Staying mentally flexible


Staying mentally flexible

I’m getting older. Back in 2013 at the age of 45 I ran a marathon with 14 weeks training. It was a tough but liberating experience. I never thought I was the sort of person who could run 42.215 km, which is a long way. But being able to made me realize that change is possible, even at a relatively advanced age.

One thing I notice, as I’m ageing, is that the body does change. You tend to put on fat, lose muscle mass, and become less flexible. Unless you actively choose to change your lifestyle, eat less, and do more exercise, noticeable decline is inevitable. Conversely, if you do make changes, then those losses are minimized, but it does take some effort.

Is this the same with our minds? I’m not talking about functioning here, but rather with the way we think; our beliefs; our worldview. As we gain more experience and knowledge, it is quite possible that the natural tendency is for us to lose mental flexibility. We fail to remain open-minded; we find it harder to see another’s viewpoint; and change is much harder to deal with.

Left unchecked, our mind closes as we age. This is generally true, but I think it’s also true in wine.

It’s almost as if we have mechanisms that conspire to stop our minds being fully open. Chief among these is confirmation bias. This is where we interpret new evidence that is presented to in a biased way, without even realizing it. We are all susceptible to this. All of us.

If we are to stay open-minded, it takes effort. Just as we train our bodies if we are to run long distances, we need to train our minds if we are ever going to do anything mentally worthwhile.

In my quest to try to be mentally flexible, I’m continually questioning myself. I acknowledge that when I encounter new information, I will have a tendency to receive it in a biased way. I have certain pre-conceived ideas; certain beliefs; certain worldviews. I will interpret new evidence in particular ways because of that. So what is the path to mental flexibility?

  1. Actually listening to other viewpoints. What is this person actually saying?
  2. Questioning: how might my pre-existing views be biasing the way I treat new data or evidence?
  3. Can I see the other person’s point of view? What would things look like if I was coming from their perspective?
  4. Some sort of internal debate is needed. How might I be wrong on this point?
  5. To read, read and read. Read lots of things. And read outside my own background or political orientation.
  6. And, finally, know that we have a tendency to simplify complex situations. This leads to a lot of confusion, because reality is usually complex, multifaceted and nuanced.

In the wine world, there are lots of areas of debate where it is easy to take sides, and then fail to be mentally flexible. One example would be cork versus screwcap; another is organics versus conventional viticulture; another is natural versus conventional wines. These are all complex debates that are ill-served by simplistic us-versus-them positions.

Just as we benefit if we keep ourselves physically fit and flexible, there’s also a lot to be gained through being mentally flexible too, and this requires effort and training, especially as we get older, know more and have more experience – these things can lead us to trust our own instinctive positions too much.

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