Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at Springer.com

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Chapter 2:Part 3. Thinking on your own

How do we know what our values are? We develop our values over a life time based on a personal model of reality. Our personal model of reality is based on our life’s experiences. Life’s experiences are of two kinds: those presented by chance as part of the “accidents” of birth, such as our language, religious tradition etc and those presented during the course of our life. Our initial experiences are interpreted with “instinctual” and “transmitted” view of the world around us. By that I mean that our initial experiences color our perception of the world based on our own temperament we are born with and the concepts and beliefs given to us by our families and the society we live in. Our family traditions and beliefs and cultural and socioeconomic settings help initiate our initial world-view. Since traditions and cultures are passed on using words and symbols, our language and symbols color our views too! These beliefs, in turn, color our perceptions of subsequent experiences in life. We interpret these subsequent experiences using our initial models of reality and beliefs transmitted to us. In other words, we start with “transmitted or acquired values”. In essence we have been scripted for life, unless we keep an open mind and “discover” our values and views of the universe by thinking on our own.

The beliefs come in three flavors, rational in matters of science, emotional in matters of human psychology and mystic /spiritual in matters of religion and metaphysics. All of us use all three of these, but in different proportions. Our experiences filtered through our beliefs give us our values which in turn influence our view of the universe, thoughts and actions.

When we encounter phenomena outside our beliefs, we have only two options – deny and keep our mind closed to new experiences or accept the challenge by including the new information and broaden our vision. If we are open, our horizon will expand and we will change. If we deny, we become rigid. We stay in our mental “jail” and refuse to accept a different point of view. Closed mind is the most important barrier to clear thinking.

What are some of the other barriers to clear thinking? As pointed out earlier, lack of time is the most important barrier. I read a passage yesterday from an interview with our President-elect. When he was asked about the best advice he has received, he said: “ all of them have said that it is important to carve out time to think and not spend your entire day reactive” (TIME December 29, 2008).

The other barrier includes the tricks our mind plays on our critical thinking. Why does the mind play tricks on us? What are the blind alleys and traps in our mental process? In order to understand this, we have to look at the process of thinking itself. Let us look at the way information is received and processed by the human brain. Incoming information is perceived through “built-in” and “learned” filters as outlined earlier. Unless we are aware of our own special filters, we do not even get the incoming information correctly. If the perception of information is wrong or incomplete or if it does not register, we may not even recognize that a problem exists. Even if we recognize the problem, our answers may be inadequate or wrong.

The information, once received, is organized in our brain into patterns. Since the purpose of thinking is to solve a problem or answer a question (and thus stop thinking), the mind tends to go for the easiest answer. It grabs the most familiar pattern. The problem is that the mind stops thinking and refuses to let in any new input. It swears that it has found the answer and becomes possessive of its conclusion. This happens even if the pattern the mind latched onto is incomplete or irrelevant and the conclusion is wrong. The ego takes over and tries to defend the conclusion, rather than allow other points of view or even an easier solution. We can recognize this pattern in ourselves and in others.

What can we do about it? Is the pattern within the thing perceived or in the mind of the perceiver? First, think about your own fixed patterns and filters. Then, stock your brain with several patterns by reading widely, listening to others, and seeking out opinions of other experts. It has been shown that the more patterns we can perceive in a situation, the better we will be in abstracting them, classifying them, and analyzing them. Some of it will come over the course of time by gaining experience in the field. However, learning from experience “may lead to nothing more than learning to make the same mistakes with increasing confidence” unless we have an open mind.

Too little information can be a problem in looking for options and for poor pattern formation. Too much information or wrong information and misreading of available information can also lead to poor thinking habits.

Another major source of our problem is our book knowledge and formal education based on the classical dialectic method. It is based on refutations and arguments in search of truth. Formal education, in its emphasis on what is known and how we arrived there, tends to restrict the horizon. For creative thinking, we need an unfettered, free mind that is “positive and playful”.

There are other pitfalls to be aware of. Early closure of the mind is one of the biggest problems, particularly in medicine. In a study published in 2005 (Diagnostic error in internal medicine Arch Intern Med 165: 1493-1499, 2005) the authors identified 100 cases of diagnostic errors in medicine through voluntary reports, quality assurance activities and autopsy discrepancies. The most common problems were related to faulty processing of available information. The single most common cause was “premature closure”. In other words, physicians failed to consider other reasonable alternatives once their minds latched on to the “initial diagnosis”. Faulty and inadequate knowledge was only a very minor problem.

Our mind tries to find an explanation for everything. That is its strength. But it tends to “shut down” as soon as it finds “an” answer, “any” answer! That is its weakness.

Getting caught with words is another problem. Words with emotional tones may block a full view of the problem as pointed out earlier. Advertisers and politicians use this weakness of ours effectively to gain advantage. Even without words, emotions can and will interfere with making good decisions. We dealt with this issue earlier in the essay and the next essay will be on Words.

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