Dr. Nathan T. Morton
The Glory of the Focused Mind
Updated: Aug 19, 2021
I just finished watching a movie about a man suffering from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease-a severe form of dementia.
As I watched the movie, I had 3 thoughts: First, there were moments I felt very grateful for the mind God has given me. I’m not brilliant, I’m not a genius, but the Lord has put in me a thirst to learn and a fairly good mind in which to retain and process learned information. Second, I hoped that my body would not outlive my mind. Lastly, I resolved to try to use what God has given me as best I could with the years I have left. I must think. But doesn't everyone? Sadly, it doesn't always appear so.
Lacking the capacity to think about something is usually symptomatic of having false data about the subject upon which one desires to think. Therefore an essential component in thinking is learning the correct information. Here are four basic and important rules that can help in learning the right information. Molly Burton writes,
Have you ever tried to take on a new subject but wound up confused and feeling overwhelmed? Your failure didn’t stem from a lack of trying. You ran into a fundamental study barrier. It’s a basic concept we are familiar with, tackling tasks one step at a time, only progressing to the next thing once we have mastered the current step.”
Have you heard of “Gradients in Study?” When you are approaching a subject, you must start simply enough and progress into that subject step by step, gradually increasing the level of difficulty. When I first studied Greek I started with the alphabet, the simplest concepts, and easiest vocabulary, once this was learned I moved onward into more complex elements. Now, it should be understood that everyone learns at a different pace, so those gradients need to come fast enough to keep you engaged but not so fast as to cause learning fatigue. [Learning fatigue can cause confusion and when this happens, I usually go back a few steps or chapters for a restart.]
So, the first basic rule for learning is this: The only reason someone is unable to learn is because they have gone past a word, idea, technique, concept, or law they do not understand.
I am presently editing J. Gresham Machen’s The Origin of Paul’s Religion and the biggest task is adding informational footnotes for modern readers unfamiliar with the personalities, schools, and issues Machen was confronting. Without clarity most readers probably won’t go much past this sentence in the introduction on page 5, “Baur explained the un-Pauline character of the Old Catholic Church as due to a compromise with a legalistic Jewish Christianity...” In most things what you learn now is based upon what was learned before.
The second basic rule is: Misunderstood terms result in misunderstood concepts.
If you do not understand a concept there is likely a terminology confusion. There are several elements involved in the proper understanding of terms: definition, usage, and context. Look up the definition, notice how different authors use the word, and consider context. Years ago, when I began studying philosophy the word metaphysical flummoxed me. I looked up the definition and it still wasn’t clear. Consider:
The word metaphysical is derived from the Greek meta ta physika ("after the things of nature"), referring to an idea, doctrine, or posited reality outside of human sense perception. In modern philosophical terminology, metaphysics refers to the studies of what cannot be reached through objective studies of material reality.
I cannot number the times I went back to that definition to see how it fit into Nietzsche’s usage of the word and often with little success.
I soon realized that I was incapable of thinking my way out of that mental fog. Sometimes the best approach is to loosen one’s grip on the plow rather than just push harder. So, I stepped back, allowed my mind some relief and in time I was able to imagine another way of looking at that subject and word and when I did the fog evaporated.
But what if it hadn’t? What would I have done then? This brings me to the third basic rule of learning: You must always factor in significance and opportunity.
Just because you don’t understand something now, doesn’t mean you won’t understand it later. So, if you are at a mental impasse, first consider how significant the un-grasped thing is to what comes after it as well as the total subject matter. If its significance is low, move past it and at a later time the opportunity to understand will present itself.
If you are a true learner when the thing does re-present itself by then you will likely have accrued other additional information which will enable you to grasp that which you could not before. The key is to simply keep reading, learning, listening, and thinking. Every thread of knowledge is important and tied to to the whole tapestry of thinking.
The fourth basic rule of learning is this: There are patterns in everything so look for the patterns.
Our brains are wired to see patterns and then turn those patterns, or categories, into an individual item. This can become a strong memory device.
Our minds can efficiently access and operate a limited number of things at a time. But by organizing multiple bits of information into a single pattern or category that collection becomes an individual item allowing the mind to access and utilize more information in the thinking process. In cognitive psychology this is called chunking.
“According to neuroscientist Daniel Bor, author of The Ravenous Brain, chunking represents our ability to hack the limits of our memory. Bor argues that our natural tendency to see patterns and make connections is not just important for memory, but it is also the source of creativity.”
I want to challenge you. We can improve the way we think and use that thinking for the glory of God. And might I add, thinking deeply will enrich your life in unbelievable and incredible ways. Contrariwise, if we leave our thinking unfocused, misdirected, and shallow we will suffer a loss of which we will never be aware. Let us strive and seek to think better for our King Jesus! The author of Proverbs wrote "as a person thinks in their heart so are they" ... so what are you?