A Whole New Way of Thinking
By Qing Cha & Jiahui
It is what we know already that often prevents us from learning.
— Claude Bernard
French researcher Frédéric Brochet of the University of Bordeaux conducted a revealing experiment in 2001. He invited 57 wine-tasting specialists to differentiate between a glass of red wine and a glass of white wine. However, both glasses were in fact the same type of white wine, except one of the glasses also contained food coloring. The result? Not a single participant was able to tell that the “red” wine was actually white wine.
In another experiment, Brochet used two bottles of ordinary Bordeaux red wine. One of the bottles was labeled as a fancy, high-quality wine (grand cru), while the other was labeled as a more ordinary wine (vin du table). Out of all the participants, 40 gave the expensive-looking wine a positive rating, while only 12 gave the cheap-looking wine a positive rating.
Cognitive inertia: a result of our brain’s natural mechanisms
Why were a few drops of red food coloring and a simple label enough to cloud the judgment of so many people?
Cognitive inertia is a result of the accumulated experiences and established viewpoints in our brain. Over long periods of living and working, the striatum of the brain goes over past memories and actions to create a fixed way of thinking. This ensures that when the brain encounters a situation similar to situations it has already dealt with, it does not have to spend as much time and effort on making a decision, thus saving a significant amount of energy while reducing the risk of making errors. For example, when you see a red traffic light, you stop walking immediately, and if you saw an obstacle, you would avoid it without even thinking.
Under everyday circumstances, cognitive inertia is extremely helpful in reducing the brain’s workload. However, its flaws become evident when we find ourselves in new situations.
The shackles of cognitive inertia
Practically everyone has cognitive inertia. Sometimes, its influence can be seen in our actions, but it could also affect every little thought that we have without our noticing. Once we form a habit of using old methods to solve new problems, our experiences become shackles that bind our way of thinking. As a result, we might stray from the right path and head steadily into a dead end.
Relying too much on one’s past experiences could also hinder creativity and cause one’smind to stagnate. Cognitive inertia could easily cause one to lose the ability to adapt and instead stick to old practices as if they were dogma.
The danger of cognitive inertia lies in its insidiousness. Our habits and cultural beliefs are often imperceptible; even if we did notice that they were wrong, we would sink deeper into them without trying to break free. We follow the paths set by our brain’s “autopilot” like preprogrammed robots.
An uninhabited hill starts out with no roads, but the first person to arrive will create a footpath, and as more people come, the footpath widens. Soon enough, a proper road will be established. Once this road is formed, who would want to wander off into the thorny brush? Likewise, once we create certain ways of thinking, we become extremely reluctant to consider other perspectives.
Opening up a whole new way of thinking
When we notice that a negative way of thinking is being established in our brain, it is best to stop it immediately. Alternatively, when we find ourselves constantly meeting obstacles in similar situations, we could examine ourselves for any inertial thinking that could be holding us back. Once we figure out that a negative way of thinking has been forming, we can put a stop to it.
Be free from the restraints of experience
Cognitive inertia often stems from our brain’s reliance on experience. The world today is in constant flux. There are new things, ideas and opinions being created in every moment. In a constantly changing world, blindly and rigidly sticking to established ways of thinking issimply not productive.
Charlie Thomas Munger, a famous American investor, said this in a talk at Stanford University: “There is no such thing as a universal solution. It is impossible to use the same mold to solve problems in every situation.” Removing oneself from “common sense” and looking at a problem from outside one’s experience can lead to finding the solution.
Instead of following the “normal” or “logical” train of thought, reverse thinking involves turning a problem around and looking for the opposite solution. It can help us to find the root cause of a situation and solve it.
Once, a couple brought along their child on their search to rent a new home. After touring a house, they asked the landlord, “Could you rent this place to us?” The landlord said, “Apologies, but we don’t take tenants with children.” Later, the child visited the landlord and successfully rented the house. All the boy had said was this: “I’m bringing two adults with me.”
Charlie Munger has been known to employ reverse thinking to solve problems. For example, he reasoned that the best way to ensure a business will grow successful is to start by examining how it could fail, and avoiding those situations. Once, he was asked, “How can one find an excellent partner?” He answered, “First, you must become an excellent person, because excellent partners are not foolish.”
There are new things, ideas and opinions being created in every moment. In a constantly changing world, blindly and rigidly sticking to established ways of thinking is simply not productive.
Meditation elevates our level of thinking
Meditation supports an active lifestyle and also gives us wisdom, allowing us to break free of our insularity and look beyond the constraints of our limited knowledge. It helps us to study our own patterns of thinking and see things as they truly are.
Grandmaster JinBodhi said, “Through meditation, we can view the world through broader and deeper perspectives. We will also gain greater wisdom and contemplate on a higher level.
“Once we reach a certain level of self-cultivation, we can even look at ourselves and the world beyond the limits of time and space, allowing us to use this world to elevate both our physical and spiritual selves. This is known as ‘using everything to attain Phoenix Nirvana.’”
Grandmaster JinBodhi also said this: “There are many roads in life. It is only when an unconventional mind ponders, that a prodigy is born.” He was encouraging us to dare to challenge established notions and think independently. Only then can we find a new way of life, and walk a path as expansive as the sky. As the saying goes, “There can be no construction without destruction.” Let us cut off all means of retreat and commit to finding new avenues through which we interact with the world.