Ideas

Reflections on Openness to Experience

Shawn Powrie
Shawn Powrie
Reflections on Openness to Experience
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Musings on a star

There I was – in the middle of an open field at midnight on a summer’s evening, staring up at the stars in the sky and listening to trance music.

I looked up at one particular star, staring at it deeply and taking in its appearance as a tiny, blue/white dot in my visual field.

I reflected: In order for me to see this star, that means there must be a straight line of almost nothing – almost no matter, no objects – between my retina and the surface of star, which is possibly dozens if not hundreds of light-years away. There’s simply a very long, straight line of nothingness – the emptiness of space – going directly from my eye to the surface of that star, which is so far away that the human mind cannot truly feel, imagine nor comprehend the distance – and there’s nothing in-between that could obstruct the light travelling except for a tiny bit of Earth’s atmosphere – causing a slight shimmering appearance.

I reflected further: From the perspective of the photons emerging out of the nuclear reaction in that star, travelling at the speed of light, they experience no time traversal – so in the same instant they are both created in the heart of that star, and absorbed by my retina. Created and destroyed in the same instant, meeting their doom in the back of my eye the instant of their creation. Unbelievable. From their perspective there was no distance and no time, just instantaneous creation and absorption in two totally different places.

And even further: You know – the raw appearance of that star – the sensory image of a shimmering, tiny blue/white dot appearing there in my visual field, vaguely suspended or hovering somewhere within consciousness – is being generated by my brain’s visual cortex – (hallucinating the image of the star, if you will), and as such the image itself actually exists at no-distance from “me”. It is simply appearing within the mind, within the field of consciousness. And consciousness is just right here – fully present, at no distance. 

Hence, this star is simultaneously and paradoxically, both infinitely far away, and existing at no-distance from me. 

What is Openness to Experience?

Openness to Experience is a personality trait identified within the Five Factor Model (FFM). Whether you found the above description of the musings on a star intriguing, or instead perhaps tedious and overly complicated, may depend on your level of Openness to Experience (people high in Openness are probably more likely to engage with such musings).

According to formal definitions, people high in Openness to experience are described as being highly interested in novelty, art, literature, abstract thinking, philosophy as well as being sensitive to aesthetic emotions and beauty.

“People with exceptionally high levels of openness to experience are almost always characterized by others as extremely smart, creative, exploratory, intelligent and visionary. They are extremely interested in learning, and are constantly acquiring new abilities and skills. They are extremely curious and exploratory. They are exceptionally interested in abstract thinking, philosophy, and the meaning of belief systems and ideologies. They live for cultural events such as movies, concerts, dance recitals, plays, poetry readings, gallery openings and art shows. They are very likely to enjoy writing (or even to be driven to write). They enjoy complex, abstract ideas and deeply love to confront and solve complex, abstract and multi-dimensional problems.” (From Understand Myself)

In the tests that I’ve done, I score 90th+ percentile in Openness to Experience, meaning in a room of a hundred randomly selected people I’d be higher in Openness than 90 of them.

By way of personal reflection, this is how I think I experience this trait in my day to day life:

  1. Obsessive, unyielding fascination with ideas, abstract concepts, and philosophy – frankly to the point where it can be exhausting sometimes! 
  2. Spending so much time reading between the lines, that sometimes I miss the actual lines themselves. AKA often being so lost in thought, seeking out the connections between ideas so much that I can sometimes miss basic things.
  3. Often being uninterested in the surface details, quickly finding it more interesting to look instead for the heuristic, the “big picture”, the “insight”, the “deeper meaning”, the “larger interpretation”.
  4. Being really terrible at small talk (also related to my being low in enthusiasm – a sub-trait of extraversion). You want to discuss today’s weather? Nah, frankly a history of meteorology would be far more interesting than today’s weather!
  5. Often having a very sharp contrast in interest – I am either very interested in something, or completely indifferent towards it. I can be very dismissive or intentionally ignorant about things I don’t find interesting. 
  6. Being very uninterested in short-term fads or trends. Who cares about the latest fashion trends when we could be discussing the implications of the Agricultural revolution on our species – which has impacted every fine detail of our day to day lives for millennia?
    1. (That’s not to say someone high in openness couldn’t be interested in fashion trends! If they were they would definitely see the subject deeply. Many designers are quite high in Openness). 
  7. Having a hunger to write – to process and produce ideas – be it on my blog, or a book. Ideas must flow. 
  8. Having a hunger to discuss ideas with friends – talk deeply, be curious and fascinated. 
  9. Being driven to read – if I don’t read or process new ideas every day I feel tired, not fresh. 
  10. Distain towards appeals to authority. 
  11. And many more. 

Ideas are living water – refreshing the mind

There’s an ancient Chinese poem I’ve grown fond of. It’s name is 观书有感 Guān shū yǒu gǎn translated to “The Feeling of Reading”. The poem and my translation below: 

观书有感. 

半亩方塘一鉴开,
天光云影共徘徊.
问渠那得清如许,
为有源头活水来. 

Translation:

The Feeling of Reading

A large pool of water opens as a mirror,

Light, cloud, and shadow linger through the sky,

When asked: whence comes such clarity (of thought)?

One’s answered that living water flows from the source.

The author likens the mind to a large pool of clear water. It clearly reflects everything brought before it – like a mirror. Someone observing the pool asks “why is the mind so clear?” they’re answered “because living water flows from the source” – the source is books, implied by the name of the poem. The author is explaining that the fresh and new ideas that arrive through books into the mind keep its thinking clear and transparent. Reading makes our minds clear. 

For someone high in Openness like me – reading and engaging with ideas is like partaking of the living water mentioned by the poet. If I do not engage with ideas frequently my brain feels foggy and unclear – bogged down by minutiae or trivia. I have to engage with the big picture – often and a lot, and because I engage with big ideas often, my mind often feels very clear. 

On “being intellectual”

Openness to experience is highly correlated with intelligent and divergent thinking (reference). People high in Openness are considered “smart’. I am lucky in this regard. The world rapidly makes sense to me, and when it doesn’t my mind attacks it until it does. Insights with both predictive power and practical utility tend to appear. 

That’s not to say my worldview has always been polished or, frankly, even remotely accurate. But it means something to be high in this trait – the mind is highly curious, it stays curious until it understands. It’s not satisfied with an incomplete or inaccurate picture if a more powerful one might be possible. Nonetheless it can also tolerate and even embrace ambiguity, it can tolerate (or perhaps even seeks out) nuances and paradoxes. It can tolerate multiple versions of a story, multiple angles and viewpoints on a matter. It can understand viewpoints before or without accepting them. It understands when it’s still building the picture out. It doesn’t have to understand everything at once. Yet it feels compelled to get clear. 

People high in Openness are also highly imaginative – a skill & trait well worth nourishing. Is there some aspect of life that requires complex strategic thinking? – Openness will serve you well. We also tend to enjoy fantasy – things that aren’t real, speculation, counterfactuals, abstract thinking/philosophy etc. 

Thoughts on Novelty

A few years ago at a work meeting where we were getting to know each other we asked each other “where would you most like to travel?”. Everyone mentioned this or that country, for this or that reason. Then one person said “Mars”. For that person Earth was boring. You want to travel to Thailand? Well, going there you’ll see – hmmm let’s think – houses, roads, cars, grocery stores, hotels, rocks, birds, trees, people – I mean, they look slightly different, speak slightly differently and eat different food but – is it that much different? You get the idea. For the guy who said “Mars” he had his sights on higher levels of novelty and imagination. The question was boring for him. 

So follows my craving for novelty. I get bored with many things quickly. After working in a company for a few months I can extrapolate the next several years – is it really going to go anywhere I am interested in going? Imagination helped me answer my own question originating in my craving for novelty. 

I prefer to travel the landscape of ideas, rather than travel the world. It flows much faster and yields novelty much faster. 

The downsides of Openness

I believe Openness to Experience is a trait with many upsides. At least, on balance, I am grateful to be high in Openness (can’t take any credit for that!). But there are some downsides too.

Luckily for me, as I think about it, my other traits help me avoid some of the potential pitfalls of high Openness. For example, I am relatively low in Neuroticism and low in Agreeableness. People high in Openness can to be “geeky” or “nerdy” – if I were high in Agreeableness and/or high in Neuroticism, I might have cared more about what my high school peers thought of me – this loner, this weirdo sitting the library reading astronomy books. It’s probably good I am so disagreeable and stubborn – I never could quite care too much what others thought of me. 

Nonetheless, on the downside spectrum, here are a few that still come to mind: 

  1. Having a busy mind can be tiring. “The truth suffers from over-analysis”. Having a mind that is constantly active and building high-level connections can be a tough job. Sometimes I wish it could chill out a bit more. This is something I’ve learned to actively manage – firstly by giving the mind space to express itself (E.G by writing this article) and secondly giving it space for mundane but fun things (E.G rigorous exercise) tends to curb the downsides of this aspect. 
  2. My hunger for novelty can have downsides. Many “achievements” in life rely on consistent output for a long time. Being high in Openness means getting bored easily. The appeal of things fades. One’s imagination can extrapolate the rest of what it might be like to keep doing X for the next Y years. This can lead to boredom and inconsistency – which aren’t always useful should you be in the market to produce something “great” over a long time. Sometimes I have deconstructed and gotten bored with a personal goal or ambition before I’ve achieved it. 
  3. I often find it difficult for me to feel understood by others, and sometime find it hard to make close friends. Most people can connect easily via any number of commonalities. Perhaps connection can be rarer for someone high in Openness? It’s hard to find similar people who are very high in Openness, and then sometimes when I do I can find them exhausting too! (Try having a conversation with two people high in Openness who are interested in different things, or may lack other social skills like picking topics the other finds relevant). Nonetheless when connection does happen it can also be very precious and rewarding – because I often connect with others over big ideas – the things we enjoy most. To be fair I try not to let this get in the way too much – perhaps this downside of Openness affects younger people more. 

Conclusion

Finally, perhaps the most astounding thing I’ve learned in relation to Openness to Experience revolves around its potential to change in certain somewhat surprising situations. It’s been established that the Big 5 traits tend to remain more or less constant throughout one’s life, with only minor changes over time (for example we tend to become more agreeable as we age). But… 

Recent studies have found that the use of psychedelic drugs (in this case psilocybin therapy (reference)(interview)) result in “Openness scores … significantly increased following psilocybin”. This is remarkable. I guess Openness could be thought of as broad connectivity of neurons in the mind, the ability to see connections others don’t and identify novel connections between ideas. Psychedelic drugs disrupt existing networks of connections, resulting in the brain forging new and novel connections (hence why psychedelic users report gaining “insights” from their journeys). That a single psychedelic trip can result in a significant chance in Openness is mind-blowingly interesting information. (recommended book: Michael Pollan how to change your mind

Well, anyway because of being high in Openness, I am now bored of the process of writing this article and will now stop creating more text for you to read. Bye. 

Shawn 29-05-2021. 

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