Being a good researcher requires many mental skills which cannot be efficiently learned from the current education system. In an age where information is exploding, mental skills should deserve more attention than ever before. One of the reasons to recognize mental skills is because everything created by humans is driven by mental skills and proper mental skills lead to appropriate actions. People tend to use ‘talent’ or ‘genius ‘more often, which seems to be more related to pure luck, and this view has been entrenched by the mass media, unfortunately. ‘Talent’ and ‘genius’ are merely mental skills that correspond to some neural pathways, which someone acquires naturally or unconsciously. What is more important, mental skills can be obtained with efforts, like through mindfulness practice and philosophical thinking, and/or through the help of a proper tutor or teacher. It is ideal to impart mental skills to the young minds from the formal education, but unfortunately, that’s also what the current university system world fails to provide at this moment, I will cover this weighty topic probably in another post.
Why mental skills are ignored by many people may be due to the fact that mental skills are much less tangible than other skills, For example, one can ride a bicycle, or programme, or swim, which are all skills, so are mental skills. Wisdom is mental skills. With proper mental skills, one can lead a happy and peaceful life; which is, of course, less tangible but invaluable.
In this article, I will discuss one of the most important mental skills that a good researcher needs — being critical and one of the biggest enemies of being critical — being judgmental. “Critical” and “judgmental” seem to be two words, but the boundary between them, when projected to the mind (neural paths), is much less clear and beyond the language. Languages give us symbolic thinking (may be useful, may also be disastrous), but to be able to understand “critical” and “judgmental truly”, we have to relinquish the attachment to languages and experience and feel it on the mind.
Judgment is something one naturally gets from one’s life and environment. Humans need to judge to survive in the environment. I guess judging also help people form their community (where similar opinions are shared). Because judgments are natural, they are not placed under scrutiny by our mind, and many are problematic. When one has too many judgments, one probably has accumulated many biases and prejudices, which has shaped one’s reality very differently (though everyone has a different one) and narrowed one’s mind, in other words, it is challenging for one to see the other side of the argument in this situation.
Being critical means, one gives some proper judgments about something after weighing up the views. Admittedly, it is tricky to define what is called ‘proper’; wrongly interpreted ‘proper’ would be a problematic judgment. You see, how tricky and limited the language is to discuss this issue. I would not be surprised if you ended up in confusion after reading this post. Being critical also means, one needs to have as little improper judgments as possible, which we can also call non-judgmental. Judgments impede the process of weighing things up and therefore affect the quality of being critical. To put it in this way, when one weighs things up, one has to filter and evaluate many mental processes while keeping a distance from them. Improper judgments like biases, prejudices will lead to some of the mental processes more active or just predominant or ‘sabotage’ the distance, as a consequence, one will have greater difficulty in making proper conclusion/decision. In reality, nobody is perfect, and there are more biases and prejudices than we think, it is not surprising that, for example, peer review is a disaster for many people.
It is hard to be non-judgmental without proper mind training, that would account for why being critical does not come by easily. It is not easy to get rid of the improper judgment one has held, even though it seems to be easy to recognize it consciously. Inappropriate judgments come from incorrect perceptions. What is hard is to eradicate these wrong perceptions from the unconscious part of the mind, which may take weeks, months even years and require strenuous efforts. When we have too many judgments, think about the difficulty in correcting them. For the aged, it can be tough.
Via mindfulness and Buddhism, we could train our brain to be non-judgmental, and yes, it needs much effort but is worthwhile. A mindful science/academia will not only benefit the researchers but also, in terms of mindfully seeking the meaning of doing research, will probably revolutionize science/academia eventually and therefore influence the whole society in a better way.
Of course, there is still a long way to go. Currently, academia has many issues to resolve, like the overspecialization, the egocentric career intention, entrenched thoughts like “publish or perish”, bureaucracy and hierarchy. Everything is about mind, so when the soul of academia goes wrong, we have to do something to correct it.
In the end, let’s return to the conclusion: to be critical, one has to be non-judgmental.
Cico finished this article on a calm afternoon. More of his philosophy can be found from here.