mechanical thinking

A Guide to Awakening a Robotic Mind

There seems to be an increasing trend towards what I call “robotic” (or “mechanical”) thinking. This is a type of thinking that leads people to jump to conclusions, make claims to universal truth, and depend upon simplistic explanations of complex realities.

The opposite of a robotic mind is an open and critical mind. This is where we are curious, questioning, flexible, and willing to consider a wide range of possibilities in dealing with a question or problem. And this approach lets us make judgements, choices and decisions for ourselves, instead of letting others do it on our behalf.

I think each of us would like to think we are open minded, but the truth is many of us are oblivious to our own individual thought processes. And there are, of course, various shades of gray in between having an open mind and a robotic mind. So lets have a look at what are, in my opinion, three of the major signs of robotic thinking and some ways to fix this problem.

1. Unwillingness to ask questions

A telling sign of a robotic mind is an unwillingness to ask questions. I see two major problems with this:

  1. A tendency to jump to conclusions
  2. Automatic acceptance of information (eg the news) “as if” or “as presented”

The problem with jumping to conclusions is, of course, that these conclusions may be wrong. In fact, if a person jumps conclusions – meaning they don’t take the time to gather information and question assumptions – there is a very good chance these conclusions will be wrong!

Automatic acceptance of information as if or as presented basically means a person relinquishes responsibility for making judgements and choices to someone else. And there are all too many people willing to be this “someone else”. It is critical to realize, however, that just because the President, a CEO, religious leader, parent, or teacher says something is right or wrong it does not make it so. And yet it seems there is a long line of people who are more than happy to hand over their brain to someone else.

The solution, of course, is to ask questions – and lots of them! In particular, we should regard authority with a healthy amount of skepticism. As Timothy Leary once said,

“Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities — the political, the religious, the educational authorities — who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing — forming in our minds — their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself.”

Just to be clear here, I do not consider a systematic approach to problems and decisions as a sign of robotic thinking. Quite the opposite in fact. Taking a systematic approach – meaning you ask questions in a structured and logical order – is a very powerful method for coming to an informed and intelligent answer.

2. An inability or unwillingness to consider alternatives

An intelligent and open mind should be able to consider a wide range of possibilities in dealing with a question or problem. Why? Because, put simply, things aren’t always as they first appear. Take, for example, the following image of a turning dancer (I apologize to anyone who has previously seen this – I know it has been floating around the Internet for a few months now). Now, consider which way she is turning (if she is not moving try reloading the page).


Are you sure?

If you answered clockwise, you are correct. If you answered anti-clockwise, you are also correct. Huh?

The reason both answers are correct is because it depends on what side of the brain you use more. If she is turning clockwise, you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa.

If you don’t believe me, try looking at the image with other people or concentrating on her for a few minutes as it is possible to change the direction she is turning. Also, if you are interested in finding out more about what it means to use more of the right or left side of the brain, you can find the original article here.

Now, if this was your first time seeing the above image and I hadn’t told you the dancer will turn either clockwise and anti-clockwise depending on the side of the brain you use more, do you think you would have worked this out? Probably not.

The reason I like this example is that it is a very good illustration that there is often more to an answer than first meets the eye.

I can just imagine a person who didn’t know any better being adamant that the way they see the dancer turning is the only correct answer and anyone who says otherwise is crazy. You now know, however, that it is not quite this simple.

This may be fairly harmless when it comes to saying which way a dancer is turning, but what if this closed robotic mindset is directed towards a topic such as the possibilities for our own lives. A robotic mind may, for example, see work as a necessary evil for living. An open mind, however, will realize that work can potentially be an expression of our passions and deepest desires (even if it hasn’t quite figured out what that work is yet). Or, it may question the assumption that we need to trade our time for money and instead come up with a solution such as The 4-Hour Workweek.

3. Dependence on simplistic explanations of complex realities

As I said at the start of this article, we live in a complex world. A person who fails to ask questions and refuses to consider alternatives is very likely to exhibit dependence on, and adherence to, very simplistic explanations of what are actually quite complex realities.

In school we learn to associate intelligence with knowing the correct answer to a question or problem. As we grow older, though, we should realize that there is often no single answer to the problems we face. I think we need to be particularly wary of people intent on pushing their ideological interpretations (eg liberal, socialist, capitalist, communist, conservative, social democrat) of issues and events onto us. Such interpretations are usually very selective in terms of the information they reference, and therefore will tend simplify issues for the pure sake of political advantage.

* * *

I have disbursed within this article are a number of ideas to help fix robotic thinking. The following is a quick summary of them:

  • Ask questions
  • Be curious
  • Approach life with a healthy amount of skepticism
  • Be open to alternatives
  • Avoid simplistic explanations for complex problems

What do you think?

Peter writes about how to change your life at The Change Blog. He is also the author of Starting a Blog and Audio Book Downloads.

23 Responses to A Guide to Awakening a Robotic Mind

  1. Matt says:

    the dancer isn’t turning at all – the camera is moving around her. :)

    Good post, perspective and questioning are incredibly important.

  2. Pingback: The rotational direction of the dancer « Analytical Calisthenics

  3. Excellent as usual Peter. This is an important topic. I recently did a comic on my site about this general topic called “Are You A Herd Follower or Leader?”

  4. chris says:

    I’d add authors to the list of people who just because they say it doesn’t make it so.
    Books are the epitome of mechanical thinking mostly because they are spending 200+ pages proving their right.

  5. Ivan says:

    This is the best article I’ve read in a while. It amazes me every time I see people blindly accepting whatever information they’re spoon-fed.I wrote a post in my blog about how not to fall into this trap when faced with problems: Top 10 Questions To Ask If You Want To Solve a Problem And you especially hit a nerve when you talked about ‘labeling’ everything, especially in politics: “(eg liberal, socialist, capitalist, communist, conservative, social democrat)” How do ‘labeled’ people explain the multiple divergences between what they profess and what they truly believe? That’s one of the reasons why I feel no real attraction to any specific political party: they’re increasingly absolutist and don’t take into account many nuances.

  6. dedroidify says:

    Hey great article, I’m all about transcending the robot mind as well and call it “to dedroidify” 😉

    check some related articles I typed up:


  7. Good article, particularly relevant for internet where you feel there is a lot of accepting the prevailing ideas.

  8. Peter says:

    Thanks Ivan, glad to hear you enjoyed my article.

    Just to clarify, I am not saying there may not be a certain truth to the ideological interpretations of news and events that people offer. It’s just that as intelligent and open minded individuals we should question the motivations and assumptions behind such interpretations and make up our own mind.

  9. Peter says:

    Alex, your cartoon on herd thinking is a classic. I gave it a stumble for you.

  10. Stephen says:

    Very interesting article. Most people do think like robots due to conditioning and habits. Unless someone practices the art of conscious observation over their thoughts, actions, and results, they’ll continue to be a robot.

  11. Brad Baggett says:

    It is so important to keep an open mind. The older I have become, the more open my mind has grown. We all must try to see the World through other’s eyes in order to see the “big” picture. Great article, and congratulations on 12k subscribers!

  12. Chris Hynes says:

    An interesting thing about that image… I find if I focus on the foot that’s on the ground for a couple revolutions, she changes direction. Something like seeing an issue from the other person’s point of view.

  13. For people who are having a hard time reversing the dancer, I’m finding that she turns much, much slower in IE than in Firefox. I can see her turning either way in IE, but only clockwise in Firefox.

  14. Robin says:

    I opened that gif in my trusty animation package, after the frames reach half way, the animation turns the other way and moves in that direction. The animation goes both ways, however since it’s significantly faster in Firefox, it’s fairly inperceptible.

  15. Peter:

    You’re absolutely right about robotic thinking. I’ve seen plenty of evidence of this in the country. The masses are just nodding their heads, believing what the government tells us and shrugging our shoulders.

    The dancing lady theory is pretty incredible. I’ve seen it before but it’s always good to bring it up again to remind us whether we perceive things with our left or right brains. Interesting way of reminding readers that we need to shake up our way of thinking and interacting.

  16. I love this article! There is absolutely a herd mentality in our culture today. People just follow where everyone else is going without asking themselves, “Why am I doing or believing this?” It is good to challenge the status quo once in awhile. I applaud your effort here.

  17. Kyle says:

    Excellent article! Many people just seem to follow the crowd. You need to keep an open mind to be able to reach your own conclusions. We need to change the way we think to challenge our thought processes with questions and alternatives to make an informed decision. Great article on many different ways of observing our own beliefs.

  18. Evelyn says:

    I thought I’m a pretty much left brain person but after staring at the rotating dancer for the last 5 minutes, my conclusion still remained the same: she is rotating clockwise. I tried my hardest to consider the possibility of her in an anti-clockwise direction but No!!!!

  19. Pingback: Links for Super-Charged Living - March 15, 2008 | My Super-Charged Life

  20. LOVE the pic man, great work!!

  21. 7aThank’s.2y I compleatly agree with last post. gvd
    ламинат и паркет 4u

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *