1/23/18: Openness to Experience

Our brains interpret the world primarily as a forum for action and only secondarily as a realm of facts.—Colin G. DeYoung, Ph.D.

As far as your brain is concerned, the only point in understanding something is to figure out what to do about it—and then do it. You have no control over the process. And moment-to-moment, you have very little, if any, control over the actions you take.

But you do have some control over how your brain interprets what’s going on. You have some control over the meaning your brain makes of your experiences. And since the actions you take are based on your brain’s understanding of the situation, you therefore have some control over what you do or don’t do.

Your brain interprets and understands the world based on the mental model it maintains of what is normal for you. What’s “normal” includes the meanings you have tended to attribute to events and experiences in the past and the actions you have taken as a result. What’s normal, in other words, is your status quo, which your brain does its absolute best to maintain.

If you want to change your behavior (the actions you take or don’t take), you have to create a new normal for your brain. You have to change it. This is not easy, but it’s definitely possible.

Change Your Brain by Opening Your Mind

If you always expose yourself to the same people, situations, ideas, and environments, you will find it difficult to alter your brain’s interpretations and your resulting behaviors. If you want to change your brain, you have to be intentional about it. The best place to start is by developing the capacity to be open to experience.

Openness to Experience is one of the five factors in what’s called the Big Five or the Five-Factor personality model (or the acronym OCEAN), which you can find out more about here.

According to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, whose research centers on creativity and intelligence:

Openness to experience comprises intellectual curiosity, complex problem solving and reasoning, imagination, artistic and aesthetic interests, and emotional and fantasy richness.

As with the other factors in this model, Openness to Experience is broken down into two different aspects:


Intellect consists of cognitive engagement with abstract and semantic information primarily through reasoning. It includes explicit cognitive ability, meaning traditional measures of intelligence, and intellectual engagement, a drive to engage in ideas, rational thought, and the search for truth.

The aspect of intellect is associated with System 2 (conscious, logical, rational) processing.


Openness consists of cognitive engagement with sensory and perceptual information. That includes affective engagement, which is a preference for using emotions, intuition, and empathy to make decisions, and aesthetic engagement, a preference for aesthetics, fantasy, and emotional absorption in artistic and cultural stimuli.

The aspect of openness is associated with System 1 (unconscious, non-linear, non-rational) processing.

Imagine Possibilities

There are a number of ways in which being open to experience can help you master the art and science of change. One of them is being able to think in terms of possibilities rather than in terms of limited choices.

It’s very difficult to change your mind or your behavior if you lock onto your current interpretations and explanations. If you are convinced that the perspective you have now is the only one—or the only right one—you won’t be able to see other perspectives, possibilities, or solutions to your problems, let alone apply them.

Those who are open to experience tend to be more divergent, as opposed to convergent, thinkers.

Convergent (coming together) thinkers are prone to seeing a limited number of predetermined options, which can lead to black or white, all or nothing thinking. While there are plenty of situations in which finding the right answer is essential, too much convergent thinking can snuff out creativity and hamper your attempts at behavior change.

Divergent (developing in different directions) thinkers, on the other hand, are constantly looking for more options, opening their minds and expanding their possibilities. Too much divergent thinking can create a mental spin cycle of options that keeps you from ever making a choice or taking action. But being able to apply divergent thinking to a problem can generate insights and behaviors that change the pathways of neurons in your brain.

Flow-writing, mind-mapping, and brainstorming are a few examples of divergent thinking tools.

At the next MONTHLY MEETING OF THE MIND (& BRAIN), we’ll explore the ramifications of being open to experience in the areas of creativity and behavior change—because if you want to be successful at changing your behavior, you have to be creative about it.

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