What The CIA Taught Me About Mental Health

05/05/2017 13:39 BST | Updated 05/05/2017 13:39 BST

I have an enquiring mind.

Being curious isn't unique to me though. Pretty much anyone and everyone does it to some degree. From the mundane, "What's on telly tonight?" to the profound and profane, asking questions is part of who we are. It is one of our strengths.

If we hadn't learnt to question our environment, thoughts, feelings and behaviour, we may have stayed in the cave. But an enquiring mind is also a weakness. Ignorance can be bliss; asking questions can lead to uncomfortable, unwanted and sometimes unfathomable answers:

  • Is that a tiger in the bushes?
  • Don't you love me any more?
  • What is the meaning of life?

The other thing about questions is that we're rarely taught how to ask a good one. I know I wasn't. Unless of course you're a salesperson, journalist or interrogator.

They know the art and value of asking a good question. The rest of us are left to our own devices, and we may end up suffering for it.

Asking a poorly framed question can lead to misunderstandings, dead-ends, false conclusions, confusion, offence and who knows, maybe even war. Asking a well-crafted question can lead to the opposite.

Trouble is, it can be hard to ask a good question, which is where the CIA comes in.

Intelligence analysts know how to ask a good question too. Analysts like Philip Mudd. He wrote a book called, The HEAD Game: High Efficiency Analytic Decision-making.

Not the sexiest of titles perhaps, but hear me out.

In spite of his surname, he writes succinctly and with exceptional clarity. He also worked on some of the most important intelligence analyses of the last few decades. Ones we all read about in the papers. The hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq for instance.

I wasn't expecting to read anything in his book that would relate to mental health either, and in truth I didn't - not literally - but whilst reading I realised that what he was saying was directly applicable to mental health.

How so?

Excellent question!

Like many of our daily thoughts, his analytic process also starts off with a question, but not any old question.

You can't just run with the first thing that pops into your head. You have to write it down, get it out of your system, and then interrogate it. Brutally. Checking for bias, lack of context and intent.

We all suffer from cognitive bias to some degree, and yes, thinking you don't is a bias. In other words, your question might be framed in such a way that invites a particular answer, whether that answer is valid or not.

When will you reply?

Even this short question assumes all sorts of things. I may never have heard you. I may not have understood you. I may not be able to reply.

Changing it to include more context might avoid some of those assumptions and lead to ideas about the answer. For instance, "I wonder why Lee hasn't replied to my text message yet?"

Removing bias and adding in more contextual detail gives you greater clarity and more options to consider. We fall into dangerous mental traps when we ask questions with little context because they nudge us toward a blunt or narrow range of answers.

Consequently, we may dive down a rabbit hole and draw false conclusions and negative judgments.

When it comes to the intent behind your question, there are two categories: prediction and evolution.

When will he reply?

Today, tomorrow, never.

Will we win the war?

Who can say for sure.

That's prediction for you. But how accurate your prediction can be depends on the number of variables. More variables mean less accuracy.

In which case, you need to word your question in such a way that will allow you to understand how a situation - your feelings, thoughts and behaviour - is evolving, what the possible outcomes could be and the likelihood of each.

It's not that evolving questions are better than prediction. Neither is automatically better than the other, they just come with various risks and consequences.

Having greater awareness of the bias, context and intent behind a question might help us better understand the nature of why we feel, think and behave the way we do, and therefore help us better decide what to do next.

The philosopher, Alan Watts, made a similar point to Mudd.

With Watts, it too was a case of reframing the question. Instead of asking, "What is the meaning of life?", ask yourself, "What would a meaningful life look like for me?"

In what pursuits will you find meaning and value?

That question can probably be answered much more readily than the meaning of life.