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Alternative Culture Articles

September 10, 2000

Alternative Thinking
By Royce Carlson

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to change an opinion about something, especially if it is a strong opinion or if you have held it for a long time? Why is that? The architecture of our consciousness is flexible but apparently not flexible enough to facilitate quick changes.

As we grow and develop mentally, we organize our experiences in a fashion that we feel comfortable with. We structure our perception based on a pattern that creates meaning for us. The longer this structure is in place, the more difficult it is to change. Almost all of us would rather ignore or reject facts that contradict that structure than change the structure to accommodate the facts.

Imagine all the thoughts in your head to be the furniture and decorations in your living room. You have arranged the room to suit you. It provides a comfortable place to sit with the things you use conveniently placed and the decorations located to make you feel good. When a new thought comes along that fits with the décor of your room you find a place for it easily. It enhances the room and makes it more comfortable. But, when a thought that doesn’t fit shows up, you look around your room, see that it doesn’t fit, and reject it or ignore it.

I have observed this over the past few weeks with family and friends during conversations about the upcoming U.S. presidential election. A number of people have already decided which candidate they like, and no facts are going to dissuade them. I have adopted the opinion that there is little difference between Gore and Bush. Because of that opinion, I notice the similarities between them as they come up in the news, and I give less importance to the differences between them. I do this because I subconsciously want to support my opinion more than I want to find the facts which may force me to change my opinion.

My wife, on the other hand, gives more importance to the differences between the two major candidates and less to their similarities. Both of us are trapped by our attachment to our opinions. She says there is a huge difference between the candidates and I say there is little difference. Which one of us is right? It all hinges on perception. There is no objective definition of huge or little in this case.

This mental inertia finds its way into every area of our lives. Atheists stay atheists and religious people stay religious. Bigots stay bigots, and scientists hold onto their theories in spite of evidence that disputes them. Change comes hard. We practically have to be beaten over the head with facts for a long time before we groan and get up and realize we have to do a major rearrangement of the thoughts in our "brain living room" to accommodate a new way of looking at things.

Some people, however, are more facile at rearranging their mental furniture. Many really great discoveries and inventions have come from people who are willing and able to discard convention and look at the world in new ways. The revolutionary developments in science and business result from discarding the common wisdom and seeing what other possibilities there are. Even if you are not an Einstein, you can begin to exercise your mind to explore outside the conventional ways of thinking and acting.

Pick a social, political, business, science or technology problem. Just about any problem will work. Pick something specific that has a solution already in place. Reject the conventional solution and see what else comes up. Here’s an existing situation that has provoked a unique solution:

As scientists and business people needed more computing power to process their data, faster computers with more capacity became necessary. The pressure was on to build the most powerful computer to serve these needs. Thousands of engineers were put on the job to create faster processors, faster memory chips, etc. What they came up with over time was the super computer. A super computer costs millions of dollars so only the largest of corporations and government agencies could afford one. This is the problem. How do we get supercomputing capabilities into the hands of those who cannot afford a supercomputer?

Here is a solution that came from "outside the box." Create a virtual supercomputer by combining the processing capabilities of hundreds or even thousands of personal computers. That is exactly what happened with SETI@Home. They now have more computing power than they need without having to spend millions on a supercomputer. This new way of thinking is only just beginning to find its way into business. There is much potential with the single idea of distributed computing.

This is the result of alternative thinking. Reject the conventional wisdom and see what other ideas flow in to take their place. It’s not easy. It involves being willing to throw out some of the old mental furniture we have become comfortable with and creating an empty space in our minds. It involves accepting that what we know and believe could be wrong. It involves becoming comfortable with uncertainty. If we can hold our opinions loosely instead of with a death grip, with practice we can become more mentally flexible. Who knows what great new ideas will arise if we all consciously work to cultivate alternative thinking capabilities?


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Royce Carlson