- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Allen Stairs is teaching people to think twice. Because how a person acts is based on what he or she believes, being able to think critically is extremely important, he says.

Mr. Stairs is challenging the students in his Art of Thinking class, a six-week Smithsonian Resident Associates program, to examine their thought processes.

“If people are thinking badly, they will be taken in by silly claims,” says Mr. Stairs, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland at College Park. “If they are people in positions of influence, it might not only be unfortunate for them, but for a lot of other people as well.”

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Thinking — reasoning, creating plans, devising strategies, instituting sound judgment, making decisions, acting out plans and accepting feedback about strategies — can be a complicated practice.

People should be aware of the ways their brains are naturally inclined to make mistakes, Mr. Stairs says. When people are aware, they are more likely to slow down and use techniques from logic and science.

The gambler’s fallacy is an example, he says. If someone keeps trying and trying and fails, it is not necessarily true that the person’s number is “bound” to come up soon. If the process being used is impractical or illogical, a positive result probably will not occur until that person changes his or her actions.

Further, Mr. Stairs suggests that people shouldn’t impose patterns where they don’t exist, such as seeing a “hot streak” in sports games, where people might be likely to bet money.

“If you flip a coin long enough, you will get 10 heads in a row,” Mr. Stairs says. “The fact we detect patterns is a good thing. There are a lot of patterns that are good to detect, but the fact we are so focused on patterns might mean they aren’t there. We can’t simply rewire our brains to stop doing that, but we can become more self-aware, especially in cases where it really matters.”

The single most important thing Mr. Stairs teaches his students is not to believe everything they think, he says.

“A lot of times, people are inclined to not really take a very critical view of their own beliefs,” Mr. Stairs says. “They come by their beliefs without examining them. They never stop to ask themselves what would somebody who doesn’t see things my way have to say about this, especially controversial beliefs.”

Instead of appreciating varying opinions, people tend to look for evidence that confirms their views, he says. He suggests that his students display healthy skepticism.

“Be more modest about the hard questions,” Mr. Stairs says. “Some questions are just hard, and a wise person recognizes that and takes account of it.”

There is a great deal of disagreement about thinking, says William Garmoe, a clinical neuropsychologist who serves as the co-director of the brain-injury program at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.

“Many people argue that you can strengthen the brain and neuroconnections by doing exercises,” Mr. Garmoe says. “Other equally qualified people are not terribly convinced about whether specific brain exercises improve cognition.”

Some people trying to keep their thinking sharp complete sudoku number puzzles or crossword puzzles or read challenging materials, he says.

Although some skill is involved in effective thinking, the best way to be an efficient thinker is to stimulate the brain with rich intellectual, cultural and social activity. Maintaining physical health by getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well and reducing stress also are essential, Mr. Garmoe says.

“We do know there is a relationship between remaining physically and intellectually active and the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” Mr. Garmoe says. “The more active people are, the better their functioning will be into later years.”

Teaching people to think is not usually done in a formal way, says Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. He holds a doctorate in human neuropsychology.

Ideally, teaching someone to think should start early, at least in the high school years, he says.

“We don’t have a long history of knowing how to teach thinking,” Mr. Grafman says. “Cognitive psychologists would do a pretty good job at teaching thinking and reasoning courses.”

When trying to solve a problem, the brain usually relies on memories of a previous situation, Mr. Grafman says. If a person has never been in the situation, the brain most likely works by analogy.

Immature or deteriorating frontal lobes will hinder the person’s ability to reason. If someone has an injury to the frontal lobes of the brain, it also will be difficult to think well, he says.

It takes time to recover from a brain injury, says Dr. Stephen Peterson, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest.

The approach to retraining the brain depends on the type and extent of the injury, he says. A person should make sure to rest and continue to use the area of the brain that is injured.

At age 46, scientist Louis Pasteur suffered a devastating stroke, but he continued his work in immunology and found the vaccine for rabies, Dr. Peterson says. Today, medications such as Ritalin and Dexedrine can help recovery from a brain injury. Talk therapy also contributes much to a person’s healing.

“Sometimes the brain will transfer function from one area of the brain to another,” Dr. Peterson says. “The brain can compensate.”

However, psychological stress such as depression and anxiety can interfere with thinking, he says.

“When anxiety gets severe enough, it actually cuts off the connection to the front lobes,” Dr. Peterson says. “It interrupts your thinking.”

Despite people’s observations about good thinking, the brain will always remain an organ of mystery, says Dr. Andrew McCarthy, a neurologist at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest.

“It’s a much more profound organ,” Dr. McCarthy says. “It’s who you are. We haven’t really figured that out yet.”

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