Let’s Change the Way We Think About Thinking

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Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann's Dangerous Idea? To be better adjusted, change the way you think about thinking.

My Dangerous Idea is that the way that you think about thinking changes your experience of thought. And I think that the way that you pay attention to your inner experience — the way you imagine your mind — changes the way you experience yourself when you're religious, the way you experience yourself when you have psychiatric illness, the way you experience yourself when you're walking down the street.

I think Americans think of the mind as a fortress. Shut off from the outside world. Nobody can get in. Nothing gets out. Your inner experience is really important to you. Knowing your feelings shapes who you are, sharing your feelings defines who you are. That's not the way that people in the rest of the world always think about thinking. And I think in consequence, we tend to live in a world in which, when we have experiences in which our thoughts seem to pop outside and shout at us, we associate that with psychiatric illness. It's the one defining feature of what it is to be ill, and those experiences harass us and make us feel like they're driving us crazy. When we're religious, it means that the way that you experience God I think is often thinner than in other parts of the world, which feels as if your thoughts are somehow what it is to connect to God, and God acquires this more airy quality than he would if the imagination were less marked as something that you took to be false.

I think what you do with that awareness of the mind is become conscious that the way that you're thinking about thinking does shape some of the ways that you react to your own experience of thought, that you could imagine the mind as not somehow this fortress could be broken, but somehow more engaged with everyday reality.

I think what you would do is recognize that some of the ways that we think about psychiatric illness depend on an understanding of what it is to think that might be American, rather than something that's rooted in the body. When you think about your thoughts as being shaped by your hyper-awareness of thinking, you can judge your own anxieties and inner voices as being less hostile and difficult than you might experience them as being.