The power of doublethink

This post is an example of thematic interconnectedness, the meta-cognitive skill of applying a specific learning to other areas. Know more about the broad applications of thematic interconnectedness in this magnificent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show with Josh Waitzkin.


According to Richard Wiseman in his classic 59 Seconds, the concept of doublethink was introduced by George Orwell in 1984, describing it as

the simultaneous holding of two opposing beliefs in one’s mind and yet accepting both.

Now, we know what Orwell made out of such a concept: he envisioned a totalitarian regime that could take control of anything, where rules were so weak that anyone could have turned into an enemy at anytime, and viceversa.

We shouldn’t despair, though. Being able to hold two opposite ideas at the same time has shown major cognitive benefits, as I pointed out in this article. There is not only the celebre marshmallow Stanford experiment to prove it, but also an interesting research conducted by Gabriele Oettingen at University of Pennsylvania, who assessed the effectiveness of doublethink to accomplish any goal in life, from improving a relationship to losing weight and dating.

What did she do? People were asked to fantasise about obtaining their goal, and take note of the benefits that would flow from such an achievement. They were then asked to think about the obstacles they might find along the way. Finally, the process consisted into thinking alternatively at what joys would the benefit bring into their lives, and how they would overcome the obstacle once encountered.


I know, it sounds much as any pro-cons, business-type, rational thinking. Scientific minds might have already discovered it a long time ago, and they probably won’t find this article much interesting. But we shouldn’t leave it for granted, and we shouldn’t forget about its principles, to be able to translate them in every area of expertise. Anyone who’s committed to know the truth about something, knows the tough process of taking every option into consideration, and to mention them to seal her final thought on the topic.

The idea is to try and give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

Richard Feynman

Science has demonstrated to be exceptionally valuable because of its principle to run experiments and gather all results, no matter how they resonate with previous hypotheses.

There is something deeply fascinating between the scientific method, which we found here applied to psychological experiments, the scientific era we are living in, the research which has been conducted on mindfulness meditation and how our beliefs shape society as a whole.

Until the scientific method didn’t takeover, we were not particularly advanced in recognizing the difference between subjective beliefs and social beliefs. Ultimate judgement was left upon the most sensible minds or the most powerful figures, and there was no statistical apparatus that gave voice to the wisdom of crowds.

Now that we are applying the scientific method to every branch of human knowledge, I wonder if there is any link with previous knowledge that has remained untouched.

I should say that I know very little about neuroscience and the development of psychology and everything else. What sounds more fascinating and promising to me, although, is the link between science – which has shown its enormous benefits to improve society and people’s happiness, as briefly shown in the Stanford marshmallow experiment and Oettingen experiment – and mindfulness meditation, a spiritual practice derived from Buddhism.

Science has some interest toward mindfulness meditation. Every discipline can claim to be backed from scientific evidence as – Ben Goldacre has brilliantly elaborated on the topic –  you’ll always find some Ph. D. supporting what you’ve got to say. In fact, we still have moderate evidence about the effectiveness of mindfulness practice for pain and stress reduction, several meta-analysis revealed. These studies underline how results may differ as experimental design would be improved, so we don’t really know what we may find about the topic in the future. When I started my journey to know more about meditation, I wanted to know more about Asian culture, what positive tricks it had to offer me and why it made its way through Western countries, to end up reaching me in the Italian Alps.


Buddhism is so vast, that in every of its branches you’ll find something that relates to the mindfulness practice, which was imported in the USA under the name of MBSR by dr. Kabat-Zinn: Vipassana for Theravada tradition, Dzogchen for Nyingmapa tradition, Samatha in Gelugpa tradition, and many more. If you look at single traditions, you’ll certainly find a lot of differences, and adepts would fittingly get indignant about how I dared comparing their unique practices.

My aim, though is to compare significant similarities, which would give me confidence and inspiration to develop whatever method helps me build a peaceful, efficient mind. Vipassana meditation uses body sensations as the third support for the double nature of the mind. One of its most practiced exercises is focusing on the breath. When you are caught up in sterile thinking, that trick is marvellous.

Samatha has a very similar approach, and it is considered within Gelugpa tradition as a training to improve ones concentration. Who doesn’t need to develop a stronger concentration? Please raise your hand.

Finally, Dzogchen stands for “great perfection”, the natural, innate state of the mind. You’ll find similar definitions within Advaita Vedanta, an Hindu philosophical school of thought.

I know that I’ve just thrown at you a bunch of complicated names and nebulous definitions. I might have not been able to explain anything valuable to you, yet this is not something easy to grasp, and I warmly invite you to dig deeper. Give it a try.

I dedicated much energy to discover what that “natural, innate” state of the mind means. It seemed very promising, as it was claimed to be the source of peace and joy. And it was there already, so I just had to remove stuff, and not do add anything. So I tried to follow some masters’ instructions, and finally had my unexplainable mystical experience. If that ever happened to you, you may understand a friend of mine, who famously stated:

once, during an high school lesson, I saw the infinite. I tried to explain my epiphany to the teacher, but she wasn’t as amazed as I expected.

You see, thousands of years have passed, yet some basic human experiences remain unchallenged. All the scientific research we are doing is certainly giving us a better grasp on those experiences, yet far from being ultimate and complete. I believe that until than – if any scientific truth may ever be pronounced on the topic | uh-uh, maybe not, as science is supposed to be a fluid stream of knowledge – anyone should be faithful to his personal experience.

What that mystical experience has taught me, which I find every day in my mindfulness practice, is that there is something else outside the mind we are daily used to. That gives me a lot of freedom. If we think at concepts as concrete objects, there must be a container to hold them together. I compare doublethink to black and white marbles, and mindfulness as its repository.

To be successful and live peacefully, we need to both dream and deal with worst-case scenarios. Once the framework is set, it ain’t so difficult. We have to be comfortable with our identity of containers to harness the power of doublethink. We have to be acquainted with mindfulness practice to be able to hold a fluid identity and take advantage of changing circumstances.


If this article has inspired you to dig just a little deeper, I consider my job done. Until next time, thanks for reading!

Personal Development, Ph. D.

Passion. Rejection. Awe. It is not a medieval love affair. It is a story about me and science. Holy teen ages.

While studying in Russia, the self-made weekly schedule almost looked like this: 4hours math, 7hours physics, 3hours chemistry. Mates didn’t call me Stephen. Scientific subjects were easier to understand due to latin terminology, and this is the main reason I took these classes so frequently. But I liked them very much. It was fascinating: Abstract thinking had to reason with physical evidence.

Once I came back home, I got in touch with the local hippy, willing-to-be-holistic community. They talked about quantum physics as a way to hack the traditional thinking. That which leaved no space for miracles. Woo woo, you might yell. At that time I was hungry to delve into that hopeful worldview.

Hunger kept me alive. Yes, I proudly wore my pink glasses. People kept asking a ton of grounded objections: Why isn’t alternative medicine healing everybody? How is that scientific community did not accept some supposedly “revolutionary discoveries”? I couldn’t ignore them.

I got stuck for a while. Folks I hung out with were beautiful, yet regrettably undertrained at critical thinking. I could not reject them, for I got acquainted enough with mystery to understand that something had to be solved. I stepped away into the unknown, looking for a light to switch on.

One day, an NPR post shared by the stunning Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe hit my FB timeline. I was relieved and not alone. I met Marcelo Gleiser.

It’s as if scientific issues are simply matters of opinion — and not the product of a very thorough process of consensus-building among technically trained people.

While visiting the dentist during the yearly check-up, it is more likely to talk about the next Armageddon, rather than teething business. Why is that?

That’s what’s happening, a drive toward a subjective take on science — the polar opposite of what science stands for: A way of extracting universal truths about the natural world through a detailed process of observation and data analysis.

Things are pretty messy out there. Scientists tirelessly discuss about inductive and deductive reasoning. Not to say that someone considers science a retirement-ready idea. Nevertheless, scientists fight in their own field. Dope.

The article further quotes George Johnson to complete the picture:

“Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the “dominant paradigm” — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version.”

It sounds like economics took control over epistemology. And it could be history as well: as Max Planck once said, “New scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

What about science?


Evidence. I desperately looked for it while drowning in uncertainty. And if I tried to somehow handle bigger problems, I knew what I had to wait for: overconfidence either panic. I’m particularly fond of the scientific method, because it offers a choice.

Storytelling is very compelling to me, and I wouldn’t mistake its effectiveness with critical reasoning’s. The former is the final output, the latter provides it with a proper structure. To me, the more accurate is critical thinking, the more power a speech could deliver.

True science, as well as true religion, is a great example of humbleness. Certainty has never set anyone free, nor satisfied. Jesuit Father and astronomer George Coyne wisely reminded me that

Discoveries lead to further ignorance.

Nevertheless, Marcelo Gleiser sets the limits of scientific knowledge:

Scientific certainty depends on the range of applicability of a given theory. If it is being applied within its range of validity, we can trust it as the best approximation to the truth.

That “range of applicability” is the creative element that connects the subjective take of the world with a broader one.

Problems need a switch in subjective paradigm to be effectively solved. The idea floats in the air, until someone gets to prove it. A creative approach is built upon novelty and usefulness, which means that a new combination of datas and ideas have to match a validating standard of approval.

A scientist might find something new in the datas, whether in the literature that served him to shift his knowledge. To make the leap, he has to state something that has never been said before. That becomes plausible when it matches an independent set of criteria.

After Karl Popper introduced the notion of falsifiability, science revealed its undeniable kin with philosophy. To him, truth was something to eventually attain, rather than something to own. He spread experimentation as a negative method, rather than a positive one. Experiments remind us that a given theory is temporarily fallacy-free, not a solid truth to rely upon.

To Sam Harris, science is embraced when adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence. Religion hits

 when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy.

Marcelo Gleiser gets deeper into that dangerous intersection, nurtured by an illogical collection of science and religion:

The scientific impulse to unify is crypto-religious. […] To search for simplicity is essential to what scientists do. It’s what I do. There are essential organizing principles in nature, and the laws we find are excellent ways to describe them. But the laws are many, not one.

That is just the tip of the iceberg, the major misconception ever prevented us from a better understanding of who we are. Sam Harris delightfully explores the boundaries of consciousness and conceptual thinking, blending Krishnamurti’s radical view with the unstoppable force of scientific progress:

Even if one thinks the human mind is entirely the product of physics, the reality of consciousness becomes no less wondrous, and the difference between happiness and suffering no less important. Nor does such a view suggest that we’ll ever find the emergence of mind from matter fully intelligible; consciousness may always seem like a miracle. In philosophical circles, this is known as “the hard problem of consciousness” — some of us agree that this problem exists, some of us don’t. Should consciousness prove conceptually irreducible, remaining the mysterious ground for all we can conceivably experience or value, the rest of the scientific worldview would remain perfectly intact.

See how the intangible concept of soul and the ever-changing identity process are marvellously merged by Maria Popova in the previous post.