It has been called the most difficult language to understand on the planet.
In the second half of the 20th century, Missionaries have gone deep into the jungle of the Amazon to try to bring God’s message to a tribe known as the Piraha. Many have been driven mad in their attempts to learn the Piraha language that seems to have little structure or methodology to it .
Daniel Everett sought to change this. He and his family had been sent to the Amazon after the previous missionaries spent a full ten years without making much progress. Everett, though, was educated in tactics to help understand foreign languages and he was off to a great start.
He spent a full year in the village with the tribe learning more every day. He took copious notes on every word and was making a lot of progress on the vocabulary. But then he stopped making progress. Some things just didn’t make sense. They didn’t have a word for left or right. They had multiple meanings for certain words that didn’t seem to connect. He thought that this must be when the previous missionaries went mad.
THE WRONG PERSPECTIVE
What was he doing wrong? Clearly this was a language that could be learned. Children picked up on the language seemingly with ease! Then one day Everett finally ventured out of the village. He joined the men on one of their hunts and discovered what he had been doing wrong the whole time.
The language that the men were using on the hunt was completely different than the language used in the village! They communicated with different pitches of whistling that allowed them to be stealthier while stalking their prey. When he discovered this, he realized he had been looking at the language of the Piraha from the wrong perspective.
He had been trying to learn how the Piraha language fit into his preconceived notions of how a language is structured. With vocabulary, grammar, an alphabet, etc. The reason that children were able to learn the language easily is because they had no preconceived notions of language! They weren’t trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, they just observed and learned with a completely open mind!
THE CONVENTIONAL MIND
We all start out life with this same open mind. Everything we see is new and exciting to us. We seek to learn about things before placing judgment on them. We have no preconceived ideas of what’s possible or impossible. We don’t see our way of life as better than others or conform to what society wants us to do. We simply learn and observe. And we are okay with our role as the inferior being.
As we grow older, though, we start developing what Robert Greene calls the “Conventional Mind” . We start realizing what is “realistic”. We start placing judgments on phenomena as either good or bad, and we start getting a feeling of superiority in our way of thinking.
It was this feeling of superiority that doomed Daniel Everett with the Piraha. He saw himself as the intelligent scientist coming to study the Piraha language the same way he would study the behavior of ants. Because of this, he didn’t fully embrace the culture and couldn’t see its powerful connection to the language. Once he let go of this feeling of superiority, he learned the language with ease and changed the way linguists across the world think.
THE DIMENSIONAL MIND
This shift allowed Everett to change his mental perspective to what Greene calls the “Dimensional Mind”. The dimensional mind is one that is open. One that does not harbor preconceived judgments of what we should be able to do and not do with the information we are learning.
One of our biggest flaws in learning anything new is the feeling of superiority. A feeling of smugness doesn’t allow us to be truly curious because we subconsciously placing judgments on things without allowing ourselves to explore the details . This is dangerous because we are rarely aware that we are doing so . We think that we are learning the correct way, just like Everett did.
Unfortunately, we cannot revert back to our child-like openness entirely, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. As we accumulate more knowledge about the world or our current domains, our brains want to become more active. The key is to not be satisfied with what we have learned. This will lead to closing the mind and becoming smug.
To avoid this, we need to understand that no matter what we know, there is always more to learn. This will open up our brains to make connections based on its understandings. You will be able to see how if A equals B, and B equals C, then A also equals C. That’s how we continue to learn and grow using the dimensional mind.
HOW This RELATES TO WILLPOWER
Accessing the dimensional mind is not easy. The brain naturally wants to believe that it has learned all that it needs to know. It requires much less mental energy to assume that we know everything about a domain or phenomenon than to continually be curious about it.
Therefore it requires that we use our willpower to push further. It requires that we have the perseverance to investigate the details that others are not willing to. It requires the discipline to hear opposing arguments with an open mind, rather than one that is shut off.
Make no mistake about it. Opening up your mind to new ideas and trying to play the role of the student rather than the master is not easy. It was not easy for Everett to see himself as inferior to a tribe of people who chose to live a harder life than we have in Western society. But the knowledge he acquired was well worth the price.
HOW TO BECOME MORE DIMENSIONAL MINDED
So how can we become more dimensional minded? The easy answer would be to tell you to “open up your mind”, but that’s like telling someone who wants to lose weight to simply “start eating healthy”. It’s not that easy.
So here are some exercises that you can use to help you achieve a dimensional mindset.
1. Practice curiosity
We take so many things in our world for granted. We see a kitchen table as just a kitchen table, we see a computer as just a computer and flushing the toilet as just the removal of waste. But where does that waste go?
When we were children, we asked questions like that. We saw water leaving the toilet bowl like magic and wondered how it all works. We endlessly asked questions with the infamous “but why?” Then as we age we just see it as a functioning toilet. Not something that we need to understand anymore.
Like any exercise, if we just practice this curiosity that we had when we were children we can literally reshape our brains to think more openly . To get started, simply select 15-30 minutes out of the day to just be curious.
A great time to do this is on your commute to work. Look around at the cars, ads, anything, and just question: How did they get there? Where are they going? What do they do? Etc.
One of the main benefits of meditation is the rewiring of the brain to have less judgment and more empathy . This will influence your subconscious mind to avoid placing judgment on everything you see, which will allow you to be more open and curious.
It only requires 10 minutes of daily meditation to make a significant impact on your subconscious. To get started, download the free Headspace app. It will provide a guided meditation program designed specifically for beginners.
3. Keep a journal
Regular writing has been proven to have many mental health benefits, one of which is increased creativity . Most of our "thinking time" is undisciplined. Time spent thinking is really just allowing our brains to wander, which can quickly lead to placing judgment.
By keeping a journal, you help your mind develop focused creativity. Whether you’re writing about events in your life, a problem you’ve been dealing with, or a new idea, as you write you begin to see the problem from different angles. You start to develop a dimensional mind as you put your ideas to paper.
Like most missionaries, Daniel Everett saw himself as superior to the Piraha tribe of the Amazon. When trying to teach them about Christianity, it was this very superiority that resulted in him being unable to fully absorb their language and customs. It wasn’t until he was able to let go of this smugness and view the tribe through the eyes of a child that he was able to fully understand their language and way of life.
We deal with the same problem whenever we try to learn something new. Our natural inclination is to believe that “we know best” which shuts us off to new learning and opportunities for growth. By cultivating what is known as the dimensional mind, we can shift our perspective and open ourselves up to learn as well as we did when we were children. This perspective will help us grow into the potential that we all know we are capable of reaching!
- Greene, Robert. Mastery. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.
- Sywelster, Robert. "The Role of Snap Judgments in Intelligence." Brain Connection. Brain Connection, 11 Mar. 2005. Web.
- Saville, Emma. "How Curiosity Changes Our Brains." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 3 Oct. 2014. Web.
- Kristeller, Jean L., and Thomas Johnson. "Cultivating Loving Kindness: A Two-Stage Model Of The Effects Of Meditation On Empathy, Compassion, And Altruism." Zygon� 40.2 (2005): 391-408.
- Willis, Julia. "The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning." Edutopia. Edutopia, 11 July 2011. Web.