Brain Bias: Why Not to Emulate Geniuses and Their Rigid Thinking Process

Humans tend to hunker down in our own minds and trust what we already believe to be true. This emotion-based way of thought isn't often the best way to think about anything, and often leads to gridlock.

Barbara Oakley: It turns out that it’s all too easy for us to fall into a sort of rut in our thinking and it can feel so comfortable, so good. We can feel so certain that it’s right that we can’t even realize that we’re stuck in a rut. Part of this is called "Einstellung," right, this kind of effect. And that is this sort of you see one approach to do things and you are convinced it’s right— And even it if isn’t the best approach you just can’t see other approaches because you’ve already locked in that first approach.

And to some extent we do that in everything we do in life because as we grow, as we grow from infants and we’re maturing there are synaptic – we’re born and kind of our earliest years we have lots of synaptic connections. And as we don’t use some of them they just wither away and die. So even by six months of age what happens is you’ve lost the ability to even hear certain sounds of other languages because you haven’t actually used those circuits yourself.

So what you want to do in your life is you want to try to expose yourself to novel stimuli as much as possible. So I mean that doesn’t mean that you have to like live a topsy-turvy life, but try things like sitting at a different place at the dinner table or brush your teeth with the other hand.

And, of course travel is a great way of getting out of your comfort zone. One of the things that I think is very interesting is Nobel Prize Winner Ramon y Cajal had said that—he’s considered the father of modern neuroscience and he’d worked with many geniuses—And he said, you know, “I’ve worked with these geniuses, and,” he said, “I am not a genius.” He said, “What I am is persistent and I’m flexible when I see that the data is telling me something different than I thought it should tell me.”

So he was able to change his mind. Now what happens with really smart people, those geniuses who Ramon y Cajal was referring to is they’re super smart. So they’re used to being right and figuring things out quickly. They tend to jump to conclusions and they haven’t had the experience of changing their minds when they’re wrong because they haven’t been wrong that often. And what that does is that makes them less flexible in the face of changing data or even being more open to different ideas.

So I think it’s really important to try to keep yourself flexible, try to talk to people of different opinions, listen to them. Of course you’ll be forming your own opinions, but you’ll be surprised if you listen carefully how you can find yourself being a more open and caring person just for the fact that you’ve listened.

My background is a little different in that I worked for several years as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers. So it was an eye-opening experience for me because it allowed me to realize how easy it is for people to get in an echo chamber where they have no idea that there are other opinions and other ideas that are outside their own echo chamber. So I saw that on the trawlers that I worked on. There was no exposure to Western ideas and Western thoughts. And so they were convinced that all capitalists were evil, that people when they got to shore they would be kidnapped and tortured and terrible things would happen to them. And, of course, that wasn’t true at all. And their conceptions of the West were completely wrong. And what I see, another thing was just that they were terrified of saying the wrong thing. It was truly a totalitarian society where if you had “wrong think” you were in big trouble.

And to some extent I see a little of that going on in our society today. People become very polarized because they only listen to news that relates to something that backs up the world view that they have. And so it’s almost a little bit like the old days when I was working with the Soviets because there’s this sort of group think that “we’re right.” And also fear if you say the wrong thing amongst your group.

And this is a dangerous sort of societal situation to fall into where you’re not listening or talking to one another. And I think it’s important that as much as possible to maintain dialogue between different ways of thinking about things.

And as far as false news comes—or fake news—comes about, I’m familiar with fake news from decades past, right? Because the Soviets were masters of fake news! And fake news can come from any source, and it’s not just your side that’s the source of the good news. It’s both sides that can put out fake news.

And so I think critical thinking involves not being totally vested in one side or another but being able to step back and be dispassionate and not be quite so emotional about the things you might hear in the news that are built to push your emotional buttons.


How do you get out of a mental feedback loop? The smartest people—call them geniuses or what you will—tend to shut down outside voices and tend to only listen to sources that they know they'll agree with. But the thing is, this works for geniuses because they are, well, geniuses. Barbara posits that the best thing to do for the other 99.9% of us is to get outside of your own head and be flexible about ideas. Travel more. Even just sitting in a different chair can open new avenues in your head. Your brain craves new stimuli, so give it something to grow on. Ideally, Barbara says, you should listen to people and things that might initially rub you the wrong way, but ultimately get you out of your own mental feedback loop. The best thinking doesn't have to come from emotion—taking a step back and thinking critically about all sides of an issue in a 3-dimensional way is often the best way to think, period. Barbara Oakley's latest book is Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.

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