Free Your Mind Using Good Mental Habits

by Luna Flesher (cross-posted from lunaverse.blogspot.com)

The world is full of many ideas and belief systems. Many of these ideas are contradictory, and they can’t all be true. It is obvious that believing something does not mean it is reality, no matter how many people believe it, no matter how good those people are.

Yet a lot of people are motivated to convince you to believe like they do. Many of these people are highly skilled in the arts of persuasion, and we’re all at risk of believing a lie.

So how can you sort fact from fiction, truth from lies? It’s not always possible, but good mental habits can increase your odds. Ultimately, the best judge of reality is you. If your goal is like mine, to bring your beliefs as close to reality as possible, then read on.

Mental Habits for Finding Truth

1. Accept the idea that you are probably wrong about some things. Not all of us can be right all the time. The chances of you being right about everything you currently believe are pretty slim. If your end goal is to be right about as much as possible, you’d better start feeling comfortable about being wrong!

When we encounter something that may prove us wrong, our brains produce discomfort. This is called Cognitive Dissonance. It may make you feel angry, defensive, restless, confused, or uneasy. If you can learn to be comfortable with cognitive dissonance, and be open to new information that may change your mind about something, you’ll be closer to the truth at the end of the day.

2. Realize your brain is susceptible to “Confirmation Bias”. Confirmation bias is often commonly referred to as “selective memory”. The brain is naturally in the habit of remembering or noticing only what it wants to. Usually, the things that grab our attention are those that support our existing beliefs. Information and events that may contradict our beliefs often go unnoticed.

For example, if you think all teenagers are hoodlums, you will notice all the news reports about teenagers being arrested. Those stories all go into a memory pile of mounting evidence to justify that position. You will probably not pay attention to or remember news stories about teens who volunteer at hospitals, or when a teen smiles and wishes you a merry Christmas. Statistically, most teens stay out of trouble, but you will definitely not notice that.

Awareness of this mental instinct will help open your mind to notice more aspects of reality, even when it doesn’t fit your existing views.

3. There is no “Absolute Truth”. Yes, there are many things we can objectively observe that are completely real within the context of human senses. Water is wet, the earth orbits the sun, humans require food to live. Reality is real, and insofar as anything can be tested, it’s probably safe to say those things are absolutely true. Or self-evident, as Thomas Jefferson might say.

But there are many things that can’t be tested (yet?) or have been tested with inconclusive results. There are many things that were tested and thought to be true, and then retested and found to be false.

There are also “subjective truths”. For instance, I like chai tea quite a lot. Just because I like chai tea does not make it the best drink on earth, or the One True Drink. That’s because you may hate it, and someone else may be allergic to it. It’s really a matter of opinion, biology, or brain chemistry, all of which are unique to each individual.

When questioning objective, testable reality, it helps to seek out existing, objective research to find out if that thing is “true”. Did a certain historical event really happen the way someone is claiming (or the way you were taught in schools)? Read about it from different sources, and note what kind of documentation exists to support the claims. Does a certain vitamin help cure a specific disease? What research has been done, and are the research methods sound? Will a certain proposed law resolve a problem or cause disruption? Research to see if that law exists in another part of the world, or if there are any existing statistics or rationales to back up any claims.

Once you find objective truths, be flexible enough to realize the world is a complex place. The evidence may be wrong or misinterpreted. Be ready to change your mind later on, if confronted with new information.

For subjective truths, realize that everyone is different. Be comfortable with your own subjective truths, while at the same time accepting of others. This will help you understand others better, but also be able to defend your own subjective beliefs without stepping on anyone else’s rights to their own preferences.

In this, I include personal experiences, spiritual truths, psychology and personal growth, likes and dislikes, and interests.

Maybe you had a dream that really effected your life. The message in that dream was probably only meant for you. Maybe you read a book that changed your life. Maybe a philosophy or spiritual path makes you happy. These things strike specific chords in you, based on your temperament, personality, beliefs, goals, and past experiences. They probably won’t effect everyone the same way.

Being able to separate objective truth (applies to everyone, can be tested and proven) from subjective truth (applies to you, cannot be tested or proven) is an important step on the road to thinking for yourself.

4. Question Everything. Just because you heard it, believe it, or saw photos of it, doesn’t make it true. Looking for truth requires a habit of healthy skepticism.

Before adding a piece of information to your “Things That Are True” file in your mind, take a little time to research it. This is really easy and often takes only a few minutes, especially now that we have the internet. If you don’t have time to research it, or can’t find anything on it, add it to your “Things that I heard were true, but might not be” file. Be aware that some sources are more reliable than others. It may help to also research your sources, or try to find multiple sources.

It may also help to cast some doubts on everything you currently believe. Move everything you haven’t verified into the “It Might Be True, But Am Not Sure” file. Only add them back to the “Things That Are True” file when you’ve verified through research. Or if you researched and found your belief to be false, of course throw it in the “Things I Once Believed Were True, But Found Out They Weren’t” file.

Of course most subjective truths can only be researched so far, and often cannot be “proven”. In this case, if it works for you, then it’s true — for you. That’s the whole point of a subjective truth.

5. The world is not black and white. It’s not even shades of gray. It’s a rainbow of 32 million colors. Situations are complex. Issues have many facets. While it’s good to have basic principles to guide you, it denies truth to blindly follow those principles in every situation without a little investigation and thought.

Usually people, things, ideas, and situations have certain characteristics. Almost nothing is absolutely good or totally evil. An idea may be unfeasible, impractical, or may have negative consequences, but it isn’t “bad”. Giving it such a simple label limits our thinking. It’s more helpful to think about the actual characteristics that may make something undesirable. Maybe there are some merits to a “bad” idea that could be resolved. Maybe we can gain some insight on how the world works if we can view all the characteristics of a “bad” person or group, to help understand why they behave the way they do.

At the very least, we can better solve a problem if we understand specifically what caused it. If we focus on vague generalities like “bad”, “evil”, “no good”, “stupid”, and “useless”, we cripple our ability to solve anything.

If someone is telling you X is totally negative or totally positive in some way, it probably isn’t. This is a warning that this person is probably using black and white thinking, and may have limited judgment because of it.

6. Take what you like and leave the rest. Because the world is not black and white, it’s important to realize there is truth to be found everywhere. A book or system of ideas may have some really truthful parts, but that does not mean the whole system of ideas is true or desirable, objectively or subjectively.

Do not reject an entire work or belief system just because of preconceived assumptions, because it has been labeled or framed a certain way. Chances are, there is something to learn from any school of thought, even if it’s just to become more educated about why it’s false.

Trust yourself to be a rational being. You will not be sucked in, converted, or “deceived” just by reading an opposing viewpoint, especially if you practice good mental habits.

It is possible to learn only what you need, and dump that which does not fit. I am no longer Christian, but the bible contains a few passages that still resonate with me and that I still live by. I’ve also adopted parts of Taoism, Neo-Objectivism, Zen Buddhism, and other religions and philosophies.

Likewise a historical book or scientific paper may be partially true and partially false. It makes no sense to throw it all out (or retain all of it) based on a few errors.

If a group or belief system asks you to stop seeking out other sources, or claims to have all the information you need, it is probably trying to control you and limit your reasoning ability. If the belief system only references its own research or literary works to prove itself true, it is also suspect.

7. Words mean different things to different people. Have you ever been in an argument that degenerated into semantics? Many debates would be better served if semantics were the first order of business, to get them out of the way and make sure everyone is speaking the same language.

Nearly everyone wants freedom, justice, and peace. The problem is, not everyone means the same thing when they use those words. The meanings may seem obvious, but even these basic words carry a lot of baggage. Let’s break one down. Freedom. Are we talking about political freedom? Civil freedom? Financial freedom? When you say freedom, do you mean freedom from an oppressive government? Freedom from fear? Freedom from want? Freedom from responsibility?

Usually, our different perspectives on words come naturally. We learned the meaning of those words under different contexts. We have different source material. Sometimes, however, groups will change the meanings of words to purposefully limit the thinking of their members. When studying cults, researchers call this “Loading the Language”. In 1984, George Orwell called it “Newspeak”.

Some words can be charged with a lot of negativity, myths, assumptions, or preconceived notions that make it difficult to think or talk about the concepts they represent. Consider these words: Cult, War, Racism, Fascism, Leftist, Gay, Punk, Selfish, Polygamy, Drugs, Corporation. At least some of these words probably summon up a reaction, or a series of ideas and images. It’s possible your assumptions are limited, and do not reflect a good understanding of these concepts.

Whether it is intentional or not, our understanding of language has an important bearing on our thinking. It may be helpful to revisit certain words or concepts now and then, think about them, and study what they mean to other people, to gain a fresh perspective. Expanding your vocabulary to include new words will help add to your library of concepts and add power to your thinking.

8. We are all human beings, not good groups vs. evil groups. Elitism and Us vs Them concepts are useful for dehumanizing others and limiting thought and idea-exchange between cultures and subcultures. It is a natural instinct that helped humanity survive through the days when small tribes fought over limited resources. But in today’s world, it only divides where division may no longer be necessary.

Studies show that members of groups who hate other groups will make exceptions if they get to personally know a member of the opposing group. For instance, when a gay man comes out to his fundamentalist family, more often than not, the family will continue to love their own, even if they still believe homosexuality in general is wrong. This is the “Enemy Mine” scenario. While we may be wired to view groups of Others as enemies, we are also wired to nurture and protect those we know and understand.

While we don’t need to agree with everyone on the planet (which would also separate our thoughts from reality), it is helpful to realize that in spite of our differences, we’re all basically the same on many levels. We can learn more about the world by being curious and trying to understand the points of view of others.

9. Nobody’s perfect. We’ve heard this cliche’ before, yet some groups and schools of thinking will try to convince people that it is possible to find perfection, become totally pure, or reach some other type of impossible state.

By setting impossible standards, a group can keep a person in a vicious cycle of perpetual shame and unending work. A variation on this is the idea that we are inherently flawed in a deep, unrepairable way. This also leads to perpetual shame, as well as the need for someone or some thing to make up for these flaws.

The truth, as it often is, is something in the middle of these extremes. Each human being has a mix of unique flaws and strengths.

Rather than look outside for someone to save you from your irredeemable state, or struggle constantly to make yourself perfect, instead see life as a cycle of self-improvement. Identify your flaws by personal introspection and openness to external constructive criticism. Then, if a flaw bothers you or those you care about, seek ways to improve. Read books, get a therapist, meditate, journal, set goals, make habits. Be forgiving of yourself if progress is slow or if you seem to revert to your old ways.

10. Learn when to trust emotion, and when to trust reason. Emotions are a very valuable part of human existence, however, emotions are easily swayed, and do not always give the clearest view on reality.

Many persuasion techniques involve tricks to shut down intellect and turn on the emotional tap. If someone wants money, they may show you a video of a starving child. You may forget to ask whether your money will actually go to the starving child, or how your money will be used to feed the child. You may not wonder if there may be another charity that will feed more children, or help build infrastructure so the child can feed himself.

When making a decision on what to believe or how to act, go with reason over emotion when there is a choice. Sometimes, we don’t have enough facts, and all we have left is “gut instinct”. But when information is there, hedge your bet on logic, and you’ll come out closer to reality.

11. Gain an understanding of Logic and common Logical Fallacies. Most people like to consider themselves open minded, rational people. In reality, a lot of people practice pseudo-logic and fall prey to logical fallacies.

If you never took a logic class in school (and maybe even if you have), chances are you’ve picked up some bad mental habits that lead to inaccurate conclusions.

A logical fallacy is an argument that seems logically sound, but is actually deeply flawed.

One of the most common is Ad Hominem, a fancy Latin word for a personal attack. The idea is that if the person making the argument has a character flaw, then their argument is false.

Another common one is called the Straw Man fallacy. This is where a person counters your argument by distorting it (possibly asserting a claim you never made), and then attacks the new claim or distorted view of your argument. For example:

A: I don’t believe in government welfare.
B: You’re so heartless. I can’t believe you’d let children starve to death.

Colin Powell: I’m voting for Obama, because the Republican party has moved away from conservative ideals.
Rush Limbaugh: He’s only voting for Obama because he’s black. It’s hypocritical to vote for someone based on race.

Take some time to study and become aware of the many formal and informal logical fallacies. These are listed on many websites, and there are also a lot of books written on the topic. Even just a few hours perusing these concepts will give you new tools to help you sort fact from fiction.

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Published in: on October 23, 2008 at 7:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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