Over time our thinking become very rigid. Our minds shrink wrap around the things we know and resist letting in new ideas. This is not good for most people and for academics it is a disaster. It would be analogous to a professional athlete becoming soft and doughy from lack of exercise. Fortunately for professional athletes their careers are relatively short and when the natural effects of aging set in, they no longer have the demands of their profession to deal with. However, for academics this is not the case. Academics can continue to practice their profession well into old age. We have a comedic archetype of an aging academic reading from yellowing pages of notes lingering for years at deaths door while continuing to deliver lectures. This archetype is a bit unfair. But, it is not unheard of to have academics continue to work well into their 70's or even 80's. So, the question is - how do you keep your mind nimble and sharp and resist the forces of aging?
Well, part of the answer is that many academics don't. Some begin their careers fixed in their views and some acquire the rigidity over time. However, this is unfortunate and not necessary. It is possible to remain nimble and flexible in your thinking. And it is not a great deal different from maintaining physical flexibility.
In the absent of any efforts to combat inflexibility, our bodies become inflexible over time. Muscles shorten and we loose our range of motion. We combat this by stretching. And the same thing is true of mental flexibility. We combat it by stretching our minds. I would add, parenthetically, that we also become inflexible emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and in any number of other ways. The remedies there are the same - stretching. But, I am going to limit my discussion to mental flexibility.
Over the next few weeks I am going to look at three ways to maintain mental flexibility: exposure to new ideas; using fiction for mental exercise; and the pursuit of non conventional ideas. Warning: This will start out exactly as you expect and get very weird before it is all done.