How to Open Your Mind
Are you open-minded? Most people think they are, but we all
have many things going on inside our heads that limit our thinking.
Still, you probably want to open your mind to less limited thinking,
so how do you do that?
It can help to look at some of the flaws and potential problems
in how our brains and minds actually work. That's what we'll
start with here, followed by a couple powerful techniques for
developing a more open and effective mind.
The concept of source amnesia is simple enough. We remember
a ton of information, but often do not recall where we learned
it. That may not seem like a big deal, but the consequences of
this forgetfulness, in combination with other common mental processes,
are worse than we might think.
In fact, source amnesia can lead to all sorts of false beliefs.
We might read a humorous account of a real event, for example,
and forget that it was invented. Having forgotten the source,
we also can come to recall it as a true story.
Incoming information is temporarily stored in the hippocampus.
Each time it is recalled, though, it's processed again and stored
in other parts of the brain. In this way it is eventually separated
from the context in which we originally learned it. Thus, you
probably know that the Ganges river is in India, but you probably
don't recall where you leaned that fact.
The problem with this source amnesia is that the source of
information often should determine the credibility we give to
to it. If we hear something false, for example, we might suspect
its falsity at first, because of the source. But then as we hear
it again and again, and then forget where we heard it, it can
come to be remembered as true.
For example, at Stanford University students were exposed
repeatedly to an unsubstantiated claim that Coca-Cola is an effective
paint thinner. This was originally an internet hoax. But it was
found that those who read the claim five times were much more
likely than those who read it only twice to attribute it to Consumer
Reports when asked where they think they learned it Their other
choice was The National Enquirer, usually considered a less reputable
In other words, the claim gained credibility - and was more
often attributed to a credible source - just because of repetition
and the source amnesia that we all are subject to. You can imagine
how this is used in politics: smear a candidate with false accusations
and people eventually assume they learned these "facts"
from credible sources.
Fitting Facts Into Our Philosophies
Another way our minds fails us is in their tendency to recall
only those facts that support our existing philosophies and beliefs.
We remember what confirms our beliefs and forget what contradicts
them. This clearly can't be the best way to get at the truth,
and if you want to open your mind you have to find a way to deal
with this normal process of limited thinking.
In yet another study done at Stanford, students were presented
with two pieces of evidence. One supported the argument that
capital punishment deterred crime, while the other contradicted
it. Prior to seeing these, tough, the students were questioned
about their own position on capital punishment. It should come
as no surprise that students on both side of the issue were more
convinced by whichever piece of evidence supported their initial
Most people like to think they are objective, and are willing
to go where the evidence leads. In the case of this study, when
the students were given the specific instruction to be objective,
they still tended to reject evidence that contradicted their
How Do You Open Your Mind?
There are specific ways we can overcome these mental processes
that limit the effectiveness of your thinking. You can start
with a general skepticism about most of the source-less "knowledge"
you have. You can't disregard what you know, because for the
most part we have nothing in our heads to use except all of this
information that is floating around without a personal historical
context. But you can purposely remember that some of it may be
wrong. In that way you're more likely to find what flaws are
As for the entirely expected conclusion of the study above
- that we selectively gather and recall only that evidence which
confirms our existing beliefs - there is something else you can
do: choose to gather other evidence. This doesn't mean you will
necessarily change your mind, but it opens them to the possibility
of change if it is needed or useful.
In that Stanford study, the students were later asked to imagine
how they would react if the evidence clearly did point to a conclusion
opposite of their beliefs. Having done this exercise in imagination,
it was found that the students were then more open minded. Specifically,
they were more willing to consider information that contradicted
their beliefs, rather than summarily rejecting it.
How do you use this research? It suggests that rather than
just telling yourself to be objective, or emphasizing the value
of greater objectivity, you need to purposefully look at information
and evidence that goes against our current personal philosophies
and beliefs. The practice of trying to prove yourself wrong,
for example, can be a powerful way to open your mind.
If you had to argue against what you believe, what would you
say? Since we generally like to win arguments, this approach
gets the ego working for you. You won't often change what you
believe entirely, but you might be surprised by how often you
find the weaknesses in your existing arguments, or come to see
that opposing views are not entirely without merit.
To have an open mind does not mean you will accept all sorts
of nonsense as true, nor even that you'll change what you believe
very often. But how can you be sure that what you believe is
true if you cannot consciously overcome your mind's tendency
to give automatic credibility to everything in it, and to ignore
any evidence that it doesn't like? You have to be able to at
least look at what is there to be looked at, and challenge that
which is only a memory from a forgotten source.