Human Brain & Mind
  • Thinking ?

    “Here is Edward Bear coming downstairs now, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels there really is another way, if he only could stop and think of it.” A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin

    Humans are proud of their ability to think but seldom know what thinking is. The term “thinking” is used casually both in common speech, and in scientific discourse, but it remains a fuzzy word that is difficult to explain. Thinking is rooted in a deep and innate understanding of how the world works, and thought structures are built from raw materials such as movement and language. Selftalk is the only conscious mode of thinking and is so implicit in consciousness that “thinkers” fail to identify selftalk as their primary mode of thinking. Thinking is therefore story telling, a form of argument. If you want thinking to mean something else such as processing information, solving problems, making decisions or creating new ideas, then thinking is not a voluntary process that occurs in consciousness.

    The term cognition is a not well understood. An even more confused and confusing term is thinking. Many commentators cannot separate thinking and cognition. Cognition really refers to all the processes that allow humans to know what is going on out there and how to respond. You can begin to understand cognition by examining how humans find food, eat and move in a coherent spacetime frame. The brain is a matrix of meaningful connections between the body inside and the environment outside. Humans have an innate sense of spacetime. Maps of spacetime can be found in the cerebral cortex. Sensory information flows into these spacetime maps and motor output flows out. Our speech grows from movements in spacetime and communications with sounds. We often use metaphors of movement in descriptions of everything that happens. Humans act on the world through praxis or skilled movements.

    The terms, thinking and thought, are often used as a synonym for cognition but this is incorrect. A giant leap in understanding cognition is realizing that talking is thinking. We talk to each other and talk to ourselves. Thinking is selftalk, listening to others, speaking with others, reading and writing. Speakers and listeners form thinking groups and in the best case arrive at a common understanding of what is going on out there.

    As children play, problem solve, learn new skills they will often talk to themselves much like a voice-over monologue in a documentary movie. The child’s narrative will reveal how their cognitive processes are developed. An insightful adult will learn much by quietly listening and sometimes can add some direction or advice, without inhibiting the child’s selftalk. As children mature, their spoken private monologues become silent continuing in the privacy of their mind as selftalk. Laura Berk studied the private talk of children and suggested:” As a child gains mastery over his or her behavior, private speech need not occur in a fully expanded from; the self after all is an understanding listener. Children omit words and phrases that refer to things they already know. They state only those aspects that seem puzzling. Once their cognitive operations become well practiced, children start to “think words” rather than saying them. Gradually private speech becomes internalized as silent inner speech.”

    Deep cognitive processes are about recognizing the relationships among events, making decisions, sequencing in spacetime, and problem solving. Nonverbal thinking is revealed in tool making, tool use, mimetic behavior, actions and simulations. Gestures, drawings, models and constructions are all examples of “thought processes” that are independent of language and proceed spontaneously in the brain.

    The best way to problem solve is to examine the problem closely, talk about it, read about it, write about it, draw pictures and diagrams, make models and then wait. Each human has a built in query system and a problem-solver that operates in its own way, on its own schedule and delivers solutions to consciousness when it is ready. The solution to a problem or a creative new idea arises from an unknowable process, as a gift. Sometimes I wait many hours or even days before I understand new information or solve a problem. Big problems may take weeks or months to solve. New insights and paradigm shifts may occur after many years of struggling with wrong notions.

    My books consists of a long series of spontaneously arising ideas that I record soon after they pop up in my conscious mind.. Sometimes, a new idea makes old ideas obsolete and I have to change an entire text to accommodate the new understanding. The process of writing requires selftalk rehearsal and constant revision that is more or less spontaneous and evolutionary. Input from a large number of other humans is, of course, essential to good understanding of complex issues.

    Meaningful conversation is a common method of “thinking”, but repeating clichés, stories and case-making conversations are not recommended. I heard Marvin Minsky, the guru of artificial intelligence at MIT, claim at a digital arts conference many years ago, that he hated to repeat himself. Subsequently, I heard him repeat this idea at least twice. My guess is that Minsky made this claim numerous times over several decades.

    Life is a repetitive affair and most humans copy and repeat what they and others say and do with little or no modification over a lifetime. Minsky’s aversion was to humans who repeat themselves mindlessly and tediously and who annoy or obstruct smarter, more progressive humans who are interested in continuous learning and evolving understanding.

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      Stephen Gislason MD is the author of the Human Brain. 2018 edition. 238 Pages.

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