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How to Develop Thinking Skills

How do you develop better thinking abilities? By practicing certain skills. Some simple techniques can become habitual (and therefore useful) within a few weeks. For example, if every time you learn a new idea this month you ask "what other ways can that be used," you'll soon be habitually inventing new things and thinking in new directions. Other skills, like increasing your creative output by continually looking at things from different perspectives, can take more time and work to develop and maintain.

Which skills should you work on first? The choice is yours, and the following three examples are just a limited selection of the possibilities.

We all learn new things and are exposed to novel ideas, but often our response to something new and interesting is nothing more than curiosity, and perhaps a desire to share our new information or knowledge with others. This is a limited way of thinking. Instead, every time you learn something new, ask yourself how that knowledge can be applied; and try to think of more than one application.

For example, you might read an article in a psychology magazine about how people respond to certain colors. Instead of just thinking, "that's interesting," purposefully take time to think of how this knowledge might be used. You might imagine painting school rooms in colors which help students stay more alert and focused, or painting prisons in colors that calm the inmates. If you hear about a new fuel being tested for cars, you might consider how it could be used for other machinery. Look for new applications every time you're exposed to new ideas or knowledge and you'll not only have a slew of creative ideas, but you'll also retain the new information better (we recall things better when we have worked with them).

Develop Better Logic

Logic can be taught of course, but many of the most logical people have never had a course in the subject. Logic is essentially natural to human minds, and yet we make mistakes very easily. It is most important then, to learn about the logical fallacies and missteps that are possible, so we can avoid them. This will not be a lesson on those. Instead, I want to suggest that you watch what is said around you, whether in personal conversations, in political debates, or wherever. As you listen or read, find the flaws in the logic.

For example, you might catch a debate on television about how much power a president needs in order to protect citizens of a country. Looking for the flaws in the arguments, you note that they are both based on the unproven assumption that more power actually provides more protection. It is possible that, at best, more power simply protects us from some foreign threats while that power threatens our safety and rights in equally harmful ways.

As you challenge the logic being used all around you, it should become easier to see and correct the flaws in your own use of logic.

Develop More Holistic Thinking Skills

More logical thinking is a great skill to have, and the little technique above is an effective way to develop it. But it is also useful to learn the limits of logic. After all, we might logically come to any number of conclusions, but outside of theoretical mathematics our conclusions will always at some level be based on unproven premises, unspoken assumptions, unclear definitions, or values we have provisionally adopted.

Consider a syllogism like; "All animals need food; all humans are animals: therefore all humans need food." It is logical, but that doesn't make it correct in all contexts. We might someday get our nutrition from something that isn't called food, after all. An unspoken assumption here is that we need food for survival (the syllogism doesn't say so explicitly), but I can stop eating right now and live for weeks at least, so another unspoken assumption is that the reader or listener already knows it refers to some vague time frame. And the moment you specify or clarify, saying, "all humans need food to survive more than three months," someone is likely to prove it wrong by living a bit longer (and you might go three years once they perfect suspended animation).

Or consider the seemingly logical idea like "Democracy is good, and we want what is good, therefore we should promote democracy everywhere." The first part is an unproven premise based on a vague definition, since it is not proven that mob rule is always good, and the word "democracy" can in any case mean many different things to different people.

You may not like the idea of settling on vague formulations, like, "Democracy appears to be better than the current alternatives we know of," and you may not like provisional values that you have to change as you learn more, but that's what honest and more holistic thought requires. If you don't learn to see the limitations of logical thinking you can miss new ideas (non-food nutrition), and make big mistakes (promoting democracy in a country where the populace will just vote to oppress minorities).

It's also good to remember that logic doesn't always conform to or precede experience and values. You can clearly see, for example, that something works before you know why. You can see that it is wrong to torture an animal before you have a logical argument for your belief. Sometimes the more formal logic is just added after the fact to make what you see and believe more arguable. But as long as you acknowledge your fallibility (and that of everyone else) and are open to changing your mind, pre-logic provisional assumptions and values are not a problem. They are very useful, and inescapable anyhow.

Even with the best logic, you can make a simple mistake in adopting a premise that later proves to be incorrect (they used to think margarine was better for you than butter, and then science discovered otherwise). To think more holistically, then, after you settle on your logical conclusions, note the premises, facts, and related assumptions that got you there, challenge these a bit to see if they might be wrong or incomplete, and remind yourself that all thinking works with premises which could be mistaken, and experience-based knowledge and values which are not the same for everyone. This is a way to train yourself to be more open minded.

A Review

1. To be more creative: When you learn something new, look for several new ways that knowledge can be applied.

2. To be more logical: Watch for and identify the flaws in the logic used by others and yourself.

3. To be more holistic: Note the limitations of any way of thinking and consider alternatives.

To develop better thinking abilities, just do these three exercise regularly.


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