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You're Probably Not As Open-Minded As You Think. Here's How To Practice24:00
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 (Jeannie Phan for NPR)
(Jeannie Phan for NPR)

Do you consider yourself an open-minded person? Most people would likely say yes. I mean, who wants to be closed-minded? But the reality is that many of us are probably not as open to new ideas as we might like. It can be hard to reconsider long-held beliefs, and even harder to question things you didn't even know you believed in the first place.

I spend the vast majority of my time thinking about the future — I make a podcast about possible tomorrows, and just published a book about them, too. And what I've learned is that the only way you can really successfully think about future scenarios is by being open-minded to new ideas, and especially to the possibility that what we have today isn't the best way of doing things. It's not easy, but I believe that it's work that's worth doing. So how can you practice open-mindedness? Here's what the experts I spoke with say:

Recognize that your biological hardware isn't exactly setting you up for success. I have bad news for you about your brain: you don't fully know what it's up to. That might sound ridiculous. But in fact, there are tons of things that your brain does without your conscious control, everything from breathing to making split-second associations between things. And those associations aren't always good ones. There's plenty of research in psychology to show that almost everybody in the world has what are called "implicit biases." These are ideas and associations that we pick up from the world around us without even knowing about them. "The quickest way to define what implicit bias is [is] to say it is the thumbprint of the culture on your brain," says Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of social ethics at Harvard University.

For example, even if you think of yourself as, say, a body positive person, Banaji's work shows that your brain might still associate more negative words with the idea of fatness than positive ones. The same is true of things like disability, race and gender. You can test your implicit biases online using this test, if you want to see how you fare. But remember, this test isn't some ultimate decider of who is good and who is bad, it's simply one way to illustrate the stuff your brain might be doing that's outside your control. It's what you do next that matters.

Be curious. This sounds easy, but it's not. It requires an active choice when you encounter something you didn't know, or that doesn't match your worldview. "Do I just assume this is something I already knew? Do I assume that something bad has happened and I need to be afraid and hide? Or do I want to be curious and explore?" asks Charan Ranganath, the director of the Dynamic Memory Lab at UC Davis. Making that final choice isn't always easy, but it's the first step toward being open-minded.

Stay calm. One of the fastest ways to close your mind is to freak out, says Ranganath. "When we're stressed out, the last thing you want to do is orient yourself to things that are new or unexpected." So try taking a deep breath and calming down a little, to help fight the feelings of defensiveness or annoyance that might pop up when you find something that doesn't quite match how you see the world.

Surround yourself with the right people. Open-mindedness is often thought of as a one-way street. Either you're open-minded to the world around you, or you're not. But what we learned talking with Celeste LeCompte, a journalist who had a big, mind-opening moment of her own, is in fact the best conditions for open-mindedness go both ways. A few years ago, LeCompte spent two hours talking with a friend about their differing views on the death penalty, and because they both stayed calm and curious, they were able to be open-minded to one another. And ultimately that's what made the difference.

And your surroundings don't just impact your explicit beliefs. Remember those implicit biases we talked about? Well, new research by Tessa Charlesworth, a graduate student who works with Banaji at Harvard, has found that on the whole, some implicit biases are going away — specifically our biases around sexual orientation, race and skin color. Others are staying stagnant, like our biases around age, weight and disability.

Banaji thinks that one reason for this is segregation, particularly when it comes to sexuality: most people live among people who are members of the LGBT community. The same can't always be said for things like age and disability. (Think of your own friend group: how many of your friends fall outside your generation?). Being around different people day to day changes those hidden connections in our brain. Which means that the more you can diversify the people in your life, the more likely you are to scrape away those implicit biases you might not want to hold onto. "You want an open mind, you should have an open door," Banaji says.

If all else fails, try ayahuasca? OK, this one certainly isn't for everyone, but hear me out. Neuroscientist Lorenzo Pasquini and his colleagues have done some fascinating work on the ways in which a single experience with ayahuasca — a plant-based, psychoactive brew used in South America — can actually change your brain. When they looked at participants' brains 24 hours after their experience, they found an increase in connections between two key brain networks: the part that impacts your bodily sensations, and the part that impacts your motivation and affect. So it's possible that a little bit of psychoactive help could be the push you need to see the world in a new way. And that's all open-mindedness is, really: the willingness to consider, even briefly, another point of view.


The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Andee Tagle.

We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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