open mind

How to foster ‘shoshin’

27 August, 2020

The Japanese Zen term shoshin translates as ‘beginner’s mind’ and refers to a paradox: the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning. As the Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki put it in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970): ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’

Many historical examples demonstrate how the expert mind (or feeling like an expert) can lead to closed-mindedness and the obstruction of scientific progress.

Intellectual hubris doesn’t afflict only established scientific experts. Merely having a university degree in a subject can lead people to grossly overestimate their knowledge. In one pertinent study in 2015, researchers at Yale University asked graduates to estimate their knowledge of various topics relevant to their degrees, and then tested their actual ability to explain those topics. The participants frequently overestimated their level of understanding, apparently mistaking the ‘peak knowledge’ they had at the time they studied at university for their considerably more modest current knowledge.

Unfortunately, just as Suzuki wrote and as historical anecdotes demonstrate, there is research evidence that even feeling like an expert also breeds closed-mindedness. Another study involved giving people the impression that they were relatively expert on a topic (for example, by providing them with inflated scores on a test of political knowledge), which led them to be less willing to consider other political viewpoints – a phenomenon the researchers called ‘the earned dogmatism effect’.

Approaching issues with a beginner’s mind or a healthy dose of intellectual humility can help to counter the disadvantages of intellectual hubris. People who are more intellectually humble actually know more, presumably because they are more receptive to new information. Similarly, being intellectually humble is associated with open-mindedness and a greater willingness to be receptive to other people’s perspectives – arguably just the tonic that our politically febrile world needs today.

In this article Christian Jarrett, cognitive neuroscientist, talks about how to foster shoshin or a ‘beginner’s mind’, which he says is not a purely individual endeavour. There is also an important social, interpersonal dimension to the cultivation of openness and humility. Intellectual hubris or closed-mindedness is thought to stem in part from a form of ego-defensiveness. We don’t like discovering (or letting others know) we’re wrong or ignorant because it dents our self-esteem. In an environment in which we feel respected and safe, this fear is reduced and we’re more willing to expose our ego to the threat of uncertainty and to acknowledge what we don’t know. This suggests that if and when you feel supported and cared for, you will be more inclined to admit your cerebral fallibilities.

Psyche, Christian Jarrett, 18 May 2020. Read the full article here.

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