Demystifying cognitive flexibility: Implications for clinical and developmental neuroscience

Trends Neurosci. 2015 Sep;38(9):571-8. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2015.07.003.


Cognitive flexibility, the readiness with which one can selectively switch between mental processes to generate appropriate behavioral responses, develops in a protracted manner and is compromised in several prevalent neurodevelopmental disorders. It is unclear whether cognitive flexibility arises from neural substrates distinct from the executive control network (ECN) or from the interplay of nodes within this and other networks. Here we review neuroimaging studies of cognitive flexibility, focusing on set shifting and task switching. We propose that more consistent operationalization and study of cognitive flexibility is required in clinical and developmental neuroscience. We suggest that an important avenue for future research is the characterization of the relationship between neural flexibility and cognitive flexibility in typical and atypical development.

Keywords: attention; autism; brain network; dynamic functional connectivity; executive function; inhibition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology