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.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Book Review: Pour Me, AA Gill, 2015

Pour Me is short as memoirs go: just 241 pages. In part that's because, as Gill says early on in it, the alcoholism from which he suffered in his twenties meant that "there was no film in the camera" for those years, and that earlier memories were also dissolved: "childhood, school, holidays, friends ... all seemed to be faded and incomplete".

Incomplete, but not erased entirely: Pour Me does cover some of Gill's childhood, as well as the time between when he managed to stop drinking, aged 30, and when he wrote the book, 30 years later.

Stopping drinking saved Gill's life, and after "thousands of hours of learning the wrong thing" - art, cooking, gardening, bartending - he finally "failed into journalism", becoming one of the best-known food and TV critics in the country.

So I'll borrow a description of journalism that Gill says he liked - "journalism is what will be grasped at once" - and come to the point: Gill was a fantastic and endearing writer, and he had an interesting life. What more can you ask from a memoir?

He could be brilliant, as perhaps best demonstrated by the section on the speech he gave to a room full of dyslexic schoolchildren (he himself was dyslexic), telling them that the English language was theirs to manipulate no matter what their school might tell them about their abilities. This echoed two transformative elements in his own life: the moment when he came upon his English teacher literally tearing apart books to show them who was boss, and a crucifixion painting that particularly moved him with its depiction of human suffering, which was made in the period of the Lutheran reformation.

He was also enviably insightful - something he attributed to his artistic training ("It made me look, as opposed to merely see"). Consider for example this, from page 2: "I wonder what the rest of nature makes of a lawn? Arrogant, snobbish, entitled, needy, effortfully polite, sober." Or this, on famine (he wasn't just a critic), a subject that sadly is timely again: "It isn't staring into the face of starvation that thuds like a blow to your heart, it is having starvation stare back at you".

His turns of phrase were up there with the best of them, and he was funny, and he was empathetic, having experienced loneliness and sickness and desperation by the gallon.

I'm using the past tense, because Gill died in December 2016, a year or two after Pour Me was published. Could that be another reason why the book is so short? I'm not sure: it wasn't clear to me whether he'd received his diagnosis of terminal cancer before the book was finished.

I suspect not, because I suspect he'd have carried on writing it until the end if he'd known it was coming, just as he did with his articles, the last of which was about his experience of dying on the NHS. But then the book is so dense with insight and tales told only in snatches that it could easily have been four times the size, and the final paragraphs are filled with finality: "I misused a life for 30 years and I had 30 more of a second chance that I used better, though not as well as I might."

Perhaps those tales are told only in snatches here because they have already been told elsewhere - in Gill's journalism, a compendium of which is due to be published this year. I'll certainly be buying that too, so maybe I'll let you know.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

On experience

"“You want to make something real, you have to experience something, not just something you’ve read or you’ve listened to… something that is you.”"

Musician Pan Daijing as interviewed by Aurora Mitchell for The Quietus.

"It is no longer rare to meet adults who have never swum except in a swimming pool, never slept except in a building, never run a mile or climbed a mountain, never been stung by a bee or a wasp, never broken a bone or needed stitches. Without a visceral knowledge of what it is to be hurt and healed, exhausted and resolute, freezing and ecstatic, we lose our reference points. We are separated from the world by a layer of glass. Climate change, distant wars, the erosion of democracy, resurgent fascism – in our temperature-controlled enclosures, all can be reduced to abstractions."

George Monbiot in the Guardian