Principles of Efficient Thinking

Here is Joan Kennedy Taylor's review of the "Principles of Efficient Thinking" course for Laissez Faire Books.

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Those who know of Barbara Branden primarily as the author of the best-selling The Passion of Ayn Rand may not realize that she received a graduate philosophy degree from New York University (where she was one of Sidney Hook's prize pupils) and taught philosophy at Long Island University before she immersed herself in running the Nathaniel Branden Institute in the 1960s. This course on efficient thinking, originally given at NBI and re-recorded some years later, shows Branden's philosophical mind in action. It was — and still is — one of the highlights of what NBI offered.

This brilliantly original course doesn't just explicate and apply tenets of Objectivist theory (although there is reference to Objectivist formulations and some examples are drawn from Objectivist writings) but discusses how to understand your own thinking. It asks and answers questions such as: What should you expect of your mind? How can you identify your thinking errors and those of others? What mental practices lead to what sorts of errors? When you find errors in your thinking, how can you correct them?

"We are taught," says Barbara Branden, "to walk, to write, to read, to play baseball — but not to think." She deals both with epistemology — what is the standard of knowledge: the laws of logic, irreducible primaries, induction and deduction — and with "psycho-epistemology." That is, with how the mind functions to process knowledge, with such issues as the relation between conscious and subconscious, how knowledge is stored and under what circumstances it is retrieved, how inspiration works, the importance of focus, the dangers of confusing associational connections with reasoning, the necessity of formulating concepts in words. Above all, she deals with "cognitive self-sabotage," in the form both of mechanical errors and motivational errors, and how to reverse it. And she does this in a completely non-blaming way, that encourages the student to change.

In listening to these lectures again, I am struck with how many of these ideas I have made my own, in the process sometimes forgetting that Barbara Branden was the one who originally taught them to me. I have adopted terms like "floating abstractions," "front- and back-seat driving" and "cue words." I had forgotten that this was where I first heard of one of my favorite books, E. Hutchinson's How to Think Creatively. I often use the illustration of no longer wanting to fly once one realizes that flying by flapping one's arms is not possible, as a metaphor for the fact that if you know that something you want is in fact impossible, you will no longer want it; emotions are in fact rational and appropriate. One enormously helpful concept that I always did remember to credit her with is the idea of not Thinking in the Square — being willing to question the assumed boundaries of a problem to be solved. And there are so many more.

What a pleasure to have this treasure-trove available again! I envy those of you who will be hearing and applying it for the first time.

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You can purchase "Principles of Efficient Thinking" online from the Laissez Faire Books web site.

You may also return to the description of this course.