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How To Learn Critical Thinking And Improve Brain Power

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How To Learn Critical Thinking And Improve Brain Power

Are you someone who acts on emotions? Do you find yourself struggling to form ideas or communicate better? All of these things can be solved when you discover how to learn critical thinking.

When we become critical thinkers, we can often turn one-sided arguments into legitimate debates. We provide our own thoughts and opinions in a way that can make a larger impact.

The catch is that learning how to engage in critical thinking isn’t so simple. To help, I’ll be covering what critical thinking is and some skills and methods that you can apply to develop it.

What Is Critical Thinking?

The Foundation for Critical Thinking has an apt description for this concept:[1]

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

In other words, critical thinking is the act of taking information and processing it in such a way that we can make better decisions. Those decisions are better because we have a firmer grasp on a given situation.

You may find the above definition quite wordy, but this is because critical thinking demands the application of a wide variety of tools. They are there to handle any kind of information thrown at us.

Why Is Critical Thinking Important?

Now that you know what it is, why is critical thinking so important? For one, it is different than our usual thinking. We’re stopping and thinking deliberately in these situations.

This kind of thinking provides some perks over regular thinking:

1. You Can Engage With Material Beyond a Superficial Level.

We can formulate stronger opinions, which will allow us to have more informed discussions. This is far different than memorizing information from articles or textbooks and then regurgitating that same information.

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2. You Can Create Worthy Arguments.

When we have solid arguments, we can back them up with more confidence. There is a difference between arguing on a topic we’re not familiar with versus one we are knowledgeable about and can stand behind.

3. You Can Better Evaluate Your Work.

Once we have a clear idea of the strong and weak parts of our work, we can work to improve it. This can shift our life, boost performance, and more.

How to Boost Critical Thinking

With all this in mind, what are some things that we can start doing to improve our critical thinking skills?[2] Going back to the phrase the FTC provided, we can use that regarding how to learn critical thinking and improve it at the same time.

Critical thinking involves:

  • Conceptualizing
  • Analyzing
  • Synthesizing
  • Evaluating

That information we obtain stems from:

  • Observing
  • Experiencing
  • Reflecting
  • Reasoning
  • Communicating

All of the above guide our beliefs and actions. Using these points, here are some activities that you can do regularly to enhance the skills involved in critical thinking.

1. Question Your Assumptions

The greatest innovators have been the people who take certain notions and assumptions and question them. People like Newton and Einstein are people we remember because they were people who had different perspectives, which led to some of the greatest discoveries in history.

This is the spark of innovation.

While we don’t need to be a modern-day Einstein, it is important that we look at our assumptions and question them from time to time.

What is blocking you from achieving your goals and dreams? Whatever that answer is, begin to question it and evaluate your beliefs.

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2. Stretch Your Mental Processes

Another way regarding how to learn critical thinking is to stretch your mental processes. This is a powerful method because humans are natural-born short thinkers.

What I mean by that is our brain uses something called heuristics — mental shortcuts — to give context to our surroundings. In the past, our ancestors used this to great advantage for hunting or fighting.

However, in the modern era, where we make more complicated decisions, this becomes a problem. This is why voting can be a challenge, as it involves many of the skills and concepts mentioned above. To come to a realiable conclusion, we have to stretch our thinking and incorporate several complex skills.

The idea, then, is that you should be aware of your shortcomings and look for ways to stretch them. This means that when you have an answer, look at your biases and ask why you have arrived at a particular choice or answer.

3. Be Self-Critical

They say we are our own worst critic, and some people take view this as a negative thing. I disagree as self-reflecting is one of the most important aspects around.

Reflection can stem from various sources, but one of the most important for us is self-reflection. All that matters is how you are shaping your thoughts.

Where most people are tearing themselves down with negative criticism, I look to asking myself questions. For example, I can ask, “Why do I believe that?” This will lead me to an answer that I can approach with constructive criticism.

When you ask yourself these kinds of questions, you begin to grow as you look at what we know objectively and formulate opinions. This is moving information away from technical book-stuff to forming opinions through deeper thinking processes.

A final important aspect of being self-critical is an ability to be aware of your biases, strengths, weaknesses, and personal preferences. You can use those to approach situations from different perspectives.

4. Listen Actively

Active listening is another method to be a better critical thinker. When you listen in this manner, you are taking the time to process everything coming your way, including ideas, arguments, criticism, and more.

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This is important because many people listen to others in order to formulate a response or reaction. The problem is that it uses your brainpower and takes attention away from what’s being said.

Another way to think of active listening is listening with empathy. When you read or hear a person’s perspective, you can take that information and begin analyzing it instead of coming up a response or reaction.

5. Evaluate Evidence and Facts

Another part of how to learn critical thinking is through evaluation. How can we properly evaluate facts and evidence? Simple. Start by questioning it as we have been doing thus far.

Begin by looking into who gathered the evidence and how they did it. Lastly, ask why did they did it in the first place.

Consider all the studies you hear in the news. In some cases, the studies could have a small sample size that doesn’t reflect the population. Or maybe it was funded by a company or industry with a vested interest in making the study look good. You won’t know until you start to look into the study and interpreting it yourself.

6. Think for Yourself

All of this leads to being able to think for yourself. This is important to maintain now and moving forward. We are in the information age after all, and there are a lot of opinions, thoughts, ideas, and information being thrown around.

It’s very easy to get bogged down with all the information coming your way. It can sometimes be so much that you can get lost and forget to think for yourself.

At the same time, you don’t want to be so overconfident that you ignore everything. Bring in other people’s opinions and thoughts, but make sure that the final decision is down to you and that you’re satisfied with it.

It is also important to evaluate each situation to decide whether you need external sources or not.

7. Think Critically When It Matters

While discovering how to learn critical thinking, it’s important to understand that this isn’t a skill you constantly engage in without rest. While your thinking processs can sometimes get in the way, making you want to change them, it’s important to pace yourself.

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Thinking still requires a lot of brainpower, and if we’re constantly exercising it, we’ll create mental strain.

Recognize that critical thinking is nothing more than a tool. Use it only when you have bigger or tougher situations you need to respond to.

When you are critically thinking, remember that you can make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the process, and that’s okay. What’s key is noticing these and how they started in order to avoid them in the future.

Final Thoughts

The road on how to learn critical thinking isn’t that difficult on paper, but it can be hard in practice. As you can tell, it’s a matter of looking at everything with a certain level of skepticism and evaluating your answers.

It’s not something that can happen instantly as we all have biases and our own thought patterns. What matters is recognizing them and making adjustments little by little.

Try to use it during the times that matter most. When we exercise it when necessary, we can start to see its various benefits. [3]

Being a critical thinker is a lifetime journey, but it’s a rewarding one as there is always more information out there for us to learn and develop from.

Featured photo credit: Oklahoma Academy Publishing via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] The Foundation For Critical Thinking: Critical Thinking: Where to Begin
[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Critical Thinking
[3] Semantic Scholar: A Framework for Critical Thinking, Rational Thinking, and Intelligence

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

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How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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