Twelve ways to think differently

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Twelve Ways to Think Differently

The Idea: Twelve methods that will exercise parts of your brain that rarely get it, and make you more creative and better able to understand the world.

Our minds are like our bodies -- fail to exercise them and they atrophy and break down. We live in an age of specialization, where we are encouraged to narrow our interests and our activities, to focus and limit ourselves to doing things at which we are very competent. So parts of our brain get a lot of exercise and other parts very little. What's worse, this can actually narrow our comfort zone, the range of things we enjoy doing or thinking about and are competent in. Many of our cultural activities and artefacts: political debates, win/lose competitions, hierarchies, laws, religions, 'best practices', systematization, uniforms, and monolithic architecture and design -- all tend to reinforce 'one right answer' thinking that discourages and ultimately excludes and prevents us from thinking differently. Even the mental exercises we do as we get older are designed to stem the loss of analytical skills and memory rather than broadening our thinking or our thinking ability. We live in a world of stultifying sameness and uniformity: physically, ideologically, intellectually. There is little motivation, little day-to-day need, to exercise the parts and processes of our brain that rarely get a workout.

So how can we learn to broaden our thinking, to think differently? This is not just a matter of critical thinking, creative thinking, 'outside the box' thinking. It is about opening up our minds to the world and all its possibilities. This is one of the essences of the Four Practices of Open Space, (opening, inviting, making room, acting/realizing). But it is not at all easy. Our brain structures are actually formed as we grow, to reflect and accommodate the analytical and 'one right answer' thinking that constitutes most of what we are taught when we are young. Broadening our thinking therefore requires us to consciously will ourselves to think about things, and think in ways, that we are not comfortable or familiar with. It is counter-cultural, more of an unlearning than a learning process. It is kind of like the agony that runners who do not regularly do 'loosening up' exercises must go through to stretch the muscles that have tightened (shortened, atrophied) in response to the running routine.

From my own experience, some research and a couple of recent conversations, here are twelve mental 'stretching' techniques that can enable you to think differently. Before you consider them, you might want to ask yourself whether you need them. They are unlikely to make you happier, though they will probably make you more creative, and more understanding. Remember, I'm the guy who lives to foment dissatisfaction, so be forewarned. In no particular order, and with some likely overlap:
  1. Meditation: Or whatever 'stand still and look until you really see' attention techniques work for you. Anything that can still the noise of the machine in our heads, anything (like Getting Things Done) that can empty the detailed minutiae of your life from your memory and make room for something new. Because the better you are at paying attention, the more likely you are to be able to see and appreciate other perspectives.
  2. Reconnect With Your Senses: Do exercises that increase your awareness and the sensitivity of your senses. Most of what you learn is perceptual rather than conceptual, and you can learn an astonishing amount by just becoming more aware of nature, and of yourself, and of the connection between your senses and the senses of all life on Earth.
  3. Reconnect With Your Intuition: We are taught to distrust it, but for three million years it informed us about the world and how to deal with it successfully and happily. It's all there encoded in your DNA -- how to live, how to handle any situation, what to do. The perspective you can get when your intuition provides one viewpoint on a situation and your 'book learning' another is remarkable. It's like suddenly seeing stereo when all your life you've only seen with one eye. Instant depth perception.
  4. Analogies and Metaphors: "Science is Metaphor" said Timothy Leary. Analogies and metaphors allow you to 're-see' something abstract as something concrete, something conceptual as perceptual. Lakoff points out that "We cannot think just anything - only what our embodied brains permit", and analogies and metaphors permit us to think things we probably otherwise couldn't. My recent "If the Shoe Were On the Other Foot" article was an example of this.
  5. Conversations and Interviews: A wonderful enabler for thinking differently is the shared context that comes from conversations and interviews. Several of my most popular articles have been conversations with myself or with other people, because they help people understand my thought process much better than analytical discourse. Like everything natural, they are inefficient but extremely effective. Interviews work the same way. Face-to-face and recorded conversations and interviews, if they are natural and probing and improvisational, are even better, because you learn more of the participants' worldview from the vocal nuances and body language.
  6. Synthesis, Distillation and Restatement: When you recapitulate and condense what you've read or heard, you force yourself to use your own words to say what they had to say. You can learn as much from this about their way of thinking, and your own, as you can from the reading or listening experience itself.
  7. Reading (and Writing) Fiction: The most important character in stories is the narrator, not the protagonist. While empathy with the protagonist will keep you reading, it is from understanding the perspective of the narrator, and contrasting it with your own, that you learn the most. Here as an illustration is an excerpt from Mark Haddon's wonderful book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (thank you to the reader who recommended this book to me) -- told from the point of view of an autistic child::
And then I thought about how for a long time scientists were puzzled by the fact that the sky is dark at night, even though there are billions of stars in the universe and there must be stars in every direction you look, so that the sky should be full of starlight because there is very little in the way to stop the light from reaching Earth. Then they worked out that the universe was expanding, that the stars were all rushing away from one another after the Big Bang, and the further the stars were away from us, the faster they were moving, some of them nearly as fast as the speed of light, which is why their light never reached us.

I like this fact. It is something you can work out in your own mind just by looking at the sky above your head at night and thinking without having to ask anyone. And when the universe has finished exploding, all the stars will slow down, like a ball that has been thrown into the air, and they will come to a halt and they will all begin to fall towards the centre of the universe again. And then there will be nothing to stop us from seeing all the stars in the world because they will all be moving towards us, gradually faster and faster, and we will know that the world is going to end soon because when we look up into the sky at night there will be no darkness, just the blazing light of billions and billions of stars, all falling.

Except that no one will see this because there will be no people left on Earth to see it. They will probably have become extinct by then. And even if there are people still in existence, they will not see it because the light will be so bright and hot that everyone will be burned to death, even if they live in tunnels.
  1. Psychoactive and Other Drugs: They work for some people, and have for thousands of years. Nope, don't have any on me.
  2. Learning a New Language: Linguists say all human languages are so similar than an alien would see them as indistinguishable, but anyone who doesn't see how a language entrenches cultural preconceptions, ideas, and ways of thinking probably has never mastered a second one. The vocabulary, the syntax, the way in which it is ordered, the nuances of meaning, all push you to new ways of thinking.
  3. Learning Something Outside Your Comfort Zone: If you're an artist, learn about String Theory. If you're a scientist, learn about the aesthetics of music. The more novel and uncomfortable and strange it is, the more it will liberate your calcified brain.
  4. Do Impulsive and Serendipitous Things: Any activity that won't let you plan or anticipate, but which instead forces you to perceive and learn quickly and pay attention and react and live in the moment, will get you outside the centre of your own universe and help you see and think differently. And if you can't get yourself to do impulsive and serendipitous things, then at least read impulsively and serendipitously. Free the genie.
  5. Collaboration: Not just coordination or cooperation, true collaboration. When you have produced a truly collective work-product, you have in many ways got inside the heads of your fellow collaborators, and that will change you forever.
Courses in lateral thinking try to teach you how to identify and set aside the obstacles in your own head (biases and preconceptions, inability to concentrate or imagine, entrenched ways of thinking, fear, conservatism, ignorance) that prevent you from thinking in truly novel ways. These courses offer more exercises to show you how to train yourself to think differently. But ultimately, like any difficult and important skill, the only way to achieve mastery is to practice, practice, practice. The twelve techniques above are, at least for most of us, fun and engaging ways to do that.