“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
The term cognition is a general category, not well understood. Cognition
refers to 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 is produced by movements in spacetime. We often use
metaphors of movement through spacetime in descriptions of events. Humans act on
the world through praxis or skilled movements.
The term, thought, is often used as a synonym to 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. Best cases tend to be overwhelmed
by an abundance of nonsense and conflicting points of view.
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, storytelling, 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.
Cognition involves many abilities that existed before language developed.
Cognition is rooted in a deep and innate understanding of how the world works.
Cognitive structures in the brain are built from raw materials such as
sensation, movement and emotion. 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 independent of language and proceed spontaneously in the
The best way to problem solve is to examine the problem closely, talk about,
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. Sometimes self talk is part of the problem-solving process but often
talking is not required.
The solution to a problem or a creative new idea arises from an unknowable
process, as a gift. I wait hours before I understand new information or can
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.
This book consists of a long series of spontaneously arising ideas that I
record. 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.
Meaningful conversation is a common method of “thinking”, but repeating
clichés, repetitive stories and case-making conversations are not recommended. I
heard Marvin Minsky, then 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, people who annoy and obstruct
smarter, more progressive humans who are interested in continuous learning and
To make sense of how humans operate, you have to look closely about how
individuals learn, how they depend on local groups for guidance and support and
how they organize cognitive structures. You have to understand the differences
among cognitive categories such as information, knowledge, facts, opinions and
beliefs. I have invented a series of metaphorical constructs that facilitate
understanding. The constructs can be verified by observation and experiment.
For example, I use bonding tokens and eigenstates to account for many dynamics
in close relationships. Another construct, cognitive boxes, makes sense when you
look closely at yourself and others around you is that each person acquires
cognitive containers that permit learning but also limit what is learned and
understood. Intelligence is an important variable in determining the size and
variety of cognitive boxes. Some smart people acquire a lot of knowledge and
skills, learned and practiced at different times and in different places. They
can move easily from one cognitive container to another. Others have a limited
number of containers and have difficulty moving from one to another. You can
play with the idea of cognitive boxes and develop a better understanding of
yourself and others. Religious affiliations and beliefs, for example, are
collected in a cognitive container that resists change. Inside a religious
container you are consumed by the specific language and beliefs of the religion,
its symbols, assumptions and claims. Inside the religion container, you have
costumes, rituals and celebrations that can be enjoyable and reassuring. If you
zoom down to individuals who belong to local groups, you see them competing with
each other, arguing, and failing to reach agreements on important issues. The
big divisions are well known and big disagreements are stable over centuries.
The smaller disagreements are in flux; some subside, others proliferate. There
are infinite possibilities for arguments and finite possibilities for consensus.