Thinking about thinking leaves me thinking about nothing

Edge.org’s question of the year this year was a little boring, sadly. It is normally a chance to hear interesting people give interesting answers to interesting questions. This year is about the Internet. Boo, navel-gazing. As always, there’s still some interesting answers. Here’s one that I particularly liked by Steven Quartz:

Consider, for example, our tendency to reduce human thought to a few distinct processes. We’ve been doing this for a long time: Plato divided the mind into three parts, as did Freud. Today, many psychologists divide the mind into two (as Plato observed, you need at least two parts to account for mental conflict, as in that between reason and emotion). These dual-systems views distinguish between automatic and unconscious intuitive processes and slower and deliberative cognitive ones. This is appealing, but it suffers from considerable anomalies. Deliberative, reflective cognition has long been the normative standard for complex decision-making — the subject of decision theory and microeconomics. Recent evidence, however, suggests that unconscious processes may actually be better at solving complex problems.

Based on a misunderstanding of its capacity, our attention to normative deliberative decision-making probably contributed to a lot of bad decision-making. As attention turns increasingly to these unconscious, automatic processes, it is unlikely that they can be pigeon-holed into a dual-systems view. Theoretical neuroscience offers an alternative model with 3 distinct systems, a Pavlovian, a Habit, and a Goal-Directed system, each capable of behavioral control. Arguably, this provides a better understanding of human decision-making — the habit system may guide us to our daily Starbucks fix (even if we no longer like it), while the Pavlovian system may cause us to choose a pastry once there despite our goal of losing weight. But this too likely severely under-estimates the number of systems that constitute thought. If a confederacy of systems constitute thought, is their number closer to 4 or 400? I don’t think we have much basis today for answering one way or another.

Consider also the tendency to treat thought as a logic system. The canonical model of cognitive science views thought as a process involving mental representations and rules for manipulating those representations (a language of thought). These rules are typically thought of as a logic, which allows various inferences to be made and allows thought to be systematic (i.e., rational).

I tend to think that we have a further problem. Since we have ‘consciousness’ and ‘free will’, people have this feeling that we should be able to remember everything we do, and have reasons for doing it. Of course, neuroscientists know that every memory is a poor reconstruction of something that happened in the past; and further, we know that we perform actions all the time that are outside of our conscious perception, and sometimes even inaccessible to our conscious mind. Think of all those times someone mumbles a few words, then refuses to admit that they said anything at all when questioned. How weird is it that a perfectly healthy person can say something, and not remember it at all?

What it comes down to is the fact that most of our intuitions about how we work and reason and live are wrong, and even though we have some evidence of how different processing streams work in the brain, we’re a long, long way off from understanding how we think.

[picture from]