As I’ve aged, I recognize that I have a tendency to stubbornly embrace my beliefs. When I was a student in graduate school, I was excited about learning new ideas, theories and practices. I was an enthusiastic student. My mind was a blank slate, primed to learn.
But as I gained more experience as a practicing psychologist, I became more confident in myself, yet less open to new ideas.
In the early 1970s, psychologists believed that mental illness — schizophrenia in particular — was caused by “bad parenting,” based on research that was conducted at the time. I, like others, accepted these theories as facts. In the 1980s, new research demonstrated the genetic and neurochemical underpinnings of mental illness.
I recognize that one can’t be held responsible for research findings that didn’t exist yet, but I still feel bad about the pain and suffering I caused families of the mentally ill that I worked with as a young psychologist. It was a lesson that I never forgot — don’t embrace new ideas without a dollop of skepticism. Don’t confuse theory with fact.
Critical thinking and open mindedness are important components of good citizenship and a healthy life. Yet, in the last few years, it seems to be a challenge for all of us to consider new ideas, new research and beliefs that differ from our own. There’s an epidemic of closed minds.
So how can we open our minds and our hearts?
Examine your beliefs and values. Look within and reflect on your own beliefs. What do you believe in? What are your values? How have these beliefs and views developed? Have you questioned them and examined them critically? What’s changed and what’s stayed the same over time? What are the consequences of your point of view on yourself and others?
Challenge yourself. Consider your strongly held beliefs and take an opposing viewpoint, like trying on a new set of clothes that have a different look. Poke holes in your argument and look for inconsistency. See what you learn.
Listen. Try to understand new beliefs and knowledge. Ask questions, set aside your own opinions and simply try to understand different points of view. Don’t let your experience become a barrier. Look beyond your ideas.
Read and listen to different sources. We live in a world with an information highway that’s packed with data moving at supersonic speeds. It’s time consuming and hard to sift through all the information that’s available to everyone. The internet doesn’t come with a “truth-o-meter.” Today’s facts become tomorrow’s misunderstandings. Read through different sources from different authors to be well-informed. Don’t jump to conclusions — walk slowly and carefully toward them.
Place your judgments aside. Don’t be quick to judge others as right, wrong, good or bad. Put your opinions aside and remind yourself to have an open mind. Having a different opinion doesn’t make someone else a bad person. Try to understand different point of views that may come from different life experiences.
Be a lifelong student. In the last few years, I’ve been studying new findings in neuroscience, which was in its infancy when I was a graduate student. New technologies have enabled us to watch the living brain at work. I’m still excited about learning!
Cultivate compassion. So much of what we believe comes from our lived experience — from where we were born and raised, who are parents were, and the opportunities we had. If I had been born into a family living in poverty in Calcutta, the trajectory of my life would be vastly different.
It’s important to nurture an open mind and a loving heart.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.