference of science museum workers from various countries early this month. There she, talked about “cognitive flexibility.”

“Cognitive flexibility” (CF) is something I have come across in studies because of my work but I really did not connect with it as sharply as I did when Pireeni highlighted it in her keynote. CF is something that mental health experts say we should be deploying in these times of great upheavals in all aspects of life. They say that it could really help us navigate unchartered territories.  And the climate crisis, the biodiversity crash, the deep inequities across societies, the big bang and acceleration of an alternate “spacetime” by social media, the pandemic – are only a few of the unchartered territories we are all treading now.

“Cognitive flexibility” is the “ability to appropriately adjust one’s behavior according to a changing environment”. Seems simple enough? Think again.

Adjusting to something new would not only require someone to think of new tasks but also to stop old habits form taking over and to come up with a bespoke way to implement these new tasks. When I realized that, ‘cognitive flexibility” moved out of the “jargon residency” into my list of “major spells”  for our own heads so that we can figure out how to solve these most “wicked” (big, dynamic and interwoven”) problems we have now! It is the shapeshifting mental ability to respond to our shapeshifting problems!

And attention parents of young children! Based on studies so far,  CF is, for the most part, forged in childhood.  They begin to develop in early childhood, sharply increasing between 7 and 9 years of age and largely mature by 10 years old. CF will still develop in adolescence and into adulthood but the peak will be between the ages of 21 and 30.  Generally, the “inhibition” component starts as early as 12 months and is largely shaped by 10 to 12 years old.

Researchers also found out that greater CF seems to result in better reading abilities for children, higher resiliency to highly stressful life events, higher levels of creativity and even better quality of life as we get much older!

I am pretty sure that my parents did not know the term “cognitive flexibility” and that our funny, tentative, seeming roll-of-dice lives growing up heavily shaped that in me and my two siblings. But they knew the imperative of inner change when the “outside” changes and helped us shake hands with that life movement. They did the best they could. But they, most especially my Dad, also did not, by mere habit, repeat, the kind of parenting that their parents did for them just because it was how they were raised. They were very conscious that many things did not apply to us and he articulated these in our family meetings as early as before I started school. On hindsight, I think that kind of “cognitive flexibility” of parents themselves is a major requirement in any parent who will raise their own children with good chances for their own cognitive flexibility.

I am still trying to journal the arc of that “cognitive flexibility” that resulted from my own personal history now that I am conscious of it and very interested in things like this. For this column, I can tell you that I have my own phobias – extreme rides, blood and booming loud noises – but to new terrain, physical and metaphorical, my natural and first reaction is almost always “exhilaration” and not fear. I now realize that having that kind of first response controls the deployment of my old habits enough to allow new inner tools to come out to deal with new stuff.

So this is another major item in our list to be grateful for – that our minds are caged inside our skulls but they have connections inside and out that continuously shapes it. You have the innate ability to shape-shift. It is not going to be easy but our wicked problems are more than worth it. So let us try. Harder. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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