Twelve Ways to Think Differently © 2005 by Dave Pollard

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.

Our 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. 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.

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. 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:

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.

5. Conversations and Interviews: A wonderful enabler for thinking differently is the shared context that comes from conversations and interviews. 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.

8. Psychoactive and Other Drugs: They work for some people, and have for thousands of years.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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.

One of many brilliant essays on How To Save the World