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.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chapter 2: Part 2. Thinking on your own

Part 2

We need time to think and tools to think with.

Time is precious. Our daily lives are packed with daily chores. Even leisure times are packed. There is no time to think on our own and align our thoughts and actions with our values. The only way we can get time to think is to make the time. There is no other easy way. We JUST have to make time to think as a routine, at least once a week. That should become a sacred time.

Once we have the time, and the needed information, we need to organize the information and our own thoughts. I find it easy to organize my thoughts by writing them down.

There are several modes of thinking – reactive thinking, analytical thinking and critical thinking. Some would add creative thinking to this list and define it differently. But this category includes elements of analytical and critical thinking.

We use reactive thinking in response to everyday situations of life. For example, suppose I wish to replace my used car with a new one. Or, suppose you are invited to a sleep-over in your friend’s house. Your grandmother calls to say that she is staying over in your house that night on her way to Boston or Minneapolis. What do you do? Such everyday situations do need some thinking, but not too much.

Analytical thinking is used in complex situations and particularly in scientific problem solving. Such situations are encountered often in factories and offices and may involve people or things. We use analytical thinking in medical diagnostic problems. For example, if a child has iron deficiency, it may be because the diet is deficient in iron, or the family is too poor to get nutritious food, or because there is some disease interfering with absorption of iron or because there is an increased need for iron. Such analytical breakdown of the problem is essential to get at the root cause. Or take the example of the recent outbreak of salmonella infection. Ultimately this outbreak was traced to jalapeno pepper from Mexico. How did the epidemiologists track down the source of infection? I am sure they broke down the situation into details and considered all angles and options and investigated each possibility starting with the most probable source.

Critical thinking requires separating the useful from the useless information, ability to look at fallacies of arguments (ours and others) and ability to look at faith-based from reason-based arguments. Political, religious, metaphysical, moral and ethical realms require this type of thinking. (Look at my posting in October on Media Awareness 1 for a list of fallacies in arguments)

It will be impossible to tell you how to think in every situation you may face in life. Instead let me share with you what I learnt from reading, thinking and from my experiences as a physician.

First, I have to clarify my question and be more specific? Can I reword the question and look at it from different angles? Can a make a diagram with all the people, places and factors included? Can I apply the 20 question technique originally developed by Arthurs Osborne and modified by Rudolf Flesch in his book on “The Art of Clear Thinking” (Page 118-119).

The questions I need to ask myself are:

What am I trying to accomplish?

Have I done this sort of thing before? How?

Could I do this some other way?

How did other people tackle this?

What kind of person or persons am I dealing with?

How can this situation be changed to fit me?

How can I adapt myself to this situation?

How about using more? Less? All of it? Only a portion? One only? Two? Several?

How about using something else? Something older? Something new? Something more expensive? Something cheaper?

How far? How near? In what direction?

How soon? How often? Since when? For how long?

Can I do this in combination? With whom? With what?

How about doing the opposite?

What would happen if I do nothing?

All these questions make you look at all angles of a problem, as suggested by Edward de Bono more recently. His method of Six Hat Thinking makes this exercise a formal operation and will be discussed later in this essay.

Next, I need to collect information relevant to the question.

I have to ask myself: “Do I have all the relevant information?”

Where can I get the information?

Is the source reliable? Does this person or the website have a commercial interest or bias? If so, the information is likely to be one-sided.

Is this person or the website a front for an issue-based group? If so, this site may not only be biased, but may also use subliminal techniques to appeal to my emotions.

Is the information accurate and practical?

Finally, is this information relevant to my specific question?

Next, how do I sort good information from the bad; useful from the useless; relevant from the irrelevant? At this stage, I may need expert help or at least help from others involved in the matter. I need to read more and speak with others who have faced similar situation in addition to talking with the experts.

Let me give you an example. Recently I was looking for a solution to a problem with a rubber tube used to feed someone with cancer. The rubber tube got stretched and the feeding line kept coming off. The surgeon who performed the procedure and the supplier of Infusion fluid have faced the problem before and suggested one solution. That was to cut the tube! If I start cutting the tube each time it stretches, I may not have any tube left after 3 or 4 months. I therefore asked the nurse to call a center that handles a large number of people with this type of J tube. Sure enough the nurse found out a special type of extension tube which solved the problem. Moral of the story: ask someone who has faced the problem before.

How do I finally synthesize the information so it will be useful for my special needs? Here is where I need to reflect not only on the problem and the available options but also relate them to my needs and my values. The final answer has to be not only logical and relevant, but also congruent with my values. Otherwise I cannot live with the consequences of my decision. That is why reflection is so very important.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Chapter 2: Part 1. Thinking on your own


Dear Asha, Ajay,Ravi and Ariana,

In my first letter I said that the next three essays will be what I wrote in 2003 when I was visiting Italy. Well, I changed my mind, like grand fathers and grand mothers tend to do. I went back and read those essays. I need to think more deeply about the ideas expressed in those essays. They also need editing. Therefore, I decided to follow the main theme of this blog, namely “How to Think” for yourself.

Almost 50 years back, I was visiting St.Louis, MO. On the day of my visit, a few satisfied customers gave a send-off party to an elderly gentleman who ran a newspaper stand at a street corner or a train-station, I do not remember which. At that time, the gentleman was reported to have said: “With so much news on paper and radio, when do people have time to think?” This statement is more applicable now than ever before.

In his introduction to a book on “Battle for the Mind”, William Sargant, a Professor of Psychiatry, who had worked with survivors of the bombings of London during World War II, said: “Politicians, priests and psychiatrists often face the same problem: how to find the most rapid and permanent means of changing a man’s belief”. This book was written in 1957. If we add to this list media experts, tele-evangelists and advertisement psychologists, it becomes urgent to learn how others “battle for our minds” and influence us. It is imperative that we learn to think for ourselves before we get “scripted” for life.

The influence of media on children has been of great concern to the health professionals. There are definite connections between time spent on TV and video games and changes in physical and mental health habits. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the WHO recommend educating the children on Media Awareness, so they learn how not to get hooked by advertisements and how to choose good health habits. The effect of media on adults is no less significant. (see my earlier postings on Media Awareness)

In a free market economy, commercial groups will try to sell goods which we may or may not need. Even if there is no need, someone will create a “need” in our minds, if we let them.

Politicians will try to sell their ideas. We do want them to explain what their position is and why, so we can decide for ourselves. Unfortunately however, politicians treat us as if we have no intelligence of our own. Instead of appealing to our reason, politicians use public relation experts, “wordsmiths” and media consultants. One such so-called “word sculptor” has written a book called “Words that work: It’s not what you say, It’s what people hear”.

We all know how perceptions change if we hear the word “death tax” in place of “inheritance tax” or “affirmative action “ instead of “racial preference”. These words are the creations of “word sculptors” to stir up emotions and scuttle discussions. Emotionally charged words and advertising techniques are used to send us subliminal messages and “sell” weak arguments. (You may wish to read a book with the title “Language in Thought and Action by S I Hayakawa to get an introduction to the subject of Semantics)

Indeed, Mr. Newt Gingrich is alleged to have prepared a special document in 1992 with two lists of words to be used by the members of the Republican Party! Items from one list were to be always associated with members of the Republican party and items from the other list to be associated with members of the Democratic party. Is it any wonder that we have polarization? Is it not our responsibility to prevent “word sculptors” from brain-washing or manipulating our perceptions?

In a free society, politicians influence the public in subtle and “democratic” ways. In an autocratic society, ideas and ideologies will be forced on the people.

Religion has played this game of “Battle for the mind” the longest. I am not talking about our personal religion and spirituality. I am talking about organized religions. What organized religions do is to play on our emotions, particularly fears of the unknown and manipulate us into committing sins they themselves condemn and “force” or coerce us to believe in improbabilities.

For all of these reasons, it is important that all of us to learn how to think for ourselves in this era of information overload and mass media.

Information on any subject and in any language is easily available over the internet. A whole lot of information is hurled at us by salesman, politicians, pharmaceuticals, beer makers, preachers of every faith and denomination, without our asking. Unless we learn how to filter, how to organize and make sense of the available information and how to think on our own, we will be conditioned, scripted and manipulated by others.

There is plenty of good information, bad information, wrong information and dangerous information in the cyberspace. Collecting information has become easy at the click of a “mouse”. What do you do with it? How do you make use of the information effectively? How does one think? What does one need, to think better? What are the blocks to clear thinking? How does one think how to think?

Time to think, and tools to think with are the answers to these questions.