Beginner's Mind

How does the brain of a beginner's mind look like?

This word gets thrown around a lot in two circles. One in the designer’s world (creativity & innovation) and the other one in the Zen world (nirvana/enlightenment).

Let’s define what is a beginner’s mind in a simple way and then dig into the details. In simple words beginner’s mind is a mindset that always has radical openness towards the world around.

In a beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in an expert’s mind there are a few - Shunryu Suzuki [Book: A zen mind, a beginner’s mind]

Starting empty and being free from the habits of expert is a very powerful way to see things the way they are. The mindset will make you ready to accept, to doubt and to be open to all possibilities. I realised that more the possibilities then probabilities of success also increases proportionally. The new pair of eyes makes us see things the way they are. Cross pollination of ideas happen. We can create novel ideas by remixing themes, remixing ideas and remixing people’s thoughts aka collaboration. The act of creativity gets easier when we are curious. It is extremely hard when we are bored.

A beginner’s mind is a curious mind. So what happen’s inside our curious brains?

Have you noticed when you have a curious question and you don’t know the answer you get a little restless 🤔 Till you find the answers you are bugged 🙄 It is not a pleasant state to be in for the control freak inside us but it helps us to seek new information and learn about things.

If you go into the thought process of your brain when you are curious, you will notice that our brain looks for potential answers, we search for re-cognition (known information from our memories), we can feel the knowledge gap and we feel a little itchy to find the answer. If you don’t feed the itch it will die away in some time but when the curiosity is ON our brains want to seek more. Suddenly we get the energy to go and look in many directions for answers.

fMRI shows what happens really inside our brains when we are launched into a curious mode. Increased activity is noticed in mid brain and nucleus accumbens (located in the basal fore brain between caudate and putamen, known as the reward system). It is referred as a WANTING SYSTEM. We crave or want when this system is activated in our brains and hence we start seeking. So dopamine (a neurotransmitter) is not associated with just pleasure, it gets activated much before the pleasure is realised. It gets activated during the seeking process itself. When this group of structures are activated it is clear that curiosity makes it feel seeking like a reward. Curiosity as a drug is a nice way to look at it.

In addition to increased activity in mid and fore brain, there is also a great deal of activation in the hippocampus which clearly shows that our memories stick when we are curious.

I did a TAD on one of the Neuro Curiosity talks here:

P.S: Nucleus Accumbens also has a strong influence on all motivationally relevant stimuli processing whether rewarding or aversive. So it is not just wanting, it is also not wanting depending on the context. For now we will deal only as a reward system given the curiosity as a topic.

As a beginner’s mind your curiosity is stimulated as a learner and it gets easier to receive and retain information which is otherwise a cognitively loading task.

So how to cultivate a beginner’s mind?

Here are a few strategies which i formulated for me to launch myself into the beginner’s mindset.

  1. Before starting any learning exercise or brainstorming activity, I do a little ritual. Just sit in a crossed leg posture (padmasana will be awesome but not many of us are not that flexible so atleast a sukasana will do). With the spine erect and cross legs, the ambience for curiosity is set inside the body. (Why the cross leg works, we will dig into that soon)

  2. It sounds crazy but just try this. Bow down to the universe with all your imperfections and unknowns. Submit your ignorance and knowledge. Do this bowing 3-5 times as a physical act. Your pride, ego, aspirations, goals and expertness generally withers away with this practice.

  3. Start with 6-10 deep breaths so that focus can be brought in to the present.

  4. Tell yourself all feelings and emotions will be accepted without judgements.

  5. Put down all the knowns and unknowns about the context in a paper.

  6. Specifically write down the questions you have about the context. This is what triggers the curious cat inside you.

This preset is important. Once you start living in a meditative way, this ritual is not needed but that takes at least a few years to live that way.

Once the set and setting of the mindset is done, you can start the brainstorming activity. You will notice your energy levels are much higher and your wanting system takes you to places. What you seek in this mode also sticks for long.

Creativity cannot happen in vacuum. We need biological support as well to create something awesome. Go for it!

🥂to emptiness!

Yo! Thanks for reading. Means a lot to me as attention is the hardest currency 🙏

If someone in your circle will benefit from this series, please pass them the details and ask them to subscribe here

If you would like to connect with the human behind the series, you can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn