Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 1)

This is the first of a 4-part series covering Dr. Taylor’s conversation with Robin Phillips about the brain. To read the other posts in this series, click here.


Graham Taylor: Thank you so much for joining me this morning, Robin.

Robin Phillips: It’s a pleasure. I love what you’re doing here at the Taylor Study Method and I consider it an honor to speak with you this morning.


GT: Excellent. I want to jump right into the topic of this interview about brain fitness. In your writings you’ve suggested that brain fitness rather than smartness should be the goal of learning. Why is that?

RP: Great question, Graham. In our culture the notion of “being smart” often invokes a truncated and one-sided paradigm of mental ability that may not be consistent with overall cognitive health. I prefer using the term “brain fitness” as a way to emphasize a more well-rounded and holistic approach to cognition, which has implications to how we approach the whole learning process.

: So what exactly do you mean by “a truncated and one-sided paradigm of mental ability”?

RP: Modern Western culture tends to be overly intellectualist in its approach to cognition. The IQ test and the report card are perhaps the most powerful symbols of a rationalist mythology whereby we tend—often unconsciously—to equate healthy cognition with little more than raw intellectual ability.

Now I don’t want to minimize the importance of intellectual ability—I mean, you’re talking to someone who believes school standards should be much higher and that all kids should have to do daily logic puzzles almost as soon as they are potty trained. However, in terms of being successful in life, translating knowledge into wise decision-making, making a positive contribution in the world and using our brains to navigate the complex and messy world of human beings, raw intellectual ability may actually be one of the least important factors. Malcomb Gladwell demonstrates this in some of the stories he tells in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success. It’s clear from history that some of the smartest people in the world have used their minds to make the dumbest decisions. So having a good brain—being mentally fit—is about so much more than just how smart a person is. Brain fitness involves a whole constellation of mental skills that tend to be under-valued by our culture in general and in our schools in particular.


GT: What specifically are some of the brain-fitness skills you have in mind?

RP: As I look at the research about the brain, I consistently see that there are a number of specific skills that go into having a healthy brain. Significantly, many of these are things we don’t think of as skills because we often don’t understand how they can be developed with practice. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You asked what some of these skills were.

One skill that is the mark of a healthy brain is the ability to think outside the box. Again there is a parallel with physical fitness. I think we would all recognize that a fit body involves more than simply having strength and endurance; rather, physical fitness also involves being flexible and nimble and being able to adapt to physical challenges in creative ways. Similarly, a good brain isn’t just one that can absorb and remember information or perform mental calculations really fast; rather, a good brain is one that can think outside the box and is adroit at applying knowledge in creative and unexpected ways. This is the premise of Steven Levit and Stephen Dubner’s fascinating bestseller Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. Levit and Dubner share a host of fascinating stories to suggest that out-of-the-box thinking offers a totally new way to tackle age-old problems and is more important than raw intelligence.

I like the observation Daniel Goleman made about out-of-the-box thinking in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence: “Life’s creative challenges rarely come in the form of well-formulated puzzles. Instead we often have to recognize the very need to find a creative solution in the first place.” Sadly, our school systems don’t always have the mechanisms in place for encouraging creative out-of-the-box thinking, which is why some of the world’s greatest inventors, artists, scientists, intellectuals and leaders actually flunked school as children.

Another example of a brain fitness skill is emotional intelligence. In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, psychologist Howard Gardner expanded the notion of intelligence to include multiple different modalities. One of the most important of these is the category that many psychologists call emotional intelligence but which Gardner termed “Interpersonal Intelligence.”

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to recognize our feelings as they occur and thus to increase the gap between stimulus and response. But emotional intelligence isn’t just about recognizing and managing our own emotions, because clinical studies have established that the same mental muscles involved in attentive perception of our own moods and feelings also form the basis of attentive perception of others people’s emotions and needs. So emotional intelligence is both self-directed and others-directed. And it’s so important practically. As I pointed out in my essays on attentiveness, a high level of emotional intelligence is absolutely necessary in order to have successful relationships, to self-regulate our emotions, and effectively to navigate the challenges of life. In fact, many researchers now believe that emotional intelligence is even more important than IQ. This was the thesis of Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Goleman didn’t discover the concept of emotional intelligence, but he’s the one who popularized the concept and made it a household term. Thanks to the work of Goleman and others, it is now widely accepted that emotional intelligence plays a far greater role than we ever realized in all the things that matter most in life. In his book Search Inside Yourself, former Google-engineer-turned-mindfulness-guru, Chade-Meng Tan, showed that emotional intelligence even plays a central role in jobs that we might expect to only require good brain-processing power, such as the work of programmers, engineers and technicians.

Research is increasingly showing that emotional intelligence involves neurological skills that can be developed with practice, and so it is absolutely crucial that this skill be at the center of any discussion about brain fitness.

Another sign of a healthy brain—and this is kind of related to emotional intelligence—is being able to avoid thinking errors. I’ll try not to get too scientific, but each of us has a wonderful gift in the front of our forehead just above our eyes and it’s called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that enables us to observe our own thinking to adjust and improve it accordingly. Animals can’t do that. Animals can think, but they can’t think about thinking; they can’t observe what is happening in their brains. Only humans can do that thanks to the prefrontal cortex. Because of the prefrontal cortex, none of us needs to be a passive victim to toxic thoughts—we can control our brains and form new mental habits to replace unhealthy ones. You could think about the prefrontal cortex as a the brain’s guard house, tasked with controlling what enters. As thoughts arise in the brain, you can use your prefrontal cortex to watch what is happening and exercise second-by-second censorship. One of the benefits of being able to do this is to use mindfulness techniques to weed out thinking errors.


GT: What are some examples of thinking errors?

RP: Different people have made lists of thinking errors, but my favorite is the list compiled by the psychologist and writer Amy Morin. In 2015 she wrote an excellent article for Psychology Today about “What Mentally Strong People Don’t Do: 10 Thinking Errors That Will Crush Your Mental Strength … and how to overcome them.” In her article she listen some of the 10 most common thinking errors. In a minute I’ll share Amy’s list, but before I do it’s worth reflecting again on the parallel with physical fitness since this is something Amy brought out in her Ted Talk on this subject. Amy said that if someone is trying to become physically fit, it obviously wouldn’t be sufficient simply to go to the gym every day, you would also have to give up unhealthy habits like eating junk food or smoking. Similarly, if someone wants to become mentally strong, it isn’t good enough to simply pursue the habits of mental fitness; you also have to give up the thinking errors that hold your mind back from optimum health.

Here is Amy’s list of thinking errors (and if you want to know more, I recommend Amy’s bestelling book):

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
Sometimes we see things as being black or white: Perhaps you have two categories of coworkers in your mind—the good ones and the bad ones. Or maybe you look at each project as either a success or a failure. Recognize the shades of gray, rather than putting things in terms of all good or all bad.

2. Overgeneralizing
It’s easy to take one particular event and generalize it to the rest of our life. If you failed to close one deal, you may decide, “I’m bad at closing deals.” Or if you are treated poorly by one family member, you might think, “Everyone in my family is rude.” Take notice of times when an incident may apply to only one specific situation, instead of all other areas of life.

3. Filtering Out the Positive
If nine good things happen, and one bad thing, sometimes we filter out the good and hone in on the bad. Maybe we declare we had a bad day, despite the positive events that occurred. Or maybe we look back at our performance and declare it was terrible because we made a single mistake. Filtering out the positive can prevent you from establishing a realistic outlook on a situation. Develop a balanced outlook by noticing both the positive and the negative.

4. Mind-Reading
We can never be sure what someone else is thinking. Yet, everyone occasionally assumes they know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Thinking things like, “He must have thought I was stupid at the meeting,” makes inferences that aren’t necessarily based on reality. Remind yourself that you may not be making accurate guesses about other people’s perceptions.

5. Catastrophizing
Sometimes we think things are much worse than they actually are. If you fall short on meeting your financial goals one month you may think, “I’m going to end up bankrupt,” or “I’ll never have enough money to retire,” even though there’s no evidence that the situation is nearly that dire. It can be easy to get swept up into catastrophizing a situation once your thoughts become negative. When you begin predicting doom and gloom, remind yourself that there are many other potential outcomes.

6. Emotional Reasoning
Our emotions aren’t always based on reality but we often assume those feelings are rational. If you’re worried about making a career change, you might assume, “If I’m this scared about it, I just shouldn’t change jobs.” Or, you may be tempted to assume, “If I feel like a loser, I must be a loser.” It’s essential to recognize that emotions, just like our thoughts, aren’t always based on the facts.

7. Labeling
Labeling involves putting a name to something. Instead of thinking, “He made a mistake,” you might label your neighbor as “an idiot.” Labeling people and experiences places them into categories that are often based on isolated incidents. Notice when you try to categorize things and work to avoid placing mental labels on everything.

8. Fortune-telling
Although none of us knows what will happen in the future, we sometimes like to try our hand at fortune-telling. We think things like, “I’m going to embarrass myself tomorrow,” or “If I go on a diet, I’ll probably just gain weight.” These types of thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies if you’re not careful. When you’re predicting doom and gloom, remind yourself of all the other possible outcomes.

9. Personalization
As much as we’d like to say we don’t think the world revolves around us, it’s easy to personalize everything. If a friend doesn’t call back, you may assume, “She must be mad at me,” or if a co-worker is grumpy, you might conclude, “He doesn’t like me.” When you catch yourself personalizing situations, take time to point out other possible factors that may be influencing the circumstances.

10. Unreal Ideal
Making unfair comparisons about ourselves and other people can ruin our motivation. Looking at someone who has achieved much success and thinking, “I should have been able to do that,” isn’t helpful, especially if that person had some lucky breaks or competitive advantages along the way. Rather than measuring your life against someone else’s, commit to focusing on your own path to success.

Fixing Thinking Errors
Once you recognize your thinking errors, you can begin trying to challenge those thoughts. Look for exceptions to the rule and gather evidence that your thoughts aren’t 100% true. Then, you can begin replacing them with more realistic thoughts.

The goal doesn’t need to be to replace negative thoughts with overly idealistic or positive ones. Instead, replace them with realistic thoughts. Changing the way you think takes a lot of effort initially, but with practice, you’ll notice big changes—not just in the way you think, but also in the way you feel and behave. You can make peace with the past, look at the present differently, and think about the future in a way that will support your chances of reaching your goals.

: That’s quite a list. I think we all fall into the temptation of those thinking errors now and again.

RP: Yes we do. And, you know Graham, that’s one of the reasons I get really passionate about this. Our school systems are supposed to teach our children how to think, right? Same with our universities. And yet—this is the really astounding thing to me—most people go through their entire school elementary and secondary education without ever once being taught the most common thinking errors they need to avoid. Why is this? I mean, if our schools are really supposed to teach people to think correctly, and if our schools are really meant to prepare children for later life, why is it that these thinking errors (or conversely, the habits of a healthy brain) aren’t front and center?

How is it that I got through all of college as well as an entire doctoral program, and yet I never even heard about these thinking errors until I started reading psychology in my free time? This is not just for psychologists, this is for everyone. High schools will occasionally teach the laws of logic and fallacies, and this is good—I think everyone should memorize the most common logical fallacies—but when it comes to being able to hold down a relationship, interact meaningfully with family members, survive a difficult job, and so forth, knowing the thinking errors to avoid is much more important than being able to itemize all the fallacies in a political debate. And frankly, that’s what education ought to be about: it ought to be about so much more than facts and figures, but about inculcating the ways of sound thinking.

Further Reading

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