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Last Updated on December 1, 2020

How to Avoid Binary Thinking and Think More Clearly

How to Avoid Binary Thinking and Think More Clearly

Unfortunately, we live in a world of either/or, with us or against us, black or white thinking. You’re either conservative or liberal. You’re for gay rights or against them. For goodness sake, now you’re either pro-putting a mask on your face or against it. All of this has to do with the human tendency to engage in binary thinking.

What is Binary Thinking?

Binary thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, happens when even complex concepts, ideas, and problems are overly simplified into being one side or another. The gray area in the middle is ignored or goes unnoticed.

Binary thinking helps us feel a sense of certainty. In a complex world, binary thinking can feel comforting. The uncertainty of complexity can be scary and anxiety-provoking, so it’s no wonder people fall into binary thinking, especially during uncertain times like we’re currently experiencing.

As Bob Johansen says, “Categories move us toward certainty, but away from clarity.”[1]

If I’m worried about a global pandemic, racial unrest, and the future of my family’s survival, thinking about the complexity of the world can be overwhelming.

No one understands everything about, well, everything. Therefore, our brains take a shortcut to make us feel better, and we oversimplify things into general categories, resulting in binary thinking.

The Problem With Binary Thinking

The problem with binary thinking is that it isn’t accurate. Gray area does exist. All the time. It may make us feel better to think in terms of this or that, us or them, him or her, but it’s not actually how the world works.

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When we’re engaging in binary thinking, we’re stuck making assumptions. As Johansen says, “Being stuck in categorical thought doesn’t actually involve much thinking at all—you just assume without thinking that new experiences will fit into your old boxes, buckets, labels, generalizations, and stereotypes.”

Binary thinking also leads to conflict and detachment. When we make assumptions about others by lumping them into preconceived categories, we aren’t being curious about them, and we aren’t trying to investigate nuance that might actually bring us closer together.

So, how can we stop thinking in a binary way?

7 Ways to Avoid Binary Thinking

1. Try New Things

If we’re ever going to break out of the bad habit of binary thinking, we need to go to new places and try some new things. Life is complicated and messy, so when we get out there and do some living, we at least put ourselves in the position to encounter new ideas and perspectives.

Take a class, learn a language, find a new hobby, travel, or just do things differently than you did yesterday. Part of breaking our old habit of binary thinking is switching up our everyday lived experience.

2. Meet New People

The same goes for meeting new people. If everyone in your social media feed looks and thinks like you, you’re probably stuck in a feedback loop. You spout off some binary thinking, and then your friends agree with said binary thinking, and the cycle continues.

Break out of binary thinking by meeting new people—people from other cultures, races, religions, and backgrounds. But it’s not enough to just meet them. We also need to be curious and open to their perspectives.

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3. Cultivate Curiosity

Even when you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to ask lots of questions and approach each interaction with a sense of authentic curiosity in order to break out of your binary thinking.

I like to play a game I call Curious Detective[2] when I meet new people. Instead of talking about myself, I pretend my job is to learn as much as I can about them. Either that, or I’ll play a game called Hard-Hitting Reporter where I pretend to be a reporter who’s really trying to get to the bottom of what makes this person tick. This helps me to be genuinely curious about other person instead of approaching conversations as an opportunity to gab about myself.

4. Listen With an Open Mind

It’s also important to slow down. Our initial, gut reactions are often examples of binary thinking. We tend to make assumptions and snap judgments before we gather all the information needed to truly gain clarity.

Break that habit by slowing down your reactions. Pause and reflect before you jump to conclusions, and if you do find yourself mentally lumping things into broad categories, catch yourself, stop, and then try to see the broader picture.

And listen. Instead of trying to cram new information into the limited categories you already have, keep your mind open. Let new information be confusing and complex instead of fitting neatly in those binary categories you’re used to.

5. Build Empathy

Brene Brown writes, “Perspective taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth.”[3] This means that when you’re meeting those new people and trying those new things, you need to actually listen for the truth in their experience instead of trying to force them to fit into your preconceived assumptions.

A great example of this is happening with the Black Lives Matters protests the world over. White people are not taking perspective when we lump all Black people together or interpret their experiences through our own perspectives. Perspective taking is when we actually listen to their experiences and acknowledge them as truth.

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We invite gray area back into our lives when we acknowledge that just because someone’s truth is different than ours, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

This builds empathy. Brown explains, “Empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. Staying out of judgment requires understanding. We tend to judge those areas where we’re the most vulnerable to feeling shame ourselves.” Instead of shutting down because we feel shame or judgment, real empathy comes from honoring other people’s experiences and truths and being open to the multiplicity of perspectives.

People don’t all think and feel the same way, and that’s actually a good thing.

6. Don’t Fall for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when you know a little about a topic and are, therefore, overly confident about your expertise in that topic[4]. When people don’t know anything about a topic, they have low confidence in their expertise. However, as soon as they know a tiny bit, their confidence soars.

Then, the more people learn, the less confident they become because they begin to realize that it’s more complex than they initially realized. Once someone starts to actually become an expert in a field, their confidence finally starts to gradually increase again.

Knowing about the Dunning-Kruger Effect is important if you want to avoid binary thinking. Our smartphones give us access to the basics about any and every topic. This primes us for feeling way too confident about our understanding of way too many things.

If you know a little bit about something, please also know that your confidence is probably unjustifiably high. You are not an expert and do not understand the complexities of the field yet.

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Stay humble and learn more before bragging and boasting about how much of an expert you are. Also, binary thinking should be a good clue for you that you’re actually just making assumptions and generalizations instead of actually being an expert in the field.

7. Embrace Uncertainty

Finally, if we want to stop our binary thinking, we need to remind ourselves every day that the world is complex and that we don’t know nearly as much as we sometimes think we do. While this may cause anxiety, it’s an important realization to embrace if you want to grow intellectually.

Full-Spectrum Thinking

Johansen calls the antidote to binary thinking full-spectrum thinking. Instead of making assumptions and broad generalizations, full-spectrum thinking is when we investigate the nuance and explore the gray areas.

That’s what we’re aiming for if we want to avoid binary thinking. We need to stop ourselves when we start making broad generalizations and assumptions and actively look for complexity and gray area. Slow down, learn more, and let there be more truths than the one you’re used to. Sit with complexity and uncertainty and let it motivate you to learn more instead of being overly confident about your expertise.

Final Thoughts

Binary thinking, while useful for human survival, can be harmful as it limits the experiences we have. If more people primed themselves for full-spectrum thinking, we certainly wouldn’t live in such a disconnected and divisive world because more people would be engaged with each other’s diverse perspectives instead of lumping each other into preconceived categories. Start developing full-spectrum thinking and open yourself up to more possibilities.

More on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon via unsplash.com

Reference

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Last Updated on June 1, 2021

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Exercise isn’t just for your body. Just as important is keeping your mind strong by training your brain with fun mental workouts.

Think of your mental and physical fitness the same way: you don’t need to be an Olympian, but you do need to stay in shape if you want to live well. A few cognitive workouts per week can make a major difference in your life.

The Skinny on Mental Workouts

Physical fitness boosts your stamina and increases your muscular strength. The benefits of working up a mental sweat and brain training, however, might not be so obvious.

Research suggests that cognitive training has short- and long-term benefits, including:

1. Improved Memory

After eight weeks of cognitive training, 19 arithmetic students showed a larger and more active hippocampus than their peers.[1] The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory.

2. Reduced Stress Levels

Mastering new tasks more quickly makes the work of learning less stressful. A stronger memory can call information to mind with less effort.

3. Improved Work Performance

Learning quickly and remembering key details can lead to a better career. Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, such as trainability and attention to detail.

4. Delayed Cognitive Decline

As we age, we experience cognitive decline. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 one-hour sessions of cognitive training boosted reasoning and information processing speed in adults between the ages of 65 and 94.[2]

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Just like in physical exercise, what’s important isn’t the specific workout. To be sustainable, cognitive workouts need to be easy and fun. Otherwise, it’s too easy to throw in the towel.

Fun Brain Training Exercises for Everyone

The best about fun mental workouts? There’s no need to head to a gym. Feel free to mix and match the following activities for daily brain training:

1. Brainstorming

One of the simplest, easiest ways to engage your brain? Coming up with solutions to a challenge you’re facing.

If you aren’t good at solo ideation, ask a partner to join you. When I’m struggling to come up with topics to write about, I call up my editors to bat ideas around. Friends or co-workers are usually happy to help.

2. Dancing

Isn’t dancing a physical workout? Yes, but the coordination it requires is also great for training your brain. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Studies suggest that dance boosts multiple cognitive skills.[3] Planning, memorizing, organizing, and creativity all seem to benefit from a few fancy steps.

3. Learning a New Language

Learning a new language takes time. But if you split it up into small, daily lessons, it’s easier than you might think.

With language learning, every lesson builds on the last. When I was learning Spanish, I used a tool called Guru for knowledge management.[4] Every time I’d learn a verb tense, I’d create a new card to give me a quick refresh before moving on.

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4. Developing a Hobby

Like languages, hobbies take time to develop. But that’s the fun of them: you get a little better—both at the hobby and in terms of brain function—each time you do them.

If you’re trying to train your brain and improve a certain cognitive skill, choose a hobby that aligns with it.

For example:

  • Attention to detail: Pick a hobby that requires you to work patiently with small features. Woodworking, model-building, sketching, and painting are all good choices.
  • Learning and memory: Choose an activity that requires you to remember lots of details. Your best bets are hobbies that require lots of categorization, such as collecting stamps or coins.
  • Motor function: For this brain function, physical activities can double as fun mental workouts. Sports like soccer and basketball build gross motor functions. Fine motor functions are better trained through activities like table tennis or even playing video games.
  • Problem-solving: Most hobbies require you to problem-solve in one way or another. The ones that test your problem-solving skills the most, however, take some investigation.

Geocaching is a good example: Using a combination of clues and GPS readings, geocaching involves finding and re-hiding containers. Typically done in a wooded area, geocaching is a fun way to put your problem-solving skills to the test.

5. Board Games

Playing a board game might not be much of a physical workout, but it does make for a fun mental workout. With that said, not all board games work equally well for cognitive training.

Avoid “no brainer” board games, like Candy Land. Opt for strategy-focused ones, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Remember to ask other players for their input.

6. Card Games

Card games build cognitive skills in much the same way board games do. They have a few extra advantages, though, that make them worthy of special attention.

A deck of cards is inexpensive and can be played anywhere, from a kitchen to an airplane. More importantly, a deck of cards opens the door to dozens of different games. Challenge yourself to learn a few in an afternoon.

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7. Puzzles

Puzzles are great tools for building a specific cognitive skill: visuospatial function. Visuospatial function is important to train because it’s one of the first abilities to slip in people struggling with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.[5]

Choose a puzzle you’ll stick with. There’s no shame in starting with a 500-piece puzzle or choosing one that makes a childish image.

8. Playing Music

Listening to music is a great way to unwind. But playing music goes one step further. On top of entertaining you, it makes for a fun mental workout.

Again, choose an instrument you know you’ll stick with. If you’ve always wanted to learn the violin, don’t get a guitar because it’s less expensive or easier to pick up.

What if you can’t afford an instrument? Sing. Learning to control your voice is every bit as challenging as making a set of keys or strings sound good.

9. Meditating

Not all cognitive exercises are loud, in-your-face activities. Some of the most fun mental workouts, in fact, are quiet, solo activities. Meditating can help you focus, especially if you have pre-existing attention issues.

Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never meditated before. It’s easy:

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes, or for however long you have to meditate.
  • Close your eyes or turn off the lights.
  • Focus on your breathing. Do not try to control it.
  • If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to your breath.
  • When the timer goes off, wiggle your fingers and toes for a minute. Slowly bring yourself back to reality. Remember the sense of serenity you found.

10. Deep Conversation

There’s nothing more mentally stimulating than a good, long conversation. The key is depth: surface-level chatter doesn’t get the mind’s wheels spinning like a thoughtful, authentic conversation. This type of conversation helps in training your brain to think more deeply and reflect.

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Choose your partner carefully. You’re looking for someone who’ll challenge your ideas without being confrontational. Stress isn’t good for brain health, but there’s value in coming up with creative arguments.

11. Cooking

When you think about it, cooking requires an impressive array of cognitive skills. Developing a cook’s intuition requires a good memory. Making sure flavors are balanced takes attention to detail. When something goes wrong in the kitchen, problem-solving skills come into play. Motor control is required to stir, flip, and whisk.

If you’re going to cook, you might as well make enough for everyone. Invite them into the kitchen as well: coordinating with other chefs adds an extra layer of challenge to this fun mental workout.

12. Mentorship

Whether you’re the mentee or the mentor, mentorship is an incredible mental workout. Learning from someone you look up to combines the benefits of deep conversation with skill-building. Teaching someone else forces you to put yourself in their shoes, which requires empathy and problem-solving skills.

Put yourself in both situations. Being a student makes you a better teacher, and teaching others gives you insight into how you, yourself, learn.

Final Thoughts

Your mind is your most important possession, and training your brain is needed to maintain its health. Don’t let it get soft.

To keep those neurons firing at full speed, add a few fun mental workouts to your schedule. And if you’re still struggling to get your brain in gear, remember: there’s an app for that.

More Tips for Training Your Brain

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

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