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A Basic Mind Training Exercise

There doesn't have to be anything complicated about mental exercises that train your mind and develop your cognitive abilities. It is enough to simply repeat any thought processes and actions that create new and better habits in your thinking. For example, if you did nothing more than get in the habit of asking "what alternatives haven't been tried here?" several times a day you would almost certainly have more creative ideas.

The following mind training exercise is also relatively simple. You watch for an idea or principle that intrigues you, and then find new applications for it. The following example will demonstrate the process.

I was reading about the introduction of anti-lock brakes, and some of the original testing done on them. As a technology, they work. But interestingly, when they were introduced, the accident rate went up rather than down - at least for a while. In a controlled study, the German Ministry of Transport found that taxi drivers who knew they had anti-lock brakes drove more aggressively. Eventually the accident rate returned to normal.

This is a process called "risk homeostasis," and it can be found in many areas of life. People have a certain risk level at which they are comfortable, and adjust their behavior accordingly. In other words, they'll drive more aggressively if they have better brakes, thus arriving at the roughly the same risk level. This happened with "child proof" caps on drugs too. With the "safer" tops, people were suddenly more inclined to leave prescription drugs out more, where they were more accessible to children, somewhat negating any safety gains from the better caps, since some kids could figure out how to open them.

At this point, many people might say, "Interesting," and then forget all about this. Some would think of more examples of risk homeostasis. For example, a fast-thinker might say, "Ah this is what happens when you develop better safety equipment for dirt-bikers and then they just jump higher and go faster." The latter at least indicates some curiosity, some understanding, and the willingness to think.

But to train yourself to be a powerful thinker, you need to work with more more than a little curious. For the purpose of this mind training exercise you need to ask questions like, "How can the ideas or principles here be worked with in new and useful ways?" and "How do we prevent this process of risk homeostasis?

In this case you might note that it is people's knowledge of the added safety features that cause them to adjust their behavior in ways that can eliminate or lessen the benefit of risk-reducing technologies. A natural question then, is "What if they didn't know?" Not letting people know that a given innovation makes something safer would be easier for government-sponsored efforts, but difficult for companies who would have to give up an important sale's pitch (safety).

You might also note that it's really perception that alters behavior. That suggests finding ways to increase the perception of risk. For example, a container with child-proof cap could announce that child proof caps have lead to the habit of leaving drugs out, which results in "x" number of poisonings and deaths annually. That would remind people of the danger and make the risks appear greater.

The Life of the Thinker

Some of the most powerful thinking is that which changes the life of the thinker. So perhaps your first response to the story and information above shouldn't be to look for new ideas in the abstract, but to look to see where you yourself have been subject to the process of "risk homeostasis," and what you can do about it. Driving more aggressively, for example, might not have much real benefit, so why not allow the new brakes to actually lower your risk?

If you watch carefully you might find that you are subject to the process in many areas of your life. Maybe once you have the safety cushion of a little money in the bank you become less responsible with your expenditures. Perhaps when your investments are doing well you start investing in riskier things. Or when you are feeling good you allow yourself more unhealthy food. Once you see these things you can act to correct them. That powerful mind of yours should be used for more than just thinking for thinking's sake, right?

To clarify how to use this as a mind training practice: You want to be in the habit of extracting ideas and principles from new information, and then finding ways to use this knowledge in your own life and in general. So when you see an intriguing story in the news or see something interesting happening near you, look closer. Let's use one more example to demonstrate.

Your city raises property taxes on investor-owned property. A friend thinks about this and says, "It's about time they made landlords pay a higher share of the cost of government." But you are training your mind to look deeper, so you notice that rents are raised. You realize that all costs must be passed on to the renters before the first penny of profit is made - and without profit nobody would be willing to provide that housing. It dawns on you that renters actually pay the property tax, since all costs must be paid by their rent. In fact, they now pay a higher percentage than those who own their homes, even though renters are typically poorer.

This might lead you to look at all the "hidden" ways that we make the poor pay taxes that they don't really know they are paying. You could even explore the more general idea that any costs imposed on any business (for any reason) has to ultimately be paid by the consumer who buys the products or services of that business. On a more personal level, it might make you realize that keeping your landlord's costs down is in your own best interest.

Look for the deeper principles and ideas in and work with them. Extract the lessons and look for new applications. Do this kind of cognitive training exercise enough and it becomes habitual. At that point (three weeks of practice usually creates a habit) you'll find yourself having new ideas and thinking deeper thoughts all the time. You'll have a more powerful mind.

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Relevant Pages:

Using a Meditation MP3

The Intelligence of Self Observation

Self Awareness


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