You have heard it all your life. Being closeminded is synonymous for something exclusively negative while being openminded is hailed as unambiguously good – a magical elixir, the panacea of all problems. The benefits of an open mind are well-known and described in passionate details throughout our culture, but less attention has been given to its dark side.
Let us first start with the benefits. Openness means to see opportunities that lie outside Main Street. It means to be able to see the value of breaking out of habits and patterns. That’s why being openminded is associated with thinking outside the box. It is the opposite of being a specialist, namely, a generalist.
A specialist is sometimes described as someone who knows much about little, whereas a generalist knows a little about much. Generalists often lead to cross-pollination and seeding of new insights and entirely new fields of inquiry. Specialists, however, are more or less stuck in their trade.
However, no walls, no borders, and no limitations all lead to a lack of focus, and everything peters out into a lukewarm nothing. Structure and limitation allows for accumulation. To use an analogy: Consider a hydroelectric dam. It is the accumulation of water in a reservoir for energy production that brings the power, but without the walls that resource would be lost.
Without structure, capital or wealth accumulation is impossible, and one is forced to live like an animal, from hand to mouth.
Some of the greatest insights in philosophy or science come from dwelling on a narrow topic for a long time. Sir Isaac Newton was undoubtedly a genius, but few know that after he had made his initial discovery of the law of gravity, he spent decades dwelling on the topic to make an airtight proof. Consequently, we remember him as one of the greatest minds in history. If his mind had been wandering too much, he might not have been able to develop the depth of understanding that was required for his insights.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus alludes to the wise man who builds his house on a rock as opposed to the one who builds on sand. A rock is a stable foundation which allows creations of man to withstand the test of time. Sand is analogous to the open mind, shifting and adapting to any change.
By the same token, you cannot erect a skyscraper without a solid foundation. Height is the twin brother of depth, but it is also a form of accumulation: one floor upon another. The scientific process leads to knowledge reaching ever greater heights by building on the solid foundation of previous knowledge.
Indeed, progress is impossible without limitations that stabilize knowledge and institutions.
Water and ice versus the brain
Think about a puddle of water, a lump of ice, and a brain of the same mass. So similar, yet oceans apart in behavior. Water is the epitome of openness. Any change quickly spreads and dissipates as waves throughout the liquid. Complete fluidity is unintelligent.
Similarly, ice is frozen structure, completely closed to change, and no intelligence can arise from it.
The brain, by contrast, is filled with both neuronal inhibitors – mental walls – and activation spreading, acting in tandem. Our brain differs from animals in many ways, but in addition to being the most energetic, our brains also have the most inhibitors. Intelligence and sustainable creativity seem to thrive at the right balance between order and chaos, between walls and openness.
The lesson from biology and history is that openness is great – when tempered by the right amount of structure.
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