J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

How to Expand Your Cognitive Toolkit

In this video Stephen Fry calls himself an empiricist. I’m often entertained by Stephen Fry, and empiricism is probably the most useful system of thought invented by human beings to date, but calling yourself an empiricist is akin to calling yourself a wrench.

What do you do when you need to drive a nail through some wood? You could use a wrench, but it’s not the best tool for the job.

Systems of thought are tools. Depending on the problem you want to solve or the goal you want to achieve, you’ll need to use multiple tools in your cognitive toolkit.

This is an idea I keep coming back to. In this 2010 post I looked at empiricism, rationalism, and subjectivism. In this follow up post I wrote about intuition and network analysis as thinking modes, and the third post in the series looks at evolutionary algorithms for problem solving. A more recent post summarizes a number of thinking modes in the context of flexible, persistent problem solving.

Cognitive flexibility is important because it allows us to approach problems and goals in different ways, and pick the best tool  for the job (or use multiple tools, the right one for each part of the job).

But how do you switch modes? Sometimes it’s straightforward, sometimes less so. The list below includes tactics (questions, actions, etc.) for cognitive mode switching (in no particular order). I’ve noted what I think is the core mode in brackets, but many of these tactics could apply to multiple modes. If this list gives you more ideas, please add them in the comments.

  • Who benefits? [network analysis]
  • Follow the money [network analysis]
  • Follow the energy (sunlight) [network analysis]
  • What does the evidence suggest? [empiricism]
  • What approaches have worked in the past? [empiricism]
  • What’s the right thing to do? [heart-centric]
  • What does this person need? [heart-centric]
  • What makes sense? [rationalism]
  • What’s the logical thing to do? [rationalism]
  • What’s your gut feeling about the situation? [intuitive/subconscious]
  • Keep trying things and adjusting based on feedback [evolutionary algorithm]
  • What reality do I want to manifest? [subjectivism]
  • Why do I have this goal? [subjectivism]
  • Why do I perceive this as a problem? [subjectivism]
  • How do my own attitudes and beliefs influence the situation? [subjectivism]
  • Who is communicating what, and to whom? [network analysis]
  • From what I already know, what further information can I deduce? [rationalism]
  • Just start writing/moving/creating/talking [intuitive/subconscious]
  • Dream recall [intuitive/subconscious]
  • Journaling [intuitive/subconscious]
  • Role-playing [heart centric]
  • Cognitive therapy [rationalism]
  • Group therapy [heart centric]
  • What is the compassionate, kind thing to do? [heart centric]
  • What does this mean to me? [subjectivism]
  • What are my most important core values? [subjectivism]
  • What are my life commitments? [heart centric]
  • What is my chosen life purpose? [heart centric]

Identity — Choose Values

When Stephen Fry says “I’m an empiricist,” he doesn’t really mean that he only has one thinking mode. What he means is that he values evidence-based thinking.

It’s good to base your identity on internal aspects like core values, commitments, and life purpose. If you base your identity on external factors, like your job, social status, or even specific relationships, you risk having the rug pulled out from under you. If you identify as a banker, and your bank goes under or you’re fired, suddenly you’re catapulted into a “who am I?” void.

That’s part of what happened when Ronda Rousey lost to Holly Holm. Up until that point she had identified as a champion or a winner. The loss pulled the rug out from under her, and she was shaken to the point of considering suicide. Mostly, that was the depressive influence of her concussion, but her externalized identity had something to do with it too.

Conor McGregor fared better after his recent loss to Nate Diaz. The loss didn’t shake McGregor’s sense of identity, which appears to center around hard work, loyalty to his countrymen, and the desire to get paid. All internal values.

My own core values are loving relationships, creative work (writing and music), and what I call quality of consciousness (open heart, mind like water, self-empowerment, valuing experiences over possessions, trying to avoid being a miserable stress case, etc.).

Ranking my own values was an imprecise and difficult exercise, but it affected me profoundly.

What are your core values? What are your preferred modes of thinking?


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  1. Matt Neely

    From Fry to Rouse. What range. Like Nanki-poo to Pooh-bah….(just saw some old pics, btw)

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