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Published on November 11, 2019

How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills and Think Clearer

How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills and Think Clearer

Every day, we are bombarded by information. From the morning paper to news and on social media throughout the day. We might not think of it much now but, that’s an overwhelming amount of information.

And it can be dangerous in some cases. From fake news or inaccurate information, or the information heavily biased.

This, in turn, impacts you. It impacts who you vote for, what you buy and maybe how you feel. In a sense, the information we consume dictates our entire life.

As a result, critical thinking skills become our saving grace in our lives. It’s a skill that so many of us lack in our lives and yet it’s one of the most critical.

The Importance of Critical Thinking Skills

First off they help with critical thinking, a skill I said that many people lack these days. Critical thinking is merely our ability to be thinking, and present evidence for our ideas.

How is this different from how we typically think?

Well, most of us tend to gravitate towards our own personal reasoning. We cling to information and ideas naturally without checking them. And of course, we develop a bias, pushing away other ideas and only accepting ideas and opinions that support our existing belief.

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To see that in motion, consider a CEO similar to the man I read about in an article published in Harvard Business Review.[1] He was very confident in himself and believed he was the market leader of a company. But eventually, he lost one of their largest clients.

How did that happen? Because the CEO was certain his clients wouldn’t leave and that leaving would be expensive. He didn’t consider the possibility they could leave.

Another way to think of critical thinking is that it’s a self-directed, self-monitored, self-disciplined, and self-corrective method of thinking.

Why this is important boils down to several reasons:

  • A universal skill – Regardless of occupation, having critical thinking skills helps. True, some jobs need it more than others but there is always a time and place to use this skill anywhere. It’s why many people value this talent regardless of field.
  • Improve language and presentation skills – Critical thinking can also determine how we best articulate and present our ideas.
  • Promote creativity – Critical thinking often demands we think creative.[2] Whether it’s finding a middle ground between ideas or presenting an idea outright, how we get there is through a creative process.
  • Improve self-reflection – If critical thinking demands self-correction, there is some level of self-reflection involved. You can’t present ideas using critical thinking skills unless you’ve spent time reflecting.
  • Solve problems before they become bigger – Critical thinking allows us to look at situations and to digest them in different ways. We can identify problems before they become larger issues.

Examples of Critical Thinking Skills

As I said, critical thinking skills aren’t restricted to specific occupations or scenarios. Examples of this way of thinking at work are:

  • A manager considers customer feedback and uses that information to create training sessions for employees in customer service.
  • A real estate agent reviews the home and surrounding area to determine how to best sell to their customers.
  • A stock investor keeps an eye on the news to determine whether to sell their shares or invest in a company.
  • An attorney reviews evidence to devise a strategy to win the case or whether this matter should be settled out of court.
  • A group of nurses analyze patients’ medical conditions to determine which order each patient should be treated.

Another great example of critical thinking is actually an exercise that you can do as well. It forms the basis of critical thinking skills.

In this example, think about something someone told you recently. Follow that up with the following questions. The questions in parentheses dive deeper:

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  • Who said it? (Someone you know? A manager? Does it matter who told you this?)
  • What did they say? (Was it a fact or opinion? Did they present all the information or did they leave something out?)
  • Where did they say it? (Public or private area?)
  • When did they say it? (Is timing important? Was it before, during, or after an important event?)
  • Why did they say it? (Did they explain their opinion? Was the goal to make someone look good or bad?)
  • How did they say it? (Recall their tonne and body language. Were they happy, indifferent or sad? Could you make out everything they said?)

This exercise is simple but it adds perspective to what critical thinking is like.

How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Anyone can develop critical thinking skills, the big question is how to do it. Asking yourself questions is a good start and ensuring you dig deeper, however, consider these other techniques.

1. Ask Meaningful Questions

The questions mentioned above are solid, but you can go deeper. But before asking them, it’s key that you don’t take everything you read or hear as the absolute truth.

This sets asides biases and favouritism, and helps you to ask those important questions such as:

  • What’s the problem?
  • What are all the solutions to this problem?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?

You still have to believe in something, however by setting aside biases and ask those meaningful questions, you feel confident about your decisions.

2. Look at Motives

Information and conversations always have a motive. After all, people are the ones who control that and there is always some agenda. Yes, no one isn’t always going to tell you outright what that is, but it’s safe to think there is one, malicious or not.

But understanding others’ motives can be tricky and have several pitfalls as motives can often be conflated with personality and character, or disguised by emotions.[3]  And that’s all the more reason to evaluate information based on where it’s coming from. This should also determine how you act on it- if at all.

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3. Do the Research

Critical thinking skills demand information. And while information is overwhelming at times, it’s also the most powerful tool around. It becomes incredibly powerful when you decide to make your own decisions.

Do research when you have a problem you need to solve or have a decision to make. Google about the subject, and read books about it. Do so until you have a grasp and understanding as that’ll better prepare you for the future.

4. Never Assume You’re Right

We all love to be right and naturally, we think we’re right most of the time. And why wouldn’t we? We naturally have a bias to place ourselves in the best light possible. But while that feeling is definitely good, it’s that very feeling that can lead us down the wrong track: Why Our Minds Can’t Be Trusted And What We Can Do With It

Critical thinking demands self-reflection and self-monitoring, and sometimes, we have to accept that we’re wrong. Thinking this way allows us to embrace other perspectives. It helps us to develop empathy and understanding of parties involved.

If your form of thinking is taking someone’s thoughts and comparing them to your own, you’re not really doing much thinking. And it’s definitely not thinking critically.

5. Make It Simple

Occam’s razor[4] is a term used in the hypothesis step within the scientific community. What this theory suggests is that the hypothesis that provides the simplest explanation is likely the one that fits all the facts. It’s what we would call the most obvious explanation. And this obvious explanation is the truth until it’s proven wrong.

But the point here is that Occam’s razor is basically a theory that has a bias towards the common sense answer. However, it has other applications outside of science.

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For example, you turn on the TV and you see an ad promoting a high-priced anti-ageing cream. It’s something that many are excited for. The big hook is that this cream will make you look 10 or 20 years younger.

But you can break that down using Occam’s razor. Have you ever heard of that product before? If not, how can it be such a big hit if it’s so new? It’s also fair to say that there is a high chance that the company behind the product hired a younger model to promote this too. Meaning it’s likely the cream is bogus and over-hyped.

Final Thoughts

Developing critical thinking skills isn’t as simple as asking questions. It’s a deeper process that places a lot of weight on you. You need to develop deeper skills and to set aside your own thoughts and opinions.

However, by doing this, you are opening the door to a lot of self-growth and fulfilment. After all, so many people are looking for people who can think for themselves and to think in more creative and critical ways.

More About Thinking Smarter

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on December 2, 2019

7 Natural Memory Boosters That Actually Work for All Ages

7 Natural Memory Boosters That Actually Work for All Ages

Forgot a name? Misplaced your keys? Taking longer to find the right words? Don’t panic. There’s plenty you can do to improve your memory.

You’re probably expecting us to reveal 7 little known and newly discovered herbs from the forests of the Amazon, the peaks of the Himalayas and the Arctic tundra. No such luck.

Despite Americans spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on Ginkgo Biloba, Ashwagandha, Periwinkle, Bacopa, Vitamin B’s, Omega 3’s and memory boosting supplement cocktails, there is very little scientific evidence they actually work. [1]

So, how do we remember?

The first process in remembering is creating a memory.

This is where our brain sends a signal, associated with a thought, event or piece of information our mind is processing, over our brains neural pathways, called synapses.

Think of our neural pathways like roads and information like trucks. The better the roads, the more trucks can be driven.

The second step in remembering is memory consolidation.

Consolidation is when the brain takes that thought, event or piece of information and actually stores it in the brain. So now we’re talking about taking delivery of the trucks and storing its contents in the warehouse.

Consolidation helps us store information and label it properly, so its organized and easy to retrieve when needed.

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The last step is memory retrieval.

That’s the step whereby we try to retrieve the information stored in our brains. You know when you have the name of someone on the tip of your tongue.

You have the information; it’s been stored, but you just can’t find it. Our memory recall is typically better the stronger the memory is and the more often we’ve used it.

Memory decline is a normal part of aging. However, new scientific research is discovering many new ways for us to improve memory creation, consolidation and retrieval–no matter our age.

I’m going to offer you 7 completely natural memory boosters, backed up by scientific research. It may take a little more effort than a magic memory pill, but the benefits will transcend your memory and improve your overall quality of life as well, making you more fit, energetic, happy and sharp.

1. MIND Diet

Healthy eating, particularly more dark colored fruit, vegetables and oily fish has been shown to improve memory and stave off cognitive decline.

The MIND diet is proven to reduce the risk of dementia. It’s a mix of the popular Mediterranean diet and the low blood pressure DASH diet.[2]

The study kept track of the diets of almost 1,000 older adults. They were followed for an average of 4½ years.

The study concluded that “people whose diets were most strongly in line with the MIND diet had brains that functioned as if they were 7½ years younger than those whose diets least resembled this eating style.”

The study also showed that people who followed the MIND diet in the study reduced their chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease in half.

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So what does the MIND diet consist of? Lots of vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, berries, beans, fish, poultry, olive oil, whole grains and wine.

2. Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic activity is about as close as we get to a magic pill for our memories. Exercise helps your brain create new capillaries and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which creates new brain cells and connections. To put it in plain english, aerobic activity changes our brains and helps it grow.

Studies have shown that exercising increases the size of the hippocampus and improves memory. In fact, even if you start exercising as an older adult, you can reverse cognitive decline by 1 to 2 years and protects against further decreases in the size of the hippocampus, which is essential for memory.[3]

In another study, reviewed by Dr. Ian Robertson of the University of Dublin, they looked at a group of people of 60 years and older, who engaged in “active walking” for four months.

They compared them with another group of people who only stretched over the same period of time. After testing both groups before and after the 4 month period, the walkers improved their memory and attention considerably more than the stretching group.

So which exercises are best and how much do we have to exercise?

Turns out, it doesn’t really matter whether you run, swim, row or bike. What does matter is that you push yourself beyond your current abilities, keep doing more, keep getting better. Set yourself short term goals and keep pushing the goal posts.

3. Sleep

You need your sleep. The deeper the better. Sleep helps improve your procedural memory (how to do things, like how do I navigate my iPhone) and declarative memory (facts, like what’s my password).[4]

Even short naps from 6 to 45 minutes have been shown to improve your memory. In one Harvard study, college students memorized pairs of unrelated words, memorized a maze and copied a complex form. All were tested on their work. Half were then allowed to take a 45 minute nap. They were then retested. Those who took a nap, got a boost in their performance.[5]

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Another study showed that getting REM (deep) sleep can increase your memory and mental performance by 33% to 73%. Getting a deep sleep helps the brain consolidate memories through dreams and “associative processing”. However, the study also revealed that heart rate variability in deep sleep also contributed significantly to increased memory performance.[6]

4. Relax

We all know that stress is bad for our health. It can raise our blood pressure, impact our immune system and interrupt our sleep. Stress also impairs our memory.

When our body gets stressed, it releases cortisol into our blood stream, which can cause short and long term physical changes to the brain. While cortisol has sometimes been shown to cause increases in short term memory, it can actually decrease our long term recall memory.

To help reduce the stress in your life, try relaxing with meditation, yoga or breathing exercises. Unplug–even for just a few hours. Stop checking your emails, social accounts and news. Release some endorphins with some exercise.

Bottom line, the more anxious and stressed we are, the less clearly we think, the poorer our memory works.

5. Continuous Learning

The mind is like a muscle. The more you challenge it, the stronger it gets. The more you learn, the more you can learn.

Research shows that learning can actually change the physical makeup of your brain. Not too long ago, we used to think that you were born with a fixed amount of brain cells, which declined with age. New research now shows that we can actually increase the number of brain cells we have throughout our life.

Aside from staying physically active, learning new skills and studying can actually keep our brains healthier. Consider taking a continuing education class, studying a new language, learning a new instrument, playing new card games.[7]

Studies show that the more complex the task, the more benefits for your mind. Simply showing up to class is not enough. You need to be actively engaged. Anything that forces you to focus and learn something new and get out of a rote routine will help you sharpen your mind and boost your memory.

Try these 15 Ways to Cultivate Continuous Learning for a Sharper Brain.

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6. Stay Social

The more deep and meaningful social connections you maintain, the more you protect your brain. Bottom line, the more friends you have, the more people you work with, the more you’re forced to use your brain.

Social isolation and loneliness are significant risks of dementia. Without interacting with others, our brains wilt. Isolation and loneliness lead to depression, physical and mental decline.[8]

In a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, seniors with a full social calendar did better on memory, reasoning, and processing speed tests.[9]

What to do?

Party! Seriously, get together with friends as often as possible. Have family dinners. Choose social activities or sports like tennis, golf, cards or go for walks with a friend. Bottom line have fun, build meaningful social relationships and stay connected. Not only will it make your mind sharper and your memory better, you’ll be happier, too!

7. Wakeful Rest

This one is getting harder and harder to do. In a world where we can’t sit on a bus, go up an elevator or go to the bathroom without our phones, doing absolutely nothing to distract our minds is becoming increasingly difficult.

But, the results are in. Doing nothing is great for your memory. Quietly resting for 10 minutes, after you learn something will help you remember and help you create more detailed memories.[10]

What we do minutes after we learn something new has a significant impact on how well we retain the new information. In another study, it didn’t matter what you did after you learned something new, as long as you weren’t distracted by outside factors. In other words, you could be thinking of your day, making a grocery list, or thinking of a story.

In either case, wakeful rest for a period of 10 minutes helped the brain process and consolidate your memories so that you were better able to recall the information at a later date.[11]

Bottom Line

You don’t have to spend a dime on cocktails and supplements promising a quick boost to your memory power. There is very little conclusive scientific evidence suggesting supplements will help improve the memories of healthy individuals–not for Ginkgo Biloba, Vitamin B, fish oils, Vitamin D, Folate or other supplements claiming they a secret formula.

There are far cheaper and more effective ways to boost your memory: exercise, rest, eat well, learn, love, laugh and relax. Who wouldn’t want that prescription?

More About Boosting Brain Power

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

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