Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and enthusiastic bongo player once said: “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.”
What he meant was that in science, bad questions and bad experiments can easily fool us into believing we’ve discovered something concrete.
Science has been the driver for progress in many fields but our minds still hold a lot of mysteries. We are fallible, but we can correct ourselves through careful questions and experiments.
One experiment or question is not enough though. You need to accept the observation, the result, and then test it under different conditions.
This got me thinking about my own biases and how they have built.
I wondered if I could analyze my mind so that I could learn to ask better questions, about myself, about my environment, and how to analyze it.
Last year I went on a meditation retreat to spend 10 days in silence. It was called Vipassana, a specific type of mediation that is about observing sensations, thoughts, feelings and actions.
Would I discover something useful about how I perceive the world? Would I ask better questions that were not driven by my biases?
During the first three days of meditation it was impossible not to become distracted by thoughts and opinions. I could pay attention to my breath, but my mind wouldn’t stop wandering.
I was skeptical and agitated. I wanted to talk to someone about my experiences, and share what was bothering me, but I had to keep silent.
It became clear to me that my unconscious was automatic – it supplied information to my conscious mind. My conscious mind was reactive and driven by habit. I was always processing information which was stored in my memory, my habits and perceptions, whether I was aware of it or not.
I saw that the questions I asked were also from habit. And they influenced the information my unconscious took from memory and experience. I could see there was something here, just barely within my control.
I found that it would take practice to improve this relationship between my unconscious processes and my focused, questioning mind. I would need to learn to be mindful.
Now that I am in school again, my mind is stressed and lacks that refined focus. The information I must retain is diverse and complex, my thoughts are full of uncertainty and habits are developing.
But I remember the experience after that third day of meditation, when my mind was calm and my focus was sharp.
I was able to observe my behaviors and my thoughts clearly.
Now I have to go again, to test this experiment and see if I have new and better questions. I can go and pay attention to what has changed.