Train Your Brain to Improve Your Critical Thinking

“Critical Thinking” is an important skill that is made ever more challenging by the information overload society we live in today. By definition critical thinking means: disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded and informed by evidence. Basically, using qualified information to form your own opinion rather than simply repeating other peoples opinion- in short, thinking for yourself. In today’s high-tech world critical thinking is more important than ever, however studies show that the more we know the less we are able to think for ourselves. We are bombarded with information from practically everywhere, and yet our ability to discern and investigate the truth for ourselves is shrinking. Thankfully, there are ways to improve your ability to quantify information and see through the spin to discern the truth for yourself.

Pay Attention to the Details

The most important part of critical thinking is understanding the most important details. We are bombarded with information from all sides daily, honing your ability to identify the important facts is the first step to mastering critical thinking. We can effectively train ourselves to improve this ability.Here are a few ways:

Trust Your Instincts

If it sounds wrong, it usually is. Learn to trust your gut instincts more. If you get the feeling that something doesn’t sound true- stop and look closer.

Who Benefits From a Statement
When reading news or opinion pieces, consider who is benefitting from this statement.

Consider the Source
In addition to the benefactor, who is saying it is even more important. Is the source a respected journalist, scientist, blogger or anonymous? On the internet, finding the source can be a challenge. If you are uncertain, try to track down the source, if it is unavailable, that obscurity should make you automatically skeptical. Just because someone wrote it down and made a professional looking website does not necessarily mean any information is true. Remember the joke, “it must be true, I read it on the internet”.

Cloaked in Truths
A common trick in debates is to hide a critical statement inside a series of obviously true statements. Surrounding an opinion within obvious truths is an easy way to manipulate perception. For example, “We know the sun is hot, ice is cold, and politicians always tell the truth.”

Always Ask Questions

Knowing what details to watch for is important, but just as important, is knowing the right questions to ask.

Consider how Sherlock Holmes approached a problem. After he established a goal, he went about observing, collecting data, and, asking questions. He conducted his investigation like a scientist questions a hypothesis. These are the skills we need to use to accurately form our opinions: observe, collect data, and question.

Holmes and Socrates had a similar method, where a series of questions help you form your opinion on an argument or idea. The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination. He believed that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs.

Regardless of which methodology you use, the goal is to throughly process information, question, and analyze your thoughts.  It is vital to ask yourself what is important and how does it relate to the things you already know for sure. As you train your brain to make these connections with ideas and truths, your perception and understanding of information will improve.


Listen for Qualifying Phrases

To improve your critical thinking, you must train your brain as well as your ear. Subtle words and phrases should be your warning signals to pay attention. Watch out for phrases that commonly prelude a weak argument. When a speaker uses a qualify statement, a warning bell should sound to signify you to pay close attention.

The Wall Street Journal offers qualifying statements to remember:

  • I want to say
  • I’m just saying
  • To be perfectly honest
  • I just want you to know
  • To tell you the truth
  • I’m not saying
  • I hear what you’re saying
  • Don’t take this the wrong way
  • Let’s be frank
  • As far as I know
  • I’m thinking that
  • Surely

Generally speaking, these types of statements signal that untruths may follow. Take notice when a speaker uses one of these phrases and step up your critical thinking skills.


Understand Your Own Biases

One important fact to understand when talking about critical thinking is the fact that we filter the world through biases in our own mind. Whether we recognize it or not, we see the world through our own rose colored glasses of perception that shade everything we see. Recognizing our own biases is a vital part of our ability to accurately process information.

Terry Pratchett sums up this idea perfectly in his book, The Truth:

“Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.”

Recognizing our own biases is vital to critical thinking. Training yourself to constantly consider the opposite view will help you see your own biases. David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon college does a great job at pointing out how our biases shape our view of life.


Practice Make Perfect

As with anything else in life, practice, practice, practice. If you want to become a better critical thinker, train your brain every day. A helpful exercise is  journalling. Keeping a journal has a myriad of benefits, one of which is improving your critical thinking skills. A journal can be a notebook of your daily observations, ideas or opinions. Blogging is a more external form of journalling and can be very helpful to engage and understand alternate points of view. Lively debates with friends and colleagues is another great practice and of course, reading across many platforms and sources is the very best way to expand your knowledge and improve your critical thinking abilities.

Improving your critical thinking ability is not just thinking about thinking, the end goal produces a  brain that automatically forms better arguments, focused ideas and creative solution to problems.

By Jules Lewis Gibson



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