Thinking outside the box. Literally!

The power of thought is not a new discovery. “All we are,” said the Buddha twenty-five hundred years ago, “is the result of what we have thought.” Most people understand that our thoughts create us. And when thoughts become beliefs, they define us. They make us Christians, Democrats, Liberals, Muslims, Socialists, Republicans, and Communists. Thoughts can also bring us great happiness, or complete despair. The good news: we can control our thoughts(Whew!).

Last year I sent out a survey question to hundreds of prominent people. The question was simple: What (if anything) should public schools teach children about religion? One response came from the bestselling author, Dr. Andrew Newberg. Newberg is a neurologist and the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University. His area of expertise is in religion and the brain. Here is an excerpt from his response.

“Given what we know about the human brain, one of the best things for brain function and health is to challenge our beliefs and thought processes… the brain is that part of us that tries to understand our world. With this in mind, each of us has different ways of looking at the world, and every person must be treated with compassion and their ideas must be respected. Hopefully this will enable a student to develop a clearer understanding of their own beliefs and traditions, challenge their intellect, and enhance their compassion for others.”


As an educator I respect Dr. Newberg’s statements about “challenging our beliefs” and “challenging our intellects.” As a teacher I want my students to become critical thinkers, and I frequently ask them if they ever “think about what they think about and why they think about it?” I also try to help them understand that the first step in being able to challenge their own thoughts is to become aware of how their thoughts are generally more spontaneous than deliberate; they can surface and grab hold without our permission in ways that bring discomfort and limit our understanding of the world.

To illustrate this to my students I draw nine dots on the whiteboard (see below). I then tell them to draw the dots in their notebook and to connect all the dots with four straight lines without lifting their pencil from the paper once they begin. I also tell them they cannot back track over a line. Give it a shot.

In about a minute the students begin to express their frustration and belief that it cannot be done (examples of their failed attempts are illustrated below). Despite their frustrations, I remind them that it can be done and that a five-year old can do it. This, as you can imagine, only adds to their frustration.

When it is apparent to me that no one knows how to connect the dots with four straight lines I show them, and jaws begin to drop (see below).

Many students, explaining why they failed such a simple task, confess that they automatically approached the problem as they did as children connecting dots. In other words, a line ends at a dot before a new line is started. They also admit they spontaneously – without any deliberate thinking – thought the nine dots were a box. And once this thought took hold they could not think outside the box (literally!). I doubt if this is where the phrase “think outside the box” comes from, but it certainly applies in this case.

Dr. Newberg’s statement about challenging our thoughts to promote brain function and health remind me of another statement of the Buddha: “Do not accept something because it is in accordance with your beliefs.” In other words, challenge your own beliefs. Allow yourself to disagree with yourself. Don’t immediately assume an idea is “true” or “correct” because it fits nicely into your paradigm of thought – don’t let your thoughts create a box to be trapped in. Don’t let your mind limit itself to one perspective.

The great challenge in all of this is to put our own intellect and beliefs under the lens of critical self-examination. This requires great courage and focus (and some humility), but to not do so is to run the risk of staying trapped in the nursery of egocentric childhood thinking and reasoning where the brain’s health and full potential is stifled. A mind is a terrible thing to waste!

For more information about Dr. Newberg, see his webpage(see below).

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