The secret to using your whole brain

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

Overplaying to your strengths can be dangerous.

“Your arms are not what they used to be.” — That was my wife’s feedback on my cycling improvement recount.

During the past five years, I rediscovered the pleasure of road biking. I dramatically improved my fitness, lost weight, and rode more frequent and longer distances. However, I forgot to take care of my upper body.

Focusing on strengths can hinder not pushing yourself to develop other skills.

Your brain is a muscle. To boost its full power, you can’t just exercise certain parts but all of them. Experiment with different types of thinking. Not just the one you are used to. Think like a master.

Your Brain Is, by Design, a Whole

“If you never change your mind, why have one?” — Edward de Bono

Your brain thinks in many distinct ways. Depending on the challenge you must address, one type of thinking is more effective than the other. If you are only using one style, your ability to develop new ideas or make a decision will be limited.

Edward de Bono, the author of Lateral Thinking, created the “Six Thinking Hats” method. The psychologist believes that we must challenge our brain to create more effective solutions. In each of the six directions, by training your brain, you can consciously play with different types of perspectives (e.g., gut instinct, pessimistic judgment, neutral facts).

When you choose the right type of thinking — not the one you usually default to — your brain power increases dramatically.

If you have a whole brain, why just use portions of it?

The left-right brain approach is a trap. According to Ed Herrmann, this dichotomy, simplifying our thinking in just two groups, creates a wrong perception of how our brain works.

“The brain is, by design, a whole.” — Ned Herrmann

The specialized neurons are interdependent; your brain relies on interconnections between specialized areas to function.

In their book “The Whole Brain Business,” Ned Herrmann and his daughter Ann, outline four basic thinking styles — administrator, talker, problem-solver, dreamer — corresponding to the four quadrants of the brain. Most people thinking is dominated by only one.

Some of us are inclined to focus on the big picture. Others are detail-oriented or tend to follow their gut. Using a whole-brain approach will help leverage all your thinking styles, not just the one you default to.

Experts tend to use their brain playing to their strengths. Artists, detectives, journalists, poets, and philosophers — to name a few — apply unique thinking styles. Each approach is perfect for their specific fields.

What if you could borrow each of these masters’ thinking style?

Understanding various thinking approaches will help you boost your brainpower.

Detectives Use Mindfulness and Deduction

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.” — Sherlock Holmes

Detectives look for clues to find out what the real solution is. That requires always observing, rather than simply seeing.

Sherlock Holmes spent his life in mindful interaction with the world around him. Your intuition can sometimes be tinted by your beliefs or blind spots. Mindfulness, however, promotes an open mind; you don’t judge the facts but observe them.

Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, explains how mindfulness helped the famous detective return his wandering attention to focus on whatever mattered to him,.

Holmes observed facts without being judgmental. The detective focused on finding the connections and making sense out of everything he observed. He applied the principles of Deductive Reasoning.

Holmes would write down some hypothesis about what he believed happened. He would then search for more evidence to logically validate his initial statements. Sherlock deconstructed what happened.

P. D. James said: ‘What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.”

Deduction requires taking distance. Forcing your mind to take a step back is not easy. It seems counterintuitive to walk away from a problem you want to solve. Watson couldn’t detach from the issue at hand. He couldn’t understand how Holmes mastered throwing his brain out of action — focusing on lighter things when he could no longer work to advantage.

Think like a detective:

  • Observe without judging.
  • Write down your hypothesis.
  • Step back and let your mind create the connections.
  • Be mindful of your own biases.
  • Validate your hypothesis with rigor and objectivity.

Philosophers Master The Power of Questions

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” — Albert Einstein

Philosophers, like detectives, have inquisitive minds. However, rather than trying to solve a crime, they aim to understand the meaning of life. They don’t seek for a simplified (‘yes’ or ‘no’) answer; philosophers want to address the “why.”

Philosophers way of thinking seems to be stuck addressing ethereal problems — especially for relentless pragmatics like Americans who just want to cut to the chase. However, addressing challenging abstract issues such as “What’s freedom?” or “What’s the meaning of life?” can help develop your reasoning.

Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Vertical or lateral thinking are both part of a philosopher state of mind. They use life as their canvas: observation and their own experiences help them find answers to these lofty questions.

We all fall prey to ‘confirmation bias,’ as I explained here — our minds tend to see what supports our beliefs. Considering alternative possibilities and continuously challenging our beliefs helps overcome your bias.

Daniel Dennett, one of the master living philosophers, wants to turn everyone into a philosopher. His book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, explores the labyrinth of mind games. The philosopher explains that ‘Intuition Pumps’ are stories and scenarios that invite you to “twiddle the knobs” — changing one little detail raises new questions or uncovers new conclusions.

Think like a philosopher:

  • Don’t take anything for granted.
  • Use your daily experience as a stimulus to challenge your beliefs.
  • Spot the weakness in an argument.
  • Try to modify the problem before solving it.
  • “Twiddle the knobs” of thought; explore new alternatives and conclusions.

Sculptors Remove The Unnecessary to Liberate The Essence

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” — Michelangelo

Sculptors observe, not what an object is, but what it might become.

You could benefit from thinking (and seeing) like a sculptor. They don’t see a piece of marble or wood, but a beautiful statue. Sculptors focus on the essence; their job is to remove everything that’s unnecessary — they extract the uncommon from the common.

Michelangelo said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

An artist moves around the piece he is sculpting. He works on circular or spiral patterns, not linear. Sculptors look from different angles — to liberate the essence requires that you change your perspective.

A master sculptor pounds big chunks with confidence until she can liberate the shape she saw in her head. Then her moves are smaller, more delicate, and intentional. Once the vision is captured, it’s easier to spend time polishing and ‘editing the draft.’

Think like a Sculptor

  • See the possibilities, not the reality.
  • Focus on removing the unnecessary.
  • Don’t jump into the detail before you have captured the “essence.”
  • Move on circular or spiral patterns to change your perspective.
  • Extract the uncommon from the common.

Journalists Are Skeptical and Inquisitive

“If your mom says she loves you, get confirmation from at least two independent sources before you believe her.” — Anonymous

Reporters look for sources to verify new claims or stories.

Lazy ones, just stick to one or two. Master journalists know that just because they read something or an expert said something, that they don’t have to believe it. Journalists are trained to ask questions — the more inquisitive the closer to becoming a master.

Click-bait headlines are anything but true journalism. The story is king, but facts can dethrone any clever headline. Great writers are their harshest critics. People might fall for a nice story, but is discovering the truth what must drive your work.

“Gradually I came to realize that people will more readily swallow lies than truth as if the taste of lies was homey, appetizing: a habit.” — Martha Gellhorn

Journalists work in a very competitive industry — taking shortcuts can get you glory but put your long-term reputation at risk. Do the legwork. Discovering a story could be easy; finding the right one requires a skeptical and inquisitive mind.

Think like a journalist:

  • Don’t stick to the first results on Google.
  • Look for various sources, especially opposite ones.
  • Never trust your sources, challenge them over and over.
  • The facts are not the story. There are many facts, but only one core story.
  • Your reputation is everything. Don’t risk it for short-term glory.

Poets Observe (and Write) What Others Don’t

“When the mind is exhausted of images, it invents its own.” — Gary Snyder

Poets think with images, not words.

For Gary Snyder, poetry is like rummaging in the socks. You are roaming around in the “landscape of your mind” the poet said during an interview with Bill Moyers. For the writer, looking and solving problems is much the same as the way you find your socks — you pull out the drawer and see what’s there.

British master poet T. S. Eliot — even though he was an obsessive word player — admitted that the emotions, inspirations, and ideas that propelled his work were wordless. As told in this New York interview, the writer’s work never began with conscious intent. “One wants to get something off one’s chest. One doesn’t know quite what it is […] until one’s got it off.”

Poetry is a human emotion translated into words. It picks up where logic leaves off. You have to break into the wild and irrational places. A poet makes words communicate what they can’t.

Robert Frost said: “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found words.”

Poets observe what others don’t. They look at the same object or situation than you do but believe that everything can be more than it seems. Curiosity, imagination, and an open mind will help you discover endless possibilities. Take the time to pause and observe one thing at the time. Focus and begin to view life through a poet’s eyes.

Think like a poet:

  • Think with images, not words.
  • Play with sounds, rhymes, and crazy images.
  • Make up new words.
  • Set yourself free; visit wild and unexpected places.
  • Take the time to pause and observe (one thing at a time).

Putting It All Together

Playing to your strengths limits your potential.

Your brain is a whole entity that needs to be exercised.

Detectives use intuitive thinking whereas poets use words. Philosophers leverage everyday experiences to understand the meaning of life. Sculptors unleash the essence by removing the essence. Journalists are the most skeptical of all: they don’t even trust their moms.

Experiment with different types of thinking to boost your brain’s full potential. Shift from one to another to keep your brain fluid.

P.S. If you want to experiment with other types of thinking, check out part II of this article. Learn to think like a hacker, an anthropologist, and a Navy SEAL.