How to Think
Thinking is something that happens naturally in each individual, but there are ways to deepen your thinking abilities. It takes time and practice to become a better thinker, but it’s a process you can hone all your life. Being a better thinker and keeping your mind sharp can help your mental and physical health in the long run!
Understand different types of thinking. There isn’t one right way to think about things. Instead there are lots of ways of thinking, some of which are more effective than others. We need to learn different types of thinking, to better understand our own thinking processes as well as the thought processes of others.
Learn conceptual thinking.
This is basically learning to find patterns and connections between abstract ideas so that you can form a whole picture. For example: you might use conceptual thinking during a chess game. You might look at the board and think “this configuration of pieces looks familiar” and use that to move your pieces based on how you see the pattern playing out.
Learn to think intuitively.
This is basically what it means to operate on gut instinct (you should only operate on gut instinct). Often your brain is processing more than you realize, and that’s gut instinct. For example: deciding you don’t want to date a seemingly nice guy because your gut warns you off, and finding out later that he’s a convicted sex offender; your brain was picking up on certain signals that you might not have been consciously aware of.
Learn the 5 thinking styles.
Harrison and Bramson in The Art of Thinking postulated 5 thinking styles: synthesists, idealists, pragmatists, analysts, realists. Knowing where you fall and what styles you tend to use can help you better utilize your own thinking patterns. You can fall into one style or more than one, but using a variety of these styles can help you more effectively use your thinking.
Synthesists tend to enjoy conflict (they like to “play devil’s advocate”) and they tend towards asking “what if” type questions. However, they use that conflict to fuel their own creativity and can often do better seeing the whole picture.
Idealists more often look at the whole of a picture rather than just one component. They tend to be more interested in people and feelings than facts and numbers, and they prefer to think and plan for the future.
Pragmatists are the type that prefer to do “whatever works.” They do well with quick thinking and short term planning and are usually creative and quite adaptable to change. Sometimes they seem to do things “on the fly” without any sort of plan whatsoever.
Analysts tend to try to break down problems into their specific components rather than dealing with it as a whole. They make lists and organize things and use lots of detail, so that their lives and problems remain orderly.
Realists are no-nonsense. They ask hard questions and tend to do whatever is required to solve a problem. They have a good grasp on the problem at hand and the tools with which they can solve it. They also tend to be more aware of what their limitations are. Most people have at least some measure of the realist in them.
Use divergent thinking rather than convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is when you basically only see two choices (i.e. people are either good or they are bad). Divergent thinking means basically opening your mind in all directions (i.e. realizing that people can encompass both “good” and “bad”).
To open yourself up to divergent thinking, whenever you encounter people or a situation, pay attention to how you’re framing the situation or person. Are you giving yourself only limited options (i.e. does he hate you if he doesn’t make time to spend with you and like you only when he spends all his time with you, etc.)? Do you often use the phrase “this or that?” When you notice yourself thinking like this, stop and consider, are these really my only options? Usually they aren’t.
Convergent thinking, isn’t necessarily always bad. It is particularly useful for things like math (where there is an obvious right answer), but it can be severely limiting when used on your life.
Build up your critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is when you objectively analyze a situation or information by gathering lots of information and facts from different sources. Then you evaluate the situation based on the information you’ve gathered.
This basically means not taking things based on assumptions, not assuming that someone knows what they are talking about, and investigating things for yourself.
You will also need to understand how your own biases and perspectives color things, as well as what biases and perspectives other people present. You will have to challenge the assumptions you make based on your world view.
Part 1 ~ Acquiring Thinking Fundamentals
Challenge assumptions. To be a more effective thinker you’re going to need to challenge the assumptions you make. Your thinking is going to be directly influenced by that of your cultural and social surroundings. You will need to determine for yourself whether or not this thinking is productive or useful.
Consider multiple points of view. If you hear something, even something that sounds good, pursue it through other sources. Look for facts that support or refute it and see what other people have to say. For example: say you hear that bras can give women cancer and it sounds like an interesting theory (also, now you’re worried about wearing a bra), so you start to look into it. Eventually you’ll wade through the claims and find that there isn’t any evidence to support this claim, but if you hadn’t considered multiple points of view, you wouldn’t have uncovered the truth, so to speak.
Develop curiosity. People who are considered “great thinkers” are people who have cultivated their curiosity. They ask questions about the world and about themselves, and they look for answers to these questions.
Ask people about themselves. You don’t have to be super invasive, but when you meet someone, ask them questions about themselves (where are you from? what did you study in school? why did you choose to study that? and so on). People love to talk about themselves and you will find out many interesting things you might not otherwise have learned.
Practice curiosity about the world in general. For example, if you’re flying on a plane, look into the mechanics of flying, how air currents work, maybe even the history of the plane (don’t just look at the Wright brothers).
When you get a chance, go to museums (they often have free days at least once a month), go to library events, or lectures at your local college. These are all great ways to satisfy your curiosity about the world without it costing much or anything.
Seek the “truth.” The difficult part about this step is that there isn’t always one ultimate “truth.” Still, doing the best you can to get to the heart of a matter (social, political, personal, etc.) will help you greatly exercise and deepen your existing thinking skills.
Do your best to pick your way through rhetorical landmines on certain issues to find out what the evidence (true facts) actually shows. Make sure to keep an open mind as you’re doing this, otherwise you’ll start to ignore all the facts except those that support the claim you believe or agree with.
For example: the issue of climate change has become greatly politicized which has made it difficult for people to pick through the actual facts (i.e. climate change is happening and it is happening rapidly and it is due to humans) because there is so much misinformation and finger pointing that the real facts have a tendency to get ignored or subverted).
Find creative solutions. A good way to cultivate your thinking skills is to use your creative thinking to help you come up with unusual and outside-the-box strategies to cope with unusual events. It’s a way to practice using your thinking skills at school, at work, even on the bus.
Daydreaming has been shown to be an incredibly powerful tool for people in terms of thinking, problem-solving and making things happen. Set aside a little time each day to allow yourself to daydream. Just find a quiet place and let your mind roam freely *before you go to bed is usually a good time for this).
If you’re having difficulty with a problem and are looking for a creative way of overcoming it, there are a couple good questions to ask yourself: ask yourself what you would do if you had access to any resources in the world; ask yourself who you would ask to help you if you could ask anyone; ask yourself what you might try if you knew without a doubt, that whatever you tried would succeed. These questions allow you to open up your mind to possibilities rather than seeing only the limitations.
Acquire information. You want to make sure that you know how to acquire information and good information. There is a lot nonsense out there, some of which can seem very real. You’ll need to learn to figure out the difference between good sources of information and bad sources.
The library is an amazing resource for finding out information! Not only do they have books and movies and documentaries that you can borrow, they also often offer free classes and workshops, or information on free classes and workshops. They have librarians who can either answer your questions or direct you to the appropriate information.
Libraries, also, often have archives with pictures and newspapers from your hometown or city and can be a great resource for learning more about where you live.
Certain places on the internet can be great for offering up information. You can get good computational and scientific knowledge from Wolfram|Alpha, you can look at digitized manuscripts from medieval ones to later artists’ notebooks, or you could try out some free learning on the Open University website. Remember that you should always practice a healthy level of skepticism about whatever you learn (whether on the internet or in a book, or in a documentary). Sticking to the facts and keeping an open mind will help you more than any natural intelligence.
Part 2 ~ Building Your Thinking Capacity
Use language to change your thinking. Scientists have found that language actually helps influence the way you think. For example, people who grow up in cultures that use the cardinal points (north, south, east, west) rather than things like right and left as in English, actually have acquired the ability to locate the cardinal points with the aid of a compass.
Learn at least one other language. Scientists also found that bilinguals (people who speak more that one language) see the world according to the language that they are using. Learning a new language will help introduce you to new methods of thinking. Don’t forget that music is a language in its own right.
Learn widely. Learning is not just about going to school and memorizing some facts. Learning is something that takes a lifetime and can include a wide variety of things. When you’re always learning, you’re always thinking and being exposed to new ways of thinking.
Be wary about your use of and appeal to authority. Don’t rely on other people’s opinions, even if they seem to know what they are talking about. Check facts, look at alternate viewpoints. If you see holes in their arguments or reasoning, look into it. Don’t ever stop looking into something just because an authority figure, like the media, or a professor, or a senator disagrees. Now, if a variety of independent sources are making the same argument or claim, it’s more likely that it is true.
Practice a healthy skepticism about what you uncover. Make sure that you find information that is corroborated by more than one source (it’s best to look for independent sources). Look into who is making the claims (are they subsidized by big oil companies, do they have a stake in propagating misinformation, do they simply have no idea what they’re talking about?).
Try new things and get outside your comfort zone. The more you do this, the easier it will be to look at opinions and ideas that don’t immediately conform to your worldview. It will also introduce you to ideas that you would never have encountered. So try out a cooking class, or learn to knit, or get interested in amateur astronomy.
Use mind building exercises. There are certain things you can do which can help increase your thinking abilities. Our brains are just like any other muscle in our body. The more you use your brain, the stronger it will get and the better you’ll be able to think.
Do math. Doing math on a regular basis can be a huge boost to your mental facilities and can help make diseases like Alzheimer’s less likely for you. Do a little bit of math each day (it doesn’t have to be calculus, but when you’re adding, do it in your head rather than on a calculator, etc.).
Memorize a poem. Not only is this a great party trick (especially if it’s a long poem), but it will help improve your memory, which in turn will help your thinking skills. You can also memorize some quotes to whip out in conversation, when the time is right.
Practice mindfulness. The importance of mindfulness when it comes to thinking is that it can help clarify our thoughts, but it can also help take us out of our heads when we need it to. Mindfulness can help ease mental problems and can help in the pursuit of knowledge and thinking.
You could practice mindfulness while you’re taking a walk. Instead of simmering in your thoughts, focus on your five senses: notice the green of the trees, the exact blue of the sky, notice the clouds racing across it; listening to the sound of your footsteps, the wind in the leaves, people talking around you; pay attention to the smells, and what you feel (is it cold, warm, windy, etc). Don’t assign value judgments to these things (too cold, pretty sky, bad smell, etc.) just notice them.
Do at least 15 minutes of meditation each day. This will help to clear your mind and your thinking and will give your brain a much needed rest. When you’re just starting out find somewhere quiet to sit without distractions (as it gets easier you can meditate on the bus, at your desk at work, at the airport). Breathe deeply, all the way into your belly and as you do so, focus on your breath. When you find errant thoughts streaming across your consciousness, don’t engage, simply keep breathing and focus on your inhale and your exhale.