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.

yinOur 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.

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19 Responses to Twelve Ways to Think Differently

  1. Raging Bee says:

    Oh, brilliant — we’re being lectured on “how to think differently” — and none of the ideas you offer are less than thirty years old! What’s so “different” about any of this? Been there, done that, waiting for you to catch up.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.You mean like driving a car in Italy? SO WHAT? I’ve tried it, and it’s not at all enlightening.You’re wasting a lot of text telling us what we already know. (And some of us have already tried drugs and found them a tad overrated.)

  2. Pearl says:

    Have you heard of a new idea under the sun? When stressed we forget the fundamentals, to breathe, to eat, to sleep, to move and to rest. We get stuck in one habit. Here’s food for thought that may help us strenghten each other as a tip 13…The sandwich principle. In workshop criticism there’s a rule of thumb that for every meaty negative, is only effective and helpful if sandwiches by two positive slices. Often our mind likes to naturally rut itself along one line. For flexibility of mind to check one’s attitudinal posture to see if we’re giving ourselves or others a supportive 2:1 ratio of pats and corrections. Training ourselves to see the good can renew our energies.

  3. To respond to the first comment above: it is no wonder that these techniques are more than thirty years old–many of them are thousands of years old. That is because narrow, specialized thinking is an epidemic only afflicting the minds of modern humans who have been conditioned by linear, mechanical processes. Past societies were more integral, having less rigid distinctions between work and leisure, responsibility and creativity. As the second comment states well, most of the solution lies in getting back to the very basics: breath, food, sleep, movement. The tools for free thinking are not tools to enhance or augment natural human ability, they are more about re-attaining the skills we’ve forgotten.

  4. I’ve found that LSD is a great way to spend a weekend, although the cost is a day of feeling pretty wiped.Mr. Bee, your point may be valid, but your derision robs you of your credibility.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    [Two very insulting comments by ‘Raging Bee’ deleted. I have no problem with dissenting views here, but I will not tolerate abusive comments or personal insults. Please don’t feed the troll, it just encourages him.]

  6. mrG says:

    Here’s a particularly good idea, and particularly old: Set yourself apart.I don’t mean excell at backgammon, I mean consciously and deliberately exclude yourself from the mainstream. This is a technique of Old Testament time-testedness, and it’s marvelous. It takes discipline, commitment and courage, all of those positive qualities worthy of respect and of themselves worth the price even if you don’t end up breaking free of your cultural expections (you won’t break them all anyway)How do you effect this? Lots of ways, I don’t have to tell you, you know most of them. Like I said, it’s an old old old technique that doesnt’ begin with Marshall McLuhan observing how the clearest perceptions come to artists because they live on the outside of the figure-ground of everyday society. No, there’s lots of ways that you see everyday, that you heard of in your youth, that you saw in National Geographic.But unlike sitting in meditation, these are not things you can casually switch on and off, these are deliberate sabotage of your conceptual reality. They say in Zen, “If only sitting were required, all frogs would be buddhas.“For those who still don’t follow, here’s a short list, not intended to be either a Top List or even a representative sample, just a mnemonic device to reconnect you to your available cultural disconnection services:Commit to any ‘orthodox’ religion that requires strict rules on dress, diet or lifestyle. Judaism is good, so is Mohammedism, but also Amish or even Rastafarianism if you’d like to stay Christian. Note that this will have the opposite effect if everyone around you is likewise so committed; that just makes you more conforming, and hence your environment becomes more invisible to you. Note also that this rule applies to all of the subsequent examples.Get a lip or nose ring; especially useful if you work in a non-expendable capacity for a bank.Wear a hair shirt; other forms of flagulation have also been reported to have excellent results — St.John wore a razor-sharp medallion that eventually embedded itself in the flesh of his chest.Stop cutting or combing your hair. This method was first proposed by the Nazarrenes but was probably in use long before; it’s also used by the witchdoctors in east Africa. Very effective, I did this one myself (when I had a non-expendable position with a major bank) and you’re almost instantly set quite apart; it’s remarkable. Personal been-there advice, don’t let anyone try to ‘style’ your dreads, just trust that nature knows how to grow hair and also, shy away from commercial shampoos because the waxy buildup is disgusting; just use lemon and wash often.Notice that all of these are reversable once you’ve decided you’ve learned your lesson or just want to pack it in and, as your mom will say, “be normal” — the thing is, the distinguishing feature in all such methods is that you can’t reverse your reversals on a daily or hourly basis, it’s all or nothing, committed for a significant and potentially life-altering period.Oh, one last tip: Above all, have fun with it.

  7. mrG says:

    Oops … sorry for the unclosed EM tag. Salon really should learn how to do a “preview” button. Then again, kinda makes my post stand out don’t it? :)

  8. Bud says:

    Raging Bee has the satisfaction that comes from fulfilling a mission he’s obviouosly set for himself, else why the name? He has raged. And, he has the satisfaction of knowing that others have been stung. In these achievements, he has succeeded in accomplishing far less than those he seeks to demean, and he has created nothing of value in the process. Rage on oh little toad! I mean, bee.

  9. sje says:

    Great article, thanks for posting. I find myself doing alot of these things naturally, but it’s nice to see them listed, as well as a few new ideas {to me}.

  10. Ray says:

    Here are my three suggestions:1. Learn a new language so you are reasonably fluent2. Learn a sport well enough so that you get the physical benefit and the mental exhiliration doing it3. Learn to play a musical instrument well enough to play whatever music you want on itThese are three goals to aim at during college, if not life.

  11. Joe says:

    Great article!

  12. That’s a GREAT NOTE and very Helpful. keep it up. Thank you.

  13. AM says:

    All of these skills and “new” ways of thinking can be experienced and stregnthened by either having a child or hanging out with one on a regular basis.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments and additional ideas. Now if only I could get all these readers (40,000 visitors to this one article in the last week! — thanks, jason kottke, msnbc, core77 and lifehacker for sending most of them) to read my longer, more serious articles!AM: Good point. Actually, hanging out with anyone outside your usual circle would probably work.

  15. tim says:

    Fine article. The basic message is pretty clear. But there is something I do not agree on. An artist should not read about string theory when he wants to read about something he is not familiar with. That is because popular books on string theory only contribute to qualitative understanding, something an artist is already familiar with. He should instead try to read about quantitative understanding instead, so he should try to read an easy calculus book or something about logic, because artists are usually impulsive and don’t reason a lot. A popular book on string theory is nothing new to an artist.According to a lot of internet sites, being connected with your senses and with your intuition is not really possible. You can either be sensing or intuitive, not both. Psychoactive drugs work, yes, but they usually reduce natural production of the substances they replace. This can result in reverse effects on the long term. I would also recommend reading and (especially) writing non-fiction. The more information you have about the world, the better you can make your decisions. Another thing: read critically and think about how new information contradicts with information you already have. And write to make these contradictions clear to other people. The reactions of other people can improve your understanding, too.

  16. Mani says:

    Hi,I am from India and it is excellent article. Please go through the website. What you have talked about is been well structured and already documented in eastern philosphy. and chk out these site http://www.vethathiri.orgThese guru made a link between modern science and ancient knowledge. The points you are covered and already practisied by these people in wayof exercise, medititation and group yogas.Worth look at it.

  17. xwoker says:

    Conversations and Interviews – a proven method applied by ancient Greek philosophers to become immortal – or at least to gain long term celebrity.

  18. Dragon says:

    Dave Pollard,As a person who is already “right-brained” (intuitive with a creative streak, MBTI=INFP, and etc), would you modify my approach to improvement? Also, I’ve read that many people like myself are considered a little weird. Should I continue hanging loose and being myself, or is that a little can that be self-destructive because of the perceptions of others? Should I keep my ideas flowing or should I keep rein them in a bit?

  19. Tess says:

    As a homeschool mom (non-religeous) I can say I live outside the mainstream of my circle; being surrounded by children is not as enticing as sitting with my best friend who writes liturgy for her church; and as an artist the most difficult reading for me is Mystery and Romance. (Really, I’m not kidding!)I loved your article. I loved reading the responses to your article. Because of both I will be stretching myself further through more searches and more reading. Point made. Thanks to all of you for sharing.

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