We must have time and a mind of our own if we are to improve the quality of our thinking”  to loosely paraphrase Virginia Woolfe (1)

We each have a “mind”. To what extent we experience this mind as “our own” seems, I would suggest, to be open to question!

I don’t know about you, but just being able to focus without distraction on one thing at a time, on something we’ve decided we want and need to focus on, just doesn’t seem easy. We get side-tracked, off balance, overloaded. We think too much, we think too little; our ability to persistently direct our thinking in straight lines in relation to a chosen topic often gets derailed. We have a long day in the office, or we wake up in the morning and find our mental energy buzzing away on its own without any conscious effort on our part – responding to remembered thoughts, concocting emotional slights, worrying about targets, and just generally cogitating to no effect.

We can’t remember things easily – sometimes not even enough to keep to an agenda, when so many internal and external things press for attention . We say one thing, and behave entirely at odds with our words. We tunnel down rabbit holes of thinking until we can’t remember where we started from, and then get disheartened and anxious by our lack of ability to be clear.

Other times, we are so gripped by opinion, an emotional need to be right or to have a conclusion, that we can’t exercise our patience long enough to take in others’ viewpoints, which could have led to wonderful new possibilities and solutions. If we try to think something through into the future, we can feel like a lazy chess player, just wanting to see two moves ahead, as torpor takes hold, and we don’t really want to know the effect of those moves in the longer term, thinking takes too much effort.

Sometimes we can turn our analytical abilities to good advantage, but then get fixated and can’t move forward to imagining new things. We lose out because we don’t have the flexibility and perspective we need to balance strategy and tactics, in pursuit of a vision. As for being able to get beyond an initially negative viewpoint, and switch to seeing the bright side of something – you can forget it!

We think we have a mind, but it seems, after all, to have us. Isn’t it all rather weird!

Making the Invisible Visible
These are the almost invisible, often unarticulated issues we all seem to grapple with as individuals when it comes to being able to manage our mind enough to take charge and be aware of what it is doing; consciously choosing what to think, how to think, and when to change our thinking for what purpose, when we want to.

Bring other people into the equation, and how can we seem to be anything but a group of babbling monkeys? As George Bernard Shaw put it:

“Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety-five percent of the people would rather die than think”.

Shaw made up this observation to summarise his experience, but given the picture of our minds above, I’d say it’s a humourous possibility worth entertaining, and points to the effort needed before we can begin to say, that we have “a mind of our own.”

Human brains seem to be approximately similar – they operate rather like “hardware” which has particular processes and mechanisms. The way we use our brains, what we use them for and how we do that using a variety of “software”, varies. This opens up the possibility that we can learn to use our minds differently, and more effectively. How can we make thinking visible? We can use tests and exams to measure some aspects of performance, and we can determine some personality-based thinking preferences. More recently, we can see areas of the brain light up in scanners and draw some, albeit tentative, conclusions about how we use our minds.

What’s Becoming Visible
Early studies in neuroscience assumed that any “normal” human subject could be taken as typical, and would show more or less the same results when applying their mind to a particular task. Many results in psychology are based on undergraduate psychology students taken as subjects, presuming them to be representative of people as a whole. But this is now being questioned and our current understanding may be misleading. (2)

Matthieu Ricard
Matthieu Ricard

In 2002, in Professor Richard Davidson’s neuroscience lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, however, high levels of brain activity that had never been seen before were revealed when 128 electrodes were positioned on the head of Matthieu Ricard (a French-born monk who had practised more than 10,000 hours of Buddhist meditation).  This was enough for Dr Davidson and his colleagues to conclude that it was possible for people to dramatically change how their own brain works, through advanced practices with their own minds (3). This doesn’t tell us how good Ricard is at ‘thinking’  per se, what it does indicate is that he had transformed his own mind through practice, and in particular, from other evidence, his ability to focus by stilling mental chatter.

Another study, this time with 8 male and 3 female experienced Zen practitioners in Denmark found differences in performance to standard scans: they found “a higher activity …thought to be associated with enhanced insights and attentiveness, heightened interests, sharper mental focussing and deepened emotional resonances.” (4)

Professor Paul Ekman, a senior statesman of psychology observed the practical effect directly:  “I and others…readily acknowledge that our mind drifts…but when I sat with the Dalai Lama for five days in meetings, I noted that His Holiness did not miss a beat.  He is one of the closest listeners I have ever encountered – he’s totally concentrated“. (5)

It appears from these, and subsequent researches, that it is, therefore,  possible to affect our mental structures through deliberate mental training. So what does this mean? What are the implications?

Training the Brain
With greater focussing ability, and greater awareness of our mental processes, for example, we would have more skill at our disposal in steering our wandering minds and directing our attention to better quality thinking, and clearly there are some people who can do this better than others.

We are used to the idea of training our minds and learning what we need to know in order to perform complex skills such as playing the violin, learning a language, becoming an aeroplane pilot or become familiar with the latest technology. In these cases, we learn and develop patterns of thinking and co-ordinated behaviour which we can combine and adapt in different ways to suit the situation. We are, however, less familiar with the idea that we can learn to improve the quality of our thinking, learn to think about how we think, and develop more ability in directing our minds.

When we asked hundreds of PhD students at UK Universities – the height of our education system – if they had ever had any formal training in learning how to think, nearly all answered “no”. There is clearly learning that we can take, therefore, from how advanced meditators use direct training in developing the mind as a key part of the curriculum in self-mastery, something that is not yet widespread or current in the western model of education. We may, however, not want to look eastwards for solutions (6), and indeed, if we know what skills and conditions we need to develop and practise, could we build our own curriculum, drawing on a range of sources and ideas?

Skills for Thinking
From my earlier description of what goes on in our minds when we try to think, we can extrapolate some of the key skills we seem to need. These include:

  • Being able to choose and stay on a focus
  • Regaining, keeping and maintaining mental control
  • Keeping and maintaining perspective
  • Memorising and recollecting
  • Having different types of thinking available to us and knowing when we need to use them – critical, creative, looking from different viewpoints
  • Being open to new information and ideas
  • Thinking ahead
  • Cognitive flexibility – the ability to switch our thinking
  • Being able to see the difference between what we say and what we do, and developing congruence between them
  • Being aware of the relationship between our thinking and our emotions.

These all sound familiar, don’t they? We know we need to have them in order to have higher order cognition and the ability to control our thinking. And we have already developed them indirectly and more or less unknowingly in many ways in the course of our lives.

Conditions for better quality Thinking
Before we’re in any position to consciously develop these qualities, however, we must acknowledge that the world we are in, and our attitude to it, also play a role. There do need to be some conditions present to facilitate better quality thinking. My list of environmental factors would include:

  • Time and space – to learn, to reflect, to experiment, to practise.
  • Resources and access to education and knowledge
  • An environment where we can try out new skills with people who will help us.

For ourselves, the most important elements seem to be:

  • Confidence – having or developing the belief that we can do it
  • Motivation and effort – realising the benefits, and being motivated to make the effort
  • Role models – to give us a vision of what’s possible.

Creating our own Curriculum
Knowing what skills we need, we can be creative about designing our own curriculum and looking for ways to develop and strengthen them in our daily tasks and activities, when we want to. In doing so, we will also recognise them and apply them when needed for our thinking. Here’s a few examples from my experience.

For developing focus, there are plenty of pastimes and exercises where specific detailed attention in the present is needed. Sports are good – archery, tennis, martial arts. All the better if we can deliberately use these as mental strengthening exercises too – its one reason why Zen and such arts are closely linked.

For memory, we can try formal memory techniques – for example those put forward by Tony Buzan (7) really work and take less practise than sudoku. If we can consciously memorise, then we stand a better chance of staying on track. To practise recollection, at the end of a day, we can visualise going back to the beginning of the day in our minds and try to remember everything that has taken place.

For mental flexibility, we can try doing things differently and switching between different methods, to learn getting unstuck. We could devise new daily routes for our commuter run, choose three new things to do each week, practise looking for the benefits in something we don’t like, these kinds of things.

For keeping and maintaining perspective, activities, such as creating a painting, where we need to balance the whole composition with the detail of the parts, gives us that notion and exercises that faculty of being able to zoom in and zoom out as needed for our overall purpose. Many work tasks such as software development, require this too – we constantly need to keep in mind the overall form and make sure the details fit the whole.

And we can build on top of those mental capacities, by adding skills in the use of tools, techniques and frameworks for decision making, idea generation, evaluating options, analysis and seeing from different angles. They provide a language with which we can respond to the question “How shall we go about our thinking?”. If we pay attention and take corrective action as needed to meet the conditions which support our development, in time, we may well be able to say with some confidence, that we do in fact have “a mind of our own”.

I wonder what tools and approaches you’ve tried to improve quality of thinking, and what one thing you might include in a curriculum of this kind?

Sophie Brown


(1) Paraphrased from: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” Virginia Woolfe “A Room of One’s Own“.

(2)  Henrich, J. Heine, S.J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3). See:  http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/08/26/psychology-secrets-most-psychology-studies-are-college-student-biased/

(3) http://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16369.longLong-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol 101 no. 46

(4) “MRI Scanning during Zen Meditation: The Picture of Enlightenment?” published in “Constructivism in the human sciences, Vol 8 (1) p. 85-89”

(5) Paul Ekman quoted in “Destructive Emotions and how we can overcome them – A Dialogue with the Dalai Lama“, narrated by Daniel Goleman, based on the 8th Round of Mind and Life Institute talks, May 20th and 21st, 2001 in Madison, Wisconsin.

(6) Meditation as a practice has a range of elements: initial training consists in developing focus ( “calm abiding”). This is regarded as a preliminary necessity, in order to be able to practise further techniques and develop awareness of your own mind (eg. where do thoughts come from?).  Later practices include developing positive emotional states and clearer insight into “how things really are”. For an introduction to a Tibetan Buddhist approach to mind training, one book from a traditional approach is “Luminous Mind” by Kalu Rinpoche.

(7) Tony Buzan The Memory Book: How to Remember Anything You Want