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4 Ways To Train Your Brain To Be More Open-Minded

In an ever-polarized world, it’s important to consider points of view other than your own. But truly being open-minded involves some tricky mental work.

4 Ways To Train Your Brain To Be More Open-Minded
[Photo: Jolygon/iStock]

The idea that opposites attract isn’t entirely true. People prefer to hang out with people who are like-minded, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While this makes for easy-going relationships and conversations, it doesn’t help to broaden your perspective or open your mind. To do those things, you have to purposefully take other actions.

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“Becoming more open-minded is actually a counterintuitive mental task,” says John Brown, psychologist and organizational development consultant for EPIC Insurance Brokers & Consultants. “Our brains think in whole ideas, the famous cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget taught us. These whole ideas are called ‘schema.'”

Schema includes our life experiences, beliefs, social reinforcements, and physiological reactions. “To visualize schema, think of Venn diagrams,” he explains. “When new information comes into our consciousness, we have to either fit it to our existing schema, or adjust our existing schema to fit the new information.”


Related: 5 Ways To Debate With An Open Mind


When something fits, it’s called “assimilation,” says Brown. “Assimilation is easy, because the new information fits all of our other existing experiences and preconceived ideas; it doesn’t challenge any existing ideas,” he says. “But when new information doesn’t fit into our existing ideas about things, the new information might challenge your feelings, your beliefs, and your own past experiences.”

Piaget called this phenomenon “accommodation.” “Accommodation requires the mental, or cognitive, ability to suspend judgment temporarily, to weigh information, and a willingness to recognize parts of your own existing beliefs as incorrect or in need of new frames of reference,” says Brown. “People become very defensive when their existing ideas are challenged. When we can’t wrap our heads around a new idea, that’s an example of how hard it is to accommodate.”

While Piaget noted that accommodation is a difficult mental task, he declared that it’s possible with purposeful effort. Here are four methods you can take to be more open-minded:

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Talk To A Neutral Party

Sometimes being open to something new just requires talking through the situation with someone else. Brown suggests an approach used in counseling called Motivational Interviewing, in which you talk about your concerns or struggles with a new idea to someone who simply listens and repeats back what they hear. The process helps you hear your own reasons for resistance, gaining some objectivity about the situation.

“It has been demonstrated to be effective in helping people make difficult decisions and resolve ambivalence, using simple listening skills that can be easily taught and practiced,” he says.

Reframe Negative Thoughts

Sometimes hearing a new idea causes you to jump to negative conclusions, like “This will never work!” “Negative predictions tend to turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. And exaggeratedly negative thoughts prevent you from taking positive action,” writes Amy Morin in Psychology Today.

Instead, train your brain to reply to unhelpful thoughts with more realistic statements, reframing the situation. “When you think, ‘No one is ever going to hire me,’ remind yourself, ‘If I keep working hard to look for jobs, I’ll increase my chances of getting hired,'” writes Morin. “Or, when you are thinking, ‘This is going to be a disaster,’ look for evidence that your efforts may be a success.”


Related: How To Train Your Brain To Be More Patient


Then rewrite your reaction, using a more balanced statement. For example, “There’s a chance this won’t work out, but there’s also a chance I might succeed. All I can do is my best,” suggests Morin.

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Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

Another way to be more open-minded is to add more experiences to your schema, suggests Jeffrey Gardere, psychologist and professor of basic sciences at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City.

“Get out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Once a week listen to a different genre of music, watch a new kind of movie, or try food you’ve never had before. When it comes to politics, don’t watch or read one point of view, such as CNN or MSNBC versus Fox, or The New York Times versus The National Review. Watch and read them both.”

Also, make a point to expand your circle, sharing time with friends who are diverse racially, culturally, politically, and in age.

Practice Mindful Meditation

Finally, incorporate mindful meditation into your daily ritual, says Deborah Norris, neuroscientist and author of In the Flow: Passion, Purpose and the Power of Mindfulness.

“Preconceived notions develop as a result of earlier experience,” she says. “Mindfulness meditation is becoming well known for its ability to open our minds to new ideas, while letting go of old ones that no longer serve us.”

The practice involves focusing on a single point of focus, such as the breath, to slow the pace of the mind, and then gradually expanding the focus to take in a broader spectrum of sensory information, says Norris. “Researchers have discovered that the brain actually begins to function differently as a result of this practice,” she says. “The specific mechanisms involve a part of the brain called the thalamus, also known as the gateway to the consciousness. The act of sitting in curious awareness of sensations arising from the body invites the thalamic gates to the consciousness to open, literally opening the mind to a greater realm of consciousness and possibility.”

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While the thalamus is the gateway to the consciousness, the key to open it requires the hypothalamus. “The hypothalamus determines whether or not the thalamic gates can open,” says Norris. “During stressful times, the hypothalamus sends messages to the thalamus, instructing it to close, thus narrowing the focus, and limiting what has access to the brain. This is adaptive during stressful times, as it allows us to focus specifically on the task at hand, such as fighting or fleeing for our life.”

In times of rest, however, we can train the brain to deactivate the hypothalamus. “Deep focused breaths emphasizing the exhale, also known as the sigh of relief, are known to calm hypothalamic activity thus unlocking the thalamic gates,” says Norris. “Practicing mindfulness meditation in which one sits in curious awareness of the breath literally trains the brain to become more open-minded.”