How Being Open Minded Can Benefit Your Mental And Emotional Health
Frank Zappa once said, ‘A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it is not open’, and if anyone knew a thing or two about expanding your mind, it was the legendary musician. But don’t just take a rockstar’s word for it, Frank’s musings are backed up by scientific research, which shows that high levels of openness in a person is linked to increased emotional and psychological wellbeing, and satisfaction with life.
So, let’s take a closer look at how open mindedness and learning new things can help support your mental and emotional health, and how you can adopt this mindset into your everyday life.
What does being ‘open minded’ mean?
A person with an open mind is someone who is receptive to a wide variety of ideas and information, and is not restricted or rigid in how they see the world. Someone who is willing to consider concepts that are new to them, or offer a different perspective to their own.
It doesn’t necessarily mean someone who goes out bungee jumping one week and swimming with sharks the next, nor someone who doesn’t have their own opinion and is easily swayed or indecisive. Open minded people are simply willing to accept and explore new ideas and experiences, and don’t view the world solely from their own standpoint.
Why is it good to try new things?
For some people, ‘trying something new’ equates to a trapeze artist’s class, while for others, it’s learning a new dish to cook for dinner. Whatever your level of comfort with new experiences, there are multiple benefits to learning something new – and these benefits go far beyond the actual skills you want to learn. As well as discovering a new favourite food or finding out that you really enjoy salsa dancing, you may also experience:
Improved brain health and memory
The brain is like a muscle in that the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Research shows that the brain’s ability to remember information improves as you consistently learn new things, so this is one metaphoric muscle that’s worth flexing.
You know the feeling you get when you’re able to do something for the first time? Learning new skills can help boost confidence as you master something previously unknown. Research indicates that self-confidence increases over the course of acquiring a new skill, because you gain courage as you make progress, which helps reduce fear and self-doubt.
Learning something new can help keep feelings of boredom at bay, because it breaks up the cycle of daily life. Doing something you’ve never tried before can add variety or excitement to your day or week, by providing a deviation from your normal routine.
‘Learning’ keeps you in a mindset of growth and change, and prevents you from getting stuck in a rut through doing the same things over again. By encouraging yourself to be agile and flexible, you’re also allowing yourself to be open to new opportunities and giving yourself the space to embrace them.
How openness to experience can change how you see the world
There is evidence to suggest that an open mind can change how you view the world. Research shows that open people are more curious, creative, and motivated to explore the world and engage with possibilities. They also experience the world in a way that is different to their closed-minded counterparts, thanks to their heightened consciousness and need to examine their experiences.
In contrast, people with a narrow perspective tend to be more focused on proving themselves right during interactions with others, rather than taking the opportunity to understand. Their focus is on getting the other person to agree with them, so they miss out on the chance to learn, grow and expand their own world.
How does trying new things affect your brain?
The brain forms new connections every time we learn something – a process known as ‘neuroplasticity’. As a result, your memory and brain health improve with each new connection formed.
A key chemical in the brain that makes this possible is myelin. Myelin is a plasma membrane made up of protein and lipids that wraps around part of certain nerve cells. It insulates the cells and makes the signals in our neurons move faster. When you learn something new, this increases myelination (the formation of the myelin sheath around the nerve), which could increase the strength of connectivity and the efficiency of information flow within the brain.
Learning also helps thicken the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for managing stress and regulating emotions.
New things to try
So, if you’ve decided you want to open your mind more, where should you start? Firstly, avoid responding to every new possibility with a ‘no’ and closing yourself off. Be willing to take yourself out of your comfort zone, but do so with self-kindness. Ask questions to provide yourself with opportunities to learn more and don’t make rash judgements about things before you’ve had a chance to experience them.
If you want to open your mind by trying new things, here are some thought starters to consider:
- Take a class or join a course on something unrelated to your career and current interests.
- Change the way you travel to and from work – swap the train for a bike, or leave the car and walk.
- Cook something new – there are plenty of ‘random recipe generators’ online you can use for inspiration.
- On the weekend, visit an area that you’ve never been to before – try going to your local train station and getting on the next train that leaves.
- Check out some live music in a genre you’ve never listened to before.
- Volunteer at an animal shelter or homeless centre.
- Go shopping with a friend and let them pick your clothes.
- Try a water sport you haven’t done before – kayaking, paddle boarding, windsurfing.
- Join a book club so your mind is expanded not just by new literature, but by other’s perceptions of it too.
- Go out for dinner and let someone else pick the restaurant and order for you.
- Abdullahi AM, Orji R, Rabiu AM, Kawu AA. Personality and Subjective Well-Being: Towards Personalized Persuasive Interventions for Health and Well-Being. Online J Public Health Inform. 2020;12(1):e1. Published 2020 May 16. doi:10.5210/ojphi.v12i1.10335
- Chen LS. Subjective well-being: evidence from the different personality traits of online game teenager players. Cyberpsychol Behav. 2008;11(5):579-581. doi:10.1089/cpb.2007.0192
- Zhan L, Guo D, Chen G, Yang J. Effects of Repetition Learning on Associative Recognition Over Time: Role of the Hippocampus and Prefrontal Cortex. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:277. Published 2018 Jul 11. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00277
- Patterson JS. Increased student self-confidence in clinical reasoning skills associated with case-based learning (CBL). J Vet Med Educ. 2006;33(3):426-431. doi:10.3138/jvme.33.3.426
- Antinori, Anna & Carter, Olivia & Smillie, Luke. (2017). Seeing It Both Ways: Openness to Experience and Binocular Rivalry Suppression. Journal of Research in Personality. 68. 10.1016/j.jrp.2017.03.005.
- Puderbaugh M, Emmady PD. Neuroplasticity. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; May 8, 2022.
- Morell P, Quarles RH. The Myelin Sheath. In: Siegel GJ, Agranoff BW, Albers RW, et al., editors. Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. 6th edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott-Raven; 1999. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK27954/
- Long P, Corfas G. Neuroscience. To learn is to myelinate. Science. 2014;346(6207):298-299. doi:10.1126/science.1261127
- Overman MJ, Sarrazin V, Browning M, O'Shea J. Stimulating human prefrontal cortex increases reward learning. Neuroimage. 2023;271:120029. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2023.120029
- Arnsten A, Mazure CM, Sinha R. This is your brain in meltdown. Sci Am. 2012;306(4):48-53. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0412-48