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thinking about thinking

The United States of Mind

Each cell has its own agenda.

Each cell has its own agenda.

We didn’t really understand the human heart until the mid 17th century, when engineers developed vacuum pumps to move water out of mines. Anatomists realized that such pumps provided an excellent analogy for what the heart does and how it does it. As technology advanced, we used it to learn about our own biology.

In the 20th century, with the advent of the digital computer, we humans reached a similar conclusion-by-analogy: computers show us how our brains work. In the computer, we see elementary logic, various switches flipping on and off, and memory cells that hold information in its most elemental form – binary digits. Perhaps our brains work the same way.

The brain-as-computer analogy has never been perfect, however. The computer, for instance, has a central processing unit (CPU) that manages pretty much everything. The brain doesn’t appear to have an analogous organ. Rather, human thinking seems to be diffuse and decentralized. Indeed, much of our thinking seems to occur outside our brain; the mind is, apparently, much bigger than the brain. Similarly, we can precisely locate a “memory” in a computer. No such luck with a human brain. Memories are elusive and difficult to pinpoint.

Further, the brain is plastic in ways that computers are not. For instance, a good chunk of our brainpower is given over to visual processing. If I go blind, however, my brain can redeploy that processing power to other tasks. The brain can analyze its own limitations and change its functions in ways that computers can’t.

Given the shortcomings of the brain-as-computer analogy, perhaps it’s time to propose a new analogy. Having absorbed a healthy dose of Daniel Dennett (see here and here), I’d like to propose a simple alternative: the brain functions much like the United Sates of America.

That may sound bizarre but let’s go through the reasoning. First, Dennett points out that brain cells, as living organisms, can have their own agendas in ways that silicon cannot. Yes, brain cells may switch on and off as electricity pulses through them, but they could conceivably do other things as well. Perhaps they can plot and plan. Perhaps they can cooperate – or collude, depending on how you look at it. Perhaps they can aim to do things that are in their best interests, as opposed to the interests of the overall organism.

Second, Dennet notes that all biological creatures descended from single-celled organisms. Once upon a time, single-cell organisms were free to do as they pleased. Some chose to associate with similar organisms to form multi-celled organisms. In doing so, cells started to specialize and create communities with much greater potential. However, they also gave up some of their primordial freedom. They worked not just for themselves but also for the organism as a whole. Perhaps our cells have some “memory” of that primordial freedom and some desire to return to it. Perhaps some of our cells just want to go feral.

And how is this like the United States? The original colonies were free to do as they pleased. When they joined together, they gave up some freedom and created a community with much greater potential. We assume that each state works for the good of the union. But each state also has strong incentives to work for its own good, even if doing so undermines the union. Similarly, each state has a “memory” of its primordial freedom and an inchoate desire to return there. Indeed, states’ rights are jealously guarded.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that we have a microscope as big as the solar system. When we examine the United States, we see 50 cells. Each cell seems to be similar in function and process. We might assume that they always function for the good of the whole. But when we look closer, we see that each cell has its own agenda. Some cells (Texas?) may want to go feral to recapture their primordial freedom. Other cells are jockeying for position and advantage. Some are forming alliances and coalitions with like-minded cells to accomplish their aims. Red cells seem to have different values and processes than blue cells.

Could our brains really be as chaotic as the good old USA? It’s possible. If nothing else, such an analogy frees up our thinking. We’re no longer in a silicon straitjacket. We recognize the possibility that living cells may have complex agendas. We start to see possibilities that we were previously blind to. I would write more but I suspect that some of my neurons have just gone feral.

Thinking About Thinking

Thinking about my thinking.

Thinking about my thinking.

Let’s say your sweetie is feeling anxious or stressed or blue or just plain cranky. Would you help her?

Of course, you would. You might start by asking simple, straightforward questions, like: What’s going on? Why are you feeling down? How can I help? Simple, direct questions are effective because they’re thought provoking. They can cover a lot of mental territory. Ambiguous questions help as well. They allow your sweetie to frame her response based on her needs, not yours.

Now, let’s change the frame. If you were feeling anxious or stressed or blue or just plain cranky, would you ask yourself the same questions? I’ve asked this of many people and the most common response seems to be: I don’t think I would think of doing that.

The trick here seems to be the ability to convert a monologue into a dialogue. We all have a little narrator in our heads who comments on what’s going on around us. I call mine the play-by-play announcer because he (she? it?) serves the same function as a sports announcer – narrating the action.

When I watch a sporting event on TV, I just want the narrator to explain what’s going on and why. I want the same of my internal narrator. I don’t normally question the sports narrator; I just go with the flow. I do the same with my internal narrator.

The narrator – whether sports or internal – is in a monologue. It takes an act of imagination to question the narrator. When I’m speaking to my sweetie, it’s natural and obvious to create a dialogue. When I’m speaking to myself, it’s not at all obvious. I don’t naturally think about my thinking.

I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to teach myself a new trick. When I notice certain cues, I ask myself simple, direct questions to better understand the experience. What are the cues? There are at least three clusters:

Cue 1 — when I’m feeling anxious or stressed or blue or just plain cranky. I’ve learned to take note of this condition and use it as a prompt to ask a simple question: Why am I feeling this way? This helps me bring my feelings and desires to a conscious level and sort them out logically. In Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, I’m using my System 2 to check on my System 1.

Cue 2 – when I’m feeling really good, energetic, or enthusiastic. I’d like to feel this way more often. So, when I’m in a great mood, I prompt myself to ask: How did this happen? I’ve discovered some interesting correlations – not all of which I’m going to share. The best correlation may be obvious: Suellen is often around.

Cue 3 – when I have a good idea. I like having good ideas. I feel productive, creative, and smart. So, when I have a good idea, I prompt myself to ask: What was I doing when this idea popped into my head? Again, I’ve discovered some interesting correlations. Most frequently, I’m moving rather than sitting still. I don’t know why that is but I know it works.

I could probably apply the same introspection to other cues as well. At the moment however, I’m just trying to master the trick under these three conditions. What about you? When do you think about your thinking?

Don’t Beat Yourself Up (Too Much)

Compared to this guy, I'm a great driver.

Compared to this guy, I’m a great driver.

I’m a pretty good driver. How do I know? I can observe other drivers and compare their skills to mine. I see them making silly mistakes. I (usually) avoid those mistakes myself. QED: I must be a better-than-average driver. I’d like to stay that way and that motivates me to practice my driving skills.

Using observation and comparison, I can also conclude that I’m not a very good basketball player.  I can observe what other players do and compare their skills to mine. They’re better than I am. That may give me the motivation to practice my hoops skills.

Using observation and comparison I can conclude that I’m better at driving the highway than at driving the lane. But how do I know if I’m a good thinker or not? I can’t observe other people thinking. Indeed, according to many neuroscientists, I can’t even observe myself thinking. System 1 thinking happens below the level of conscious awareness. So I can’t observe and compare.

Perhaps I could compare the results of thinking rather than thinking itself. People who are good thinkers should be more successful than those who aren’t, right? Well, maybe not. People might be successful because they’re lucky or charismatic, or because they were born to the right parents in the right place. I’m sure that we can all think of successful people who aren’t very good thinkers.

So, how do we know if we’re good thinkers or not? Well, most often we don’t. And, because we can’t observe and compare, we may not have the motivation to improve our thinking skills. Indeed, we may not realize that we can improve our thinking.

I see this among the students in my critical thinking class. Students will have varying opinions about their own thinking skills. But most of them have not thought about their thinking and how to improve it.

Some of my students seem to think they’re below average thinkers. In their papers, they write about the mistakes they’ve made and how they berate themselves for poor thinking. They can’t observe other people making the same mistake so they assume that they’re the only ones. Actually, the mistakes seem fairly commonplace to me and I write a lot of comments along these lines, “Don’t beat yourself over this. Everybody make this mistake.”

Some of my students, of course, think they’re above average thinkers. Some (though not many) think they’re about average. But I think the single largest group – maybe not a majority but certainly a plurality – think they’re below average.

I realized recently that the course aims to build student confidence (and motivation) by making thinking visible. When we can see how people think, then we can observe and compare. So we look at thinking processes and catalog the common mistakes people make. As we discuss these patterns, I often hear students say, “Oh, I thought I was the only one to do that.”

In general, students get the hang of it pretty quickly. Once they can observe external patterns and processes, they’re very perceptive about their own thinking. Once they can make comparisons, they seem highly motivated to practice the arts of critical thinking. It’s like driving or basketball – all it takes is practice.

Critical Thinking and the Job Market

Because I know how to think.

Because I know how to think.

I used to teach research methods, which is about creating knowledge. Now I teach critical thinking, which is about assessing knowledge. How do we know what we know and how can we assess knowledge in an objective, fairminded way?

It’s a fun course because we think about thinking. We discuss everything from egocentrism to reason, logic, ethics, media bias, and unfair ways to win an argument. Many of the students challenge their own beliefs and we all challenge each other. It’s a stimulating way to learn to think clearly and to avoid getting bamboozled.

What surprises me about the class is how surprised the students are. Even though much of the course is applied common sense, they’ve rarely thought of this before. That concerns me because these are Master’s students. All of them have at least four years of undergraduate study. Yet they haven’t thought about how to think. Here are some quotes from recent student papers:

I never thought to think about thinking

It is revolutionary for me to understand that there is an analytical process called critical thinking that I can [use] to systematically develop clearer thinking…

… while I practiced some critical thinking basics, I had really only scratched the surface

This class taught me that I was unconscious of the connection between my thoughts and emotions.

It was not required in my undergraduate program and I have never taken a class similar to it.

So, I’ve been asking myself, why aren’t we teaching college students how to think? My Mom always told me that the purpose of college was to learn how to think. Was she wrong or have we given up on that objective?

When I was in undergraduate school, the first two years of our four-year curriculum were given over to “general education”. We didn’t start to specialize in our major – finance or engineering or anthropology – until the third year. Today, it seems that general education has simply evaporated. Students start specializing as soon as they land on campus.

So when do they learn to think? If a finance major takes four years of accounting courses, what do they really gain, other than an exceedingly narrow view of the world? I wonder if we haven’t gone too far in the direction of preparing students for the job market. We identify the technical skills the market requires – accounting, programming, etc. – but not the thinking skills.

Do companies really want ace spreadsheet jockeys who don’t know how to evaluate whether an assumption is logical or not? As someone who hired several hundred people in my career, I would say no. I preferred hiring people who can think clearly and communicate effectively. The rest is trivial.

So, I’m all in favor of bringing back general education and teaching students how to think. I’m not sure how to go about it but I’m developing a theory that the MOOCs will help get us back to basics. That may be the silver lining in the coming wave of MOOC disruption.

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