Becoming a Better Thinker

Part of a series: Baby steps toward elusive attributes.

Posted Oct 15, 2019

Bill G., Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Bill G., Flickr, CC 2.0

Becoming a better thinker may seem daunting. After all, intelligence, at least as measured by intelligence tests, has proven quite resistant to improvement. For example, see this review of the literature.

While your raw brainpower may be hard to improve, whether you make the most of it is more malleable. So, here are some suggestions that don't require undue effort that could generate at least some improvement. That's worthy in itself.

Slow down. Maybe the easiest way to improve your thinking is to slow down. We tend to be reflexive, with a desire for closure. But sometimes, if you sense that a bit more brainpower might help, a deep breath followed by even just a one-second pause may help. After all, in just that one second, your neurons fire 100 to 200 times.

The next three tips are corollaries of each other:

Choose moderately challenging tasks. When you have discretion, consider choosing tasks that are Goldilocksian: not too easy, not too hard, just right. That will engage your brain at a level at which you can learn. If it’s too easy, you learn nothing. If it’s too hard, you can’t engage with it. For example, if someone gave me a PhD-level astrophysics problem, I could try to engage with it for the rest of my life and I’d probably get nowhere and learn nothing. Also, you’re more likely to stay with a moderately challenging problem: You’ll slowly make progress, which is rewarding, making you want to continue until you've solved the problem.

Spend time around moderately better thinkers. Have you ever been to a lecture or a discussion that went completely over your head? You can’t grow from that. Conversely, you won't upgrade your thinking ability by watching Looney Tunes.

Instead, spend time with people whose thinking ability you respect and whom, with a bit of effort, you can understand. If you don’t quite understand their reasoning or if you’re working on something on which their input or feedback would be valuable, try to muster the courage to ask. True, that may reveal yourself as less-than but it’s a price worth paying if you care to boost your thinking ability. After all, their answer provides customized feedback at your instructional level, and that’s key to your growth.

Read and watch things that use moderately better thinking than yours. What publications, TV shows, books, YouTubes, etc. do you enjoy but require your full attention? Those are likely at your instructional level, which maximizes your likely growth.

Take a class? If you’re one of the many people who want an expert to structure your learning, take a class or even a course in critical thinking, rhetoric, or communication.

Even if you gravitate toward in-person classes, you might first try to find a highly rated online one. That’s because limiting yourself to in-person classes restricts your choices to instructors teaching nearby, plus there's the hassle of getting to and from, and perhaps parking. In contrast, with online classes, you can choose from those offered anywhere in the world, most with student reviews to help you curate.

First consider classes that meet just once. That’s because many instructors have a quick point of diminishing returns—Limited to one session, the instructor includes his or her best stuff. The longer the course, the greater the potential for decline and padding.

Examples:

The one-hour LinkedIn Learning course, Critical Thinking, has been taken by over 321,000 people. Pricing: You subscribe to LinkedIn Learning for $30 a month, with the first month free. That gives you unlimited access to all of LinkedIn Learning’s thousands of courses.

Upgrade Your Mindware is a four-hour course offered by Udemy. It has an average rating of 4.4. I like Udemy courses because they tend to be practical and well-organized. It's just $11.

Mindware is a free 12-hour course on critical thinking offered by the University of Michigan. It has a 4.7/5 average review.

Exercise. It improves thinking ability, even in the long-term. Anecdotally, including in my own experience, thinking power seems to improve while walking. I’ve also found that to be true when in the shower, perhaps a combination of increased oxygenation to the brain and not being distracted.

Chewing gum. A review of the literature in Psychology Today found that chewing gum increases memory and concentration, perhaps because it increases oxygenation to the brain. I sometimes chew a piece of gum when facing a cognitive challenge, for example, when working on this book.

Less-useful approaches

A few years ago, exercises marketed as “brain training” were touted as intelligence boosters. But independent researchers failed to verify promulgators’ claims. For example, Lumosity, the maker of popular "brain training" games was fined $50 million by the Federal Trade Commission, which alleged deceptive advertising that suggested that playing games a few times a week could boost performance at work, in the classroom, and even delay dementia. In fact, an independent report by Stanford and the Planck Institute concluded those claims to be unjustified.

Other pop-psych nostrums for improving cognitive performance come and go, for example, “grit," “growth mindset,” and  especially “power poses.” Reviews of the literature by researchers other than the concept's creator have been disappointing. Some are collected here.

Earlier nostrums for increasing thinking ability have also long been debunked such as that listening to Mozart will improve IQ.

The takeaway

Society understandably venerates intelligence and its related concepts: reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills. While, as stated earlier, major improvement may be unrealistic, incremental improvement probably is feasible and so modest efforts such as those suggested here may well be worth it.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

This is a part of a Baby Steps series: I plan to post the next installment tomorrow: Baby Steps Toward Living Your Principles.