How to Keep an Open Mind from Trapping Harmful Beliefs

Here are ten things to incorporate into your life to keep an open mind and prevent it from trapping misguided and harmful beliefs. Compliment this blog post with the quicker exercises from our post on how to be more open-minded today and stay tuned for our next Unconventional Monthly on how to change other people’s minds.

Treat Your Wis-dumb


Doesn’t it feel great to be right?

That little ego in your brain’s control center sits back smugly on its chair and subtly pumps its fist in victory while all your happiness hormones hive-five each other.

The more we know, the more we’ll be right and be able to celebrate that feeling so, logically, we should constantly seek the truth.

But we don’t.

Our problem is that feeling wrong sucks even more than feeling right rocks. Extracting untruths from our brains hurts, especially when they have time to grow and fester.

It doesn’t help that what’s “right” is constantly changing. Look no further than you’re not-so-secretly prejudiced grandfather or low-carb eating fat friend for evidence. They think they know what’s right, but they don’t—and they refuse to accept anything different. It’s wis-dumb.

Luckily, wis-dumb can be effectively treated by keeping an open mind. Here are some ways to do so.

But first, an analogy to illustrate.

Your Mental Elevator

Imagine your mind as a giant elevator.

It starts off wide open when you’re a kid. Every possible belief, no matter how big or weirdly-shaped, can fit in and out of its doors. It’s a chaotic and colorful place. But then the automatic door-closing mechanism kicks in. As the doors slowly slide shut, bigger beliefs can’t pass in or out anymore.

And the doors keep closing. By adulthood, only small beliefs can squeeze through the narrow remaining gap. And then you’re an old geezer, the door has shut, and you’re in the dark talking to yourself…

…unless you stop your mind’s elevator doors from closing by pushing the Open Door button. Pushing it from time to time can keep your open mind from closing. And actively pushing it regularly may even start slowly opening it back up again.

How to Keep an Open Mind from Closing

Chris walking through a passageway near Muizenberg

1. Separate Yourself From Your Beliefs


“Your worldview isn’t a perfect house that was built to last forever. It’s a cheap condo and over time most of it will turn to shit.”

The Oatmeal

Tying who you are to what you believe is a dangerous move. Once you identify yourself as a believer in anything—a religion, aliens, Justin Bieber—it becomes a part of you. At that point, keeping an open mind about it is darn near impossible.

The trick to not making this mistake is deceptively simple: Don’t use the verb “to be” when talking about your beliefs. In other words, believe what you want, but leave who you be out of it.

For example, rather than saying, “I am a Belieber [a Justin Bieber fan]” say, “I enjoy a lot of Bieber’s music.” That way, if he releases a crappy song, you don’t have to either A) Denounce your Belieber-dom or B) Convince yourself and others that “Yummy” has redeeming features to protect your fragile identity. Your belief isn’t tied to your identity so you can simply accept that his new song sucks (in your opinion) and move on.

2. Admit Mistakes Early and Often


An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.

Orlando A. Battista

Admitting mistakes is hard. Making excuses is easy. No wonder the egos in our brains default to the latter.

A small ego-protecting excuse is no big deal, anyway. The problems start when these little self-justifications pile on top of each other. In no time, we can find ourselves believing in crazy shit. To illustrate, here’s an example from the excellent anti-excuse book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).

How to Believe in Aliens

Will Andrews is an otherwise sane guy who believes he was abducted by aliens and has two alien children. He believes it so strongly that he’d pass a lie detector test.

His delusion started with a dream. It was a scary “waking dream” where his eyes were open and body paralyzed as he hallucinated before waking up. About 5 percent of people experience something similar.

Will’s mistake was not admitting his dream could be a common brain malfunction. Instead, he sought out evidence to confirm it was real. And evidence always turns up if you look hard enough, especially if you go looking on the internet.

In the course of his research, Will stumbled on the stories of other “experiencers” who suffered from impotence. He did too. They blamed the aliens. So he did too.

Then he joined the community, becoming an “experiencer.” Once his abduction became part of his identity, there was no way to bring his beliefs back to earth.

How Not to Believe in Aliens

To avoid becoming a Silly Willy, stop making excuses to justify your mistakes. The earlier the better.

Easier said than done, I know. I might as well add, “Always be nice” to our relationship tips post, too.

Until aliens come with a magic pill, there’s no easy solution. Try the following in the meanwhile:

  • Understand: Read books like Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) to scare you straight. You’ll better understand how the brain self-justifies and how bad things can get if you let it do so.
  • Practice: Kind of like acupuncture, the more you poke holes in your brain’s confidence, the more it relaxes.

3. Adjust Your Dials


“When we learn something new, we don’t go from ‘wrong’ to ‘right.’ Rather, we go from wrong to slightly less wrong. And when we learn something additional, we go from slightly less wrong to slightly less wrong than that, and then to even less wrong than that, and so on. We are always in the process of approaching truth and perfection without actually ever reaching truth or perfection.”

Mark Manson. “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.

You can think whatever you want. Just be careful about knowing it. Rarely is anything black and white or right and wrong.

To help avoid falling into the right/wrong, black/white trap, picture each of your beliefs as being on a dial that goes from 0 to 100. Start the dial to wherever your strength of belief is at and, when evidence comes in favor or against a belief, move the dial a bit in that direction.

Avoid Extremes

Be careful about pushing the dial close to 100 or 0. Anytime you approach those extremes, ask yourself, “What evidence would convince me I’m wrong?”

For example, I believe nobody has ever been abducted by aliens. My belief’s at about 97 out of 100. But that could fall to nearly zero if doctors discover an alien probe in Will Andrews’ butt, his half-alien-half-human children show up, or the U.S. government admits a cover-up.

Try it. Put one of your cherished beliefs on a dial and come up with evidence that would make you turn it down. If you can’t think of anything, that’s a problem. Find someone to help you, which happens to be the next point…

Kim and I don’t have to look far for a challenger. My mom’s always up for the task.

4. Seek Challengers


“We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off.”

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

Most of us are cowards when it comes to our beliefs. Rather than seek potentially painful challengers, we hide or only beat up on amateur chumps who don’t stand a chance. It may be good for your ego, but it’s no good for keeping an open mind.

Be like a champion boxer and seek increasingly skilled challengers in your weight class instead. De-motivational speakers, as I like to call them.

But don’t actually fight them. As Peter Boghossian writes in How to Have Impossible Conversations,

“People never change their beliefs by being punched in the head by someone who hates them.”

Don’t even argue. Seek conversation partners. A collaborative approach will help you and your partner keep an open mind.

We’ll be exploring this in more detail in next month’s Unconventional Monthly, which is on the theme of how to change people’s minds. Subscribe to explore it with us.

doing a daily mobility routine is the same as brushing your teeth
Like brushing your teeth or physical training, do regular mind-opening exercises.

5. Do Regular Mind-Opening Exercises


In our related post on how to open your mind a bit extra today we shared some quick and practical mind-opening exercises. Like brushing your teeth, doing them only once can freshen you up temporarily but won’t have any long-term benefit. You have to make it a routine for it to be effective.

So bookmark that page and go back to it regularly to repeat the exercises. It’s good for you (and good for our pageview stats).

Walking to Sidi Kouki one of top recommendations in our Essaouira travel blog
Get away from it all, like Kim here outside Essaouira, Morocco.

6. Hit Pause


A lot of life feels like you’re a contestant in the Amazing Race.

You’re trying to solve a cryptic riddle while standing in the middle of a chaotic Indian street. Your partner’s screaming, beggars are tugging, crowds are pointing and staring, all possible forms of wheeled vehicles are swerving and splashing, flies are pestering, smells of all types are simultaneously nauseating and alluring, and you’re feeling the pressure to move fast or fall behind.

So hit pause.

And if you don’t have a magical remote like Adam Sandler in the movie Click, use mindfulness, meditation, a walk in nature, or whatever works for you. It makes it a lot easier to keep an open enough mind to solve life’s riddles and figure out which way to go next.

(a) This is your brain. (b) This is your brain on drugs—psilocybin, specifically. (Source: Journal of the Royal Society Interface)

7. Blow Your Mind Open with Psychedelics


“Freud said dreams were the real road to the unconscious. Psychedelics could turn out to be the superhighway”

Robin Carhart-Harris quoted in How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan

Psychedelics can “shake your snow globe,” as Michael Pollan puts it in How to Change Your Mind, his wide-ranging book on the history, experience, and science of psychedelics. They disintegrate your sense of ego and open your mind to make connections as shown in the image above.

In terms of the elevator analogy, they temporarily blow the doors wide open like they were when you were a little kid. Your mind’s elevator empties and big gigantic ideas can fit back in.

Psychedelics’ effect can be startlingly quick and surprisingly durable. In one Johns Hopkins study, a single high dose of psilocybin caused nearly 60 percent of the participants to remain measurably more open-minded a year later. And these were “old” people whose personalities generally don’t change much otherwise. If anything, their open-mindedness decreases over time. (Exhibit A: Your grandma’s opinion of the music you like.)

Be Careful How You Trip

Given how powerful psychedelics are and especially given their illegality in most parts of the world, use them with care. Dropping acid at a Grateful Dead concert of doing shrooms at an EDM festival is unlikely to have your desired long-term mind-opening effects.

For optimal mind-opening benefits and to minimize the risk of bad trips and bad product, enlist an expert guide. They’ll help you prepare for your journey, move through it, and process your experiences afterward. At the very least, educate yourself beforehand—Pollan’s book’s a good start—and prepare yourself with the right mindset and setting.

Rwandan man with his pineapple stack and bike
It looks like bikes can haul a lot more than we thought…

8. Travel


Traveling’s like cheating in the great examination room of life. Instead of only peeking at how the people sitting next to you are solving life’s problems, you sneak out from behind your desk to check out what the other students in Colombia, Rwanda, or Taiwan are up to.

Even if you decide against using their ways of solving the questions, it’ll help you keep an open mind by showing you there’s more than one approach.

Tasting Moroccan wine - Essaouira Travel Blog
I used to think wine was a pretentious waste of money. My mind has since changed.

9. Take on a New Hobby


Taking on a new hobby is a longer-term version of the act your way to a new way of thinking strategy we wrote about in our post on quick exercises to be more open-minded today.

For Kim and me, hobbies have included wine tasting and beach volleyball in Cape Town, coffee and Spanish in Medellin, and mushroom foraging and photography in Canada. Kim would love my next hobby to be cooking, but so far I believe I dislike cooking at about 93 out of 100.

Chris standing with kindle at Kitabi in Rwanda
Reading a mind-opening book in mind-opening nature in Rwanda. Two in one!

10. Learn About How to Be More Open-Minded


Here are some of our favorite resources directly related to the topic of keeping an open mind.

On top of these, read, listen, and learn widely to increase the odds you come across mind-opening new ideas. Speaking of which, please share your recommendations in the comments.

Books and Resources

Podcasts

Websites

  • Reddit Change My View – A forum where people ask Reddit users to convince them of the opposite of what they believe.
  • Wait But Why – The best blog ever and what The Unconventional Route dreams of being like when it grows up.
  • The Unconventional Route – This is our post, so we’re allowed to pimp our own site.
Is Rwanda worth visiting cover image

Don’t Be Too Open-Minded


Let’s finish off where we started, back at the elevator analogy:

You won’t get much done in life your finger’s on the “open door” button to keep your mind open the whole time. You need that finger, and the arm attached to it, to do other things.

The trick is finding the right balance between improving the accuracy of your beliefs and being efficient and effective with the ones you already have.

Keep Pushing!

For the sake of your friends, yourself, and society, keep pushing the Open Door button on your mind’s elevator to prevent it from closing.

If you have any questions or other suggestions for how to keep an open mind, please leave a comment below.


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Chris and Kim

Kim and Chris are exploring better ways to do... everything. Think, travel, exercise, work, relate, you name it. Every week-ish, we share a new idea in our newsletter, "Consider This."