How do we incorporate current best available evidence within an existing theory or understanding? This is a common question that can affect all of us as we strive to remain up to date with current findings and applications of evidence, including as it relates to our routines and habits. This can be particularly difficult when evolving data may call in to question aspects of prior theories or requires substantial changes to what was previously believed to be true.
Advancing our understanding of any topic requires an ability, and willingness, to acknowledge where we may have been wrong about a theory and being open to updating our theory or even discarding a theory if the evolving evidence determines to be no longer applicable. This can be particularly challenging as it also involves adjusting our mental models regarding our understanding of the topic.
Revising concepts and ideas on the basis of new information is a hallmark of the scientific method and is necessary for advancing our understanding of topics. While this can be challenging, it has been shown to be particularly difficult for those who consider themselves to be an expert in that topic. This phenomenon, termed ‘earned dogmatism’, effectively describes how those who consider themselves to have an expertise in a particular subject tend to be more closed minded when it comes to revising opinions on the basis of new and emerging information. Conversely, those with less content expertise frequently are more open to new ideas and thinking about the topic. A quote from the classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind encapsulates this concept by stating “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”.
While it may be evident that a ‘beginner’s mind’ is preferable due to its open minded nature, the ensuing question becomes, how do we promote such a mindset? There is definite overlap with the Growth Mindset philosophy first described by Carol Dweck, PhD. In her paradigm, the grown mindset is associated with an open minded recognition that we are continuously able to improve and evolve, whereas a fixed mindset constitutes a perspective whereby change in characteristics is deemed to be impossible and, therefore, improvement and evolution are not possible.
One of the predominant explanations regarding the challenge in adjusting and updating theories lies in the way our brain develops mental models to explain and predict events around us. The models that are developed are helpful in making sense of what occurs in our experience as well as assisting in decision making. These models are created on the basis of mental simulations, which are resource intensive and, therefore, not preferred to be performed continuously. By developing models, our brain effectively limits the frequency of having to perform simulations, thereby reducing demand for resources. This can be very helpful for everyday activities. Imagine having to perform simulations and develop new mental models each time we drive to work or pickup our children from school! The process of model creation and subsequent use of the model tends to lead to constraints in the data which is considered, creating a more closed minded consideration of available information. Ultimately, if the model is incorrect or out dated, then the conclusions we draw from the model and the decisions we make on the basis of the model will also be incorrect.
Amishi Jha, PhD provides an approach to avoid this pitfall. In her book Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, she describes the use of mindfulness to avoid overreliance on mental models, particularly in the setting of advancing information. She recommends using awareness to identify when we may be utilizing or over-relying on mental models and using the same awareness to instead place our attention on the present moment and what is occurring without comparison to or incorporation of prior models. By doing this, our brain maintains a ‘decentered’ perspective that is less susceptible to falling into prior models and narratives.
The Evidence Driven approach that is the foundation of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete provides a framework for avoiding the pitfalls of both seeking out only that evidence which supports preconceived ideas or not updating prior theories on the basis of current data. By employing this perspective, the latest and best available evidence is used to keep these practices current and responsive to evolving concepts.