Thinking

2 01 2012

The following is an essay I slammed together after reading The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz. The reason for posting it here is to (hopefully) lay a foundation for future discussions of what is wrong with civil discourse in the US. Please bear in mind that any errors in the text are mine, not those of Dr. Schwartz.

All humans think. We are all, with the exception of the rare individuals with congenital brain disorders, equipped by millions of years of evolution with the ability to think coherently and rationally. This ability to think consciously is the major difference between the way humans think and the way every other animal on Earth thinks.

Many non-human animals can think. Squirrels can figure out how to get to the seeds in the bird feeder despite what humans do to make it difficult, for example. Cats and dogs develop a series of signals, both vocal and body language, to communicate their desires to each other and to humans. These are all signs of thinking. How is human thought different from that of non-human animals?

For one thing, humans are consciously aware of their thinking. This could be a disadvantage, from an evolutionary standpoint. If a Paleolithic human hunter-gatherers were constantly getting distracted by ideas and random thoughts, the species would have quickly vanished- from starvation or by getting devoured by the undistracted wildlife. Most humans have learned to ignore the storm of ideas and random thoughts that occur during every waking moment, and have trained themselves to focus their concentration on thoughts and ideas related to the current situation. This ability to concentrate thought when necessary became a major survival tool for our distant ancestors, as did the ability to allow the unfocused mind to offer new ideas. Concentrating attention and brainpower on the immediate threat/problem and the ability to develop oblique or non-linear solutions when necessary are the cornerstones of the human thought process. They are what make human thought so qualitatively different from that of non-human animals.

The brain of the non-human animal is designed to think in terms of sense-imagery. When the animal is hungry, it thinks about food. When the animal is cold, it thinks about getting warm. When the animal is hurt, it thinks about stopping the pain. Non-human animal thinking seems to stop there, however. Non-human animals seldom- if ever- display the ability to think about thinking about sense-imagery. Food is food is food. If there is no food readily available, the animal must seek it out when it gets hungry. When it gets cold, the animal seeks a place where it can be warm.

Only humans seem to be able to think about food (and other things) as a general class of items. Apples are food and fish are food and corn is food … to a non-human animal. To humans, all of these items come under a general category of things to eat. Water can be drunk, as can milk, beer, juice, etc. These are all grouped into a category of things to drink. These general categories can be combined and mixed ad infinitum. Apples and strawberries both belong in the general category of things to eat, and also in the general category of things that are red. The ability to make these generalizations also spawns a whole series of other generalizations: things that are not.

This thing is red. It belongs to a general class of things that are red. That thing is not red. It does not belong in the category of things that are red, it belongs in a larger category of things that are not red. That thing is a bicycle. It belongs in a general category of things to ride upon, and things that have wheels, and things that are man-made. It also belongs to the categories of things that are not wood, things that are not good to eat, things that are not flammable. This endless categorization seems simplistic, because it is so basic to our thought processes. It is basic, however … so basic that we often aren’t aware of the process while it is going on.

The best teacher is a poor student. A poor student requires the teacher to break down the concepts to be learned into more and more basic concepts. Eventually, the poor student forces the instructor to reach the most basic categories in order to give the poor student the underlying facts upon which the lesson is based. This process rarely goes very far into the basics with human students, because most human students are already aware (perhaps not consciously aware, but aware at some level) of the basic categories of most common items.

This awareness of basic facts is the biggest hurdle for the researchers trying to develop artificial intelligence. One group of computer scientists in Texas have spent more than a decade teaching their artificial intelligence project computer the most basic facts. Water is wet. Rocks are hard. Rocks are not edible. Fire is hot. Computers do not know these things. Almost any two-year- old human child knows these things, almost unconsciously. But it has taken more than ten years to try to teach a computer these facts, and the computer still can’t make the obvious inferences which pre-adolescent humans make from those facts without conscious thought.

Memory plays a role in animal thought as well. Many animals have prodigious memories. That old saw about elephants never forgetting has recently been demonstrated by experiment to be based in fact. Without memory, it would be difficult or impossible to train animals, and many animals would die because they couldn’t recognize a dangerous item or situation when they encountered it again.

Evolution has equipped most animals (almost all of the vertebrates have effective memory centers) with brains capable of storing and recovering sensory data. The animals without this ability doubtless kept encountering dangerous animals or situations without remembering the threats, and so eventually died out. Nature favored animals with effective memory centers. A larger, stronger rival may injure an animal trying to mate. When the animal tries again, it will remember that a larger animal is dangerous, and will not risk a confrontation with a larger rival; or perhaps will break off the confrontation soon enough to avoid injury. This ability to learn from remembered experience is common to both human and non-human animals.

A talent unique to humans is the ability to equate dissimilar experiences to entirely new situations. A non-human animal might not recognize a trap because it does not look, sound, or smell like previous traps. Only humans seem to be able to make the connection between previous experience and novel situations. Scientists and other researchers have yet to learn why humans can think this way, but paleoanthropolgists postulate that this talent might have given our ancestors an evolutionary edge over animals without the ability. Recognizing similarities to previous experience in a new situation allows humans to use the memory of the previous situation to help resolve the new one. That ability undoubtedly saved many lives as humans were evolving. Humans with more of this ability would survive more often than humans with less, and would pass on the genetic differences that granted this ability more often.

Another difference between human and non-human animal thought comes from the ability to recognize and translate symbols. Rock paintings are the earliest examples we have of human use of symbols. A mountain lion would not recognize the scratches on a rock face as an antelope, but almost any human instantly identifies those same scratches for what they represent:  a Paleolithic artist’s conception of an antelope. Symbols such as rock paintings or writing are simply areas of light or darkness to a non-human animal. Some animals might recognize that there was a pattern to the light or dark areas, but the meaning of the patterns (or even the existence of a meaning to the patterns) would not be understood.

Some researchers have managed to teach apes to recognize symbols, and work is underway to teach dolphins, dogs, and other mammals to recognize certain symbols. Several chimpanzees can recognize drawings as having a relationship to word-sounds. This monumental achievement is the result of decades of hard work, similar to the intensive effort to teach basic facts to a computer in Texas. Human children begin recognizing symbols as young as one year of age, and many learn to read by the time they are three or four years old- something no non-human animal of any age has yet accomplished.

Human use of symbols (language, writing, art, mathematics, etc.) is another cornerstone of the human thinking process.  Language came first. Many non-human animals have a language of sorts. Basic concepts such as warnings, mating calls, etc., are used by many species. Few of these ‘languages’ are capable of transmitting more than the most basic of messages, however. Human language is capable of communicating detailed information. Where an antelope might give a warning call meaning “danger”, a human could give a call of the same duration that might mean, “there’s a lion in the bushes to your left!” referring to the same threat.

The density and complexity of information transmission is another reason humans think so differently from non-human animals. Humans can be warned to react differently to different threats. Climbing a tree might protect you from a stampeding Aurochs, but would only get you killed if you tried it to get away from a leopard. A non-human animal would only get a danger message, where a human could get the danger message, as well as specific information for the specific threat.

This adaptability is another evolutionary advantage. Language-using human groups (language is a group activity) would survive more often than non-language-using ones. Groups capable of sharing complex information would tend to survive more than those only capable of simpler messages. Groups incapable of adapting their language to changing circumstances would suffer more deaths and injuries more often than groups capable of adapting quickly. Language became an evolutionary advantage for groups and societies, where it was not necessarily so for individuals.

The concept of using symbols to represent sounds or ideas is uniquely human, and is the basic building block of modern civilization. Humanity’s long journey to the current level of achievement is divided roughly into two areas: history, and pre-history. This can be better described as the time before record keeping and the time after record keeping. Once humans learned to record what they knew and learned, it became easier for the children and grandchildren to learn the same things. It became easier to avoid making the same mistakes generation after generation, and more and more humans would survive because of this. Writing became the shared memory of humanity in effect, if not in fact. This shared memory made simpler the process of building on the works of those who had gone before.

Pattern-recognition and symbol use are also uniquely human abilities. A large portion of the human brain is dedicated to recognizing patterns, such as the facial features of friends and family. This ability is innate; all undamaged human brains are capable of this. Training can increase the brain’s ability to accomplish this task, but the ability is encoded into the genetic makeup of all humans.

That brings us to modern man. In industrial societies, the evolutionary risks are significantly reduced, so most urban humans aren’t required to use these life-saving mental abilities much. This is not to say that modern life does not have dangers, but the chances of being devoured by a leopard or trampled by a herd of buffalo are pretty much non-existent. Many of the thinking processes used for basic survival by our cave man ancestors can be adapted to the dangers of modern life, but the evolutionary pressure to think consciously and creatively is dramatically reduced.

Thinking is like any other function of the body. Without frequent use, the mental “muscles” get flabby. Early training plays a role as well. If the young humans do not learn how to learn, the part of the brain that controls learning does not work as efficiently as it should. Learning becomes difficult, which in turn means that particular “mental muscle” gets even less use. Unless the individual makes concentrated efforts at exercising this ability, the vicious circle continues and the individual will always have trouble learning. Since thinking coherently and creatively is “hard work” for this type of person, their mental processes get less and less exercise. After all, modern civilization makes it possible for such a person to live to a ripe old age (by historical standards) without having to flex his or her mental muscles much. Many people can (and frequently do) ask themselves, “Why bother?”

Reading, which is an excellent way to fine-tune the brain’s symbol-recognizing skills, is also a fundamental building block of modern civilization. The acts of reading and writing (both of which involve symbol recognition) help stimulate the left hemisphere of the brain, which researchers associate with rational thought, logic, mathematics, and science. However, reading is losing favor as a pastime among many people in the United States. Children in particular are reading less in this country, to the point of possible deleterious effects on the learning centers. Furthermore, reading the works of others helps the reader learn proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. Readers are often learning while they read, which in turn helps develop the brain’s ability to learn.

This widespread disinterest in learning and the steadfast refusal by many people in industrial countries to exercise their brains continues because there are few penalties exacted for these actions. During the evolution of our species, an individual’s refusal to learn frequently meant that individual was more likely to be killed. Modern life has removed many of those hazards. The most common hazards in industrial societies are social, not physical. People in industrial nations are rarely forced to think clearly or die.

Even the few actively dangerous tasks common to most people in industrialized countries (such as driving) often fail to force people to engage their mental muscles. Driving is dangerous, even in a well-policed and relatively civilized country like the United States. Drivers should actively concentrate their mental energies on the dangerous tasks involved in driving a car. All too often, however, drivers essentially “shut off” their concentration while attempting the dangerous task of driving to and from work. Many people arrive at work or at home and have no memory of the intervening road trip. The fact that they survived the trip in such a semi-conscious state is a tribute to the skills of the drivers around them, trained reflexes, and blind luck. If our Paleolithic ancestors had tried this suicidal trick while hunting cave bears, it might have been humans and not cave bears that became extinct.

Modern humans rarely need to think creatively or critically. Technological and social progress over the last twenty millennia have permitted many humans to survive being utter fools. The end result is a profusion of fuzzy thinking, a decline in interest in learning, and a general distrust of intellectual pursuits such as reading. Poor thinking skills are rarely considered social liabilities. In fact, creative or critical thinking themselves are often considered social liabilities. People who question common wisdom, display curiosity about the world around them, or even appear to be smarter than their friends and neighbors are frequently dismissed as “nerds”, “geeks”, or “bookworms”- all of which have negative social connotations.

This disinterest in learning and thinking is all the more surprising because everyone thinks critically every day. The process is so nearly automatic that many people do not recognize it as such. This thinking process is by nature a personal one. Different people will make different choices, depending on personal inclination and background. There is a commonality to the process that bears examining, however. The thought process is normally either automatic or nearly so. The person doing the thinking is often unaware of the sequence of thoughts and memories that make up the decisions in everyday life.

For example, on approaching several co-workers at the water cooler at work and hearing them gossiping about the boss, some people would identify the hazards (the gossip might get back to the boss, the boss might see a group chatting around the water cooler and get upset, etc), asses the dangers of the situation (if the boss hears the gossip, he might/might not get angry. If the boss gets angry, he might/might not take the anger out on the gossipers, etc), decide not to get involved due to the risk of repercussions, and make haste to get a drink and get away from the water cooler to avoid being dragged into a no-win situation. Other people might decide that the fun of talking down the boss is worth the risks and stay to gossip, while still others might completely ignore the potential hazards due to a misunderstanding of the situation.

The people in the example are all thinking about the situation. Their decisions (to gossip or not) are based on a nearly unconscious assessment of the situation and its potential hazards. It is the fact that the person making the decision is not consciously aware of the decision-making process that contributes most to the negative connotations associated with intellectual pursuits. Even when people are shown the facts about everyday use of critical thinking, the most common response is to downplay the significance of the act. This suspicion of the thinking process is one of the primary reasons that many people do not think well when they do think.

At birth, the vast majority of humans are equipped with the requisite mental capacity for creative and coherent thought. Their family and school life (along with social pressures from peers) will serve to amplify or reduce these native abilities during their formative years, which often have profound effects on later life. Some people are equipped by temperament or background to break themselves free of the template of their early learning experiences, but most lack the will to make such profound efforts to effect change in their mental life. Those whose home life and school life served to amplify their learning and thinking abilities often find themselves cut off from the bulk of humanity by their mental abilities, because people who lack the inclination to think well frequently resent those who do think clearly and creatively. Attempts to bridge the gap often fail due to frustration by both groups.

Thinking creatively and critically is the birthright of every human. The ability to think consciously, to focus concentration on thoughts or ideas is a skill which must be learned and constantly practiced to be effective. Allowing the mental “muscles” to atrophy is a fool’s easy way out. The ability to think clearly and creatively has been a survival trait throughout the evolution of humanity. This has not changed with the advent of advanced technology and specialization. Even in the technological wonderland in which we live, humans are at risk of someday living or dying solely on the ability to make the right decisions.

Current status: Concerned

Current music: Fields of Fire by Big Country

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2 responses

21 02 2012
jrtuck

“This widespread disinterest in learning and the steadfast refusal by many people in industrial countries to exercise their brains continues because there are few penalties exacted for these actions.”

So true, and this condition is exacerbated by the growth of the welfare state which buffers people from the consequences of their own bad decisions.

In fact the welfare state actually reinforces negative learning and forced dependency. Taken to its extreme it becomes North Korea, a society so rigid and inflexible, so lacking in creativity, that you wonder what will happen, when the prison doors are open. Few people realize that prior to 1950, North Korea had all the wealth and industy. South Korea was an agricultural backwater. Today South Korea is a wealthy industrial powerhouse, and North Korea is starving to death. Go figure.

21 02 2012
archvillain

jrtuck– In my opinion, you could probably stand to add the words, “taken to extremes” at the start of your last paragraph. When used as a method of vote-buying, or for any reason other than helping prevent unnecessary hardship for those who are unable to care for their families, welfare can end up stifling initiative. Welfare in and of itself is little more than a public expression of belief that no one should go hungry in the land of plenty. If welfare is the difference between starvation and just getting by, then I believe it to be worth the economic and societal expense. Taken to its extremes, as you noted, you end up with the equivalent of the Roman mob of the late Imperial period. North Korea, in my opinion, is less an example of a welfare state than a textbook example of a bad idea taken to its most illogical extreme.

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