Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Thinking about thinking

How do we think?

I'm not sure we really know yet. Certainly the amount of cognitive neuroscience that's still being funded suggests there's a lot left to discover. But we can say a few things at least...

Thinking isn't simple. For one thing, there are different kinds of thinking: consider the different sensations of catching something mid-flight, which requires a complex calculation but very little conscious effort, and trying to decide the best course of action in a complicated situation, which feels very labour-intensive. It's the latter kind of thinking or reasoning I'm going to focus on here.

Here's how reasoning feels to me:
  • First some subconscious part of my brain seems to inform my consciousness that there's a problem to be solved. 
  • Then I feel I somehow consciously generate a will to somehow apply reasoning, which then feels like it either works well or doesn't. 
  • When it seems to work well, I get a sensation like the problem is an amorphous blob, which I can probe with different ideas or tools, which themselves might also be half-formed, slippery things.
  • Some of these ideas seem to bounce off the problem without making an impression, whereas others seem to penetrate and reshape it, ideally making it feel smaller and simpler and closer to being solved, but sometimes making it seem bigger and more complicated. 
  • Eventually either the problem shrinks to the point that it appears to be sufficiently solved, or I decide to stop consciously applying my reasoning to it for the time being.
  • If I do decide to stop consciously reasoning, I do so knowing that my brain might make progress on the problem nevertheless, and reveal that progress to me at some unexpected moment, like when I'm in the shower or wiping my arse (another example of how thinking isn't simple).
But is that just me? Are there other ways of interpreting what thinking feels like, and even different ways of thinking? And - perhaps most importantly - can we improve our thinking by learning different processes or increasing the effectiveness of our ideas / tools or some other aspect?

Let's take a look at what some other people have said on the subject.

In How We Think, John Dewey says: "To many persons trees are just trees [...] with perhaps recognition of one or two kinds [....] Such vagueness tends to persist and to become a barrier to the advance of thinking. Terms that are miscellaneous in scope are clumsy tools at best [...]"

This suggests that terms - or words - might be important for thinking. Indeed, in Bright Earth, Philip Ball writes that some people have suggested the ancient Greeks had poor colour awareness because their language lacked basic colour words.

But words were lacking from my own bullet-point walk-through above. And in The Photographer's Playbook, Nathan Lyons quotes Jacques Hadamard's The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, in which Hadamard says: "Words are totally absent from my mind when I really think". Lyons also quotes Hadamard quoting Einstein making a similar point: "The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought."

Does this rule out improving one's vocabulary as a means of improving one's ability to think, contra Dewey? Humans' intelligence and our linguistic abilities are often considered to be some of our most defining characteristics; can it really be that they're so separate?

Well, Ball goes on to say that "There is no reason to suppose that our ability to distinguish colours is limited by the structure of our colour vocabulary. [For example:] We can tell apart hues to which we cannot ascribe names."

Surely what we can discern, we can also bring to bear mentally?

And Hadamard's quotation of Einstein continues:

"The entities [that] seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined. [...] Words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage".

Here we have four terms - "entities", "elements in thought", "certain signs" and "more or less clear images" - that are used interchangeably, and which all, I suggest, refer to one thing: the ideas or tools I myself referred to earlier.

Combining Einstein and Ball, it seems there are elements in thought (ideas), which don't necessarily need to be named in order for us to use them.

However, if it is possible to improve one's thinking by increasing the number, variety or effectiveness of the ideas or concepts at one's disposal, we do need some means of finding new concepts. And while concepts might not have to be named to exist, anything that is named must surely exist, even if only in theory.

So even if words aren't themselves a part of thought, it does seem that increasing one's repertoire of named concepts - that is, one's vocabulary - might be a way of improving one's ability to think.

Where can we find new words? A dictionary would work, but wouldn't be very efficient: many words in it would already be known to us, or be merely (or mostly) synonyms of words we already know.

Whereas the Free Word Centre in London tweets a "word of the day", which the staff appear (justifiably, I think) to hope will be a word most people won't yet know. Some recent examples are:
  • Meliorism: the belief that the world can be made better by human effort
  • Meraki: to do something with soul; to put something of yourself into your work
  • Geborgenheit: the feeling of safety that comes from being with loved ones
So if on some occasion I find myself, say, struggling with my sense of self-worth, knowing these words I might reason that the best course of action is to:
  • Remind myself that perhaps the world can be made better by human effort;
  • Propose that this effort might be more rewarding if I put something of myself into it;
  • And grant myself the feelgood reward of seeing friends or family after my effort is complete.
Might I have been able to reason thus without knowing the three words? Sure. But without knowing the three concepts, or having at least a vague sense of similar alternatives? I think not.

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