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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.

Source Amnesia

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 source.

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 beliefs.

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 beliefs.

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 there.

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.


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Want more on how to open your mind?

In my book Beyond Mental Slavery I get into many more ways in which processes we are not fully conscious of limit or warp our thinking - and many more ways to overcome these mental programs. Your local bookstore can order a copy for you, or you can buy the book at Amazon.com.

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