“Here is Edward Bear coming downstairs now, bump, bump on the back of his
head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of
coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels there really is another way, if he
only could stop and think of it.” A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin
Humans are proud of their ability to think but seldom know what thinking is.
The term “thinking” is used casually both in common speech, and in scientific
discourse, but it remains a fuzzy word that is difficult to explain. Thinking is
rooted in a deep and innate understanding of how the world works, and thought
structures are built from raw materials such as movement and language. Selftalk
is the only conscious mode of thinking and is so implicit in consciousness that
“thinkers” fail to identify selftalk as their primary mode of thinking. Thinking
is therefore story telling, a form of argument. If you want thinking to mean
something else such as processing information, solving problems, making
decisions or creating new ideas, then thinking is not a voluntary process that
occurs in consciousness.
The term cognition is a not well understood. An even more
confused and confusing term is thinking. Many commentators cannot
separate thinking and cognition. Cognition really refers to all the processes
that allow humans to know what is going on out there and how to respond. You can
begin to understand cognition by examining how humans find food, eat and move in
a coherent spacetime frame. The brain is a matrix of meaningful connections
between the body inside and the environment outside. Humans have an innate sense
of spacetime. Maps of spacetime can be found in the cerebral cortex. Sensory
information flows into these spacetime maps and motor output flows out. Our
speech grows from movements in spacetime and communications with sounds. We
often use metaphors of movement in descriptions of everything that happens.
Humans act on the world through praxis or skilled movements.
The terms, thinking and thought, are often used as a synonym for
cognition but this is incorrect. A giant leap in understanding cognition is
realizing that talking is thinking. We talk to each other and talk to ourselves.
Thinking is selftalk, listening to others, speaking with others, reading and
writing. Speakers and listeners form thinking groups and in the best case arrive
at a common understanding of what is going on out there.
As children play, problem solve, learn new skills they will often talk
to themselves much like a voice-over monologue in a documentary movie. The
child’s narrative will reveal how their cognitive processes are developed. An
insightful adult will learn much by quietly listening and sometimes can add some
direction or advice, without inhibiting the child’s selftalk. As children
mature, their spoken private monologues become silent continuing in the privacy
of their mind as selftalk. Laura Berk studied
the private talk of children and suggested:” As a child gains mastery over his
or her behavior, private speech need not occur in a fully expanded from; the
self after all is an understanding listener. Children omit words and phrases
that refer to things they already know. They state only those aspects that seem
puzzling. Once their cognitive operations become well practiced, children start
to “think words” rather than saying them. Gradually private speech becomes
internalized as silent inner speech.”
Deep cognitive processes are about recognizing the relationships among
events, making decisions, sequencing in spacetime, and problem solving.
Nonverbal thinking is revealed in tool making, tool use, mimetic behavior,
actions and simulations. Gestures, drawings, models and constructions are all
examples of “thought processes” that are independent of language and proceed
spontaneously in the brain.
The best way to problem solve is to examine the problem closely,
talk about it, read about it, write about it, draw pictures and diagrams, make
models and then wait. Each human has a built in query system and a
problem-solver that operates in its own way, on its own schedule and delivers
solutions to consciousness when it is ready. The solution to a problem or a
creative new idea arises from an unknowable process, as a gift. Sometimes I wait
many hours or even days before I understand new information or solve a problem.
Big problems may take weeks or months to solve. New insights and paradigm shifts
may occur after many years of struggling with wrong notions.
My books consists of a long series of spontaneously arising ideas that I
record soon after they pop up in my conscious mind.. Sometimes, a new idea makes
old ideas obsolete and I have to change an entire text to accommodate the new
understanding. The process of writing requires selftalk rehearsal and constant
revision that is more or less spontaneous and evolutionary. Input from a large
number of other humans is, of course, essential to good understanding of complex
Meaningful conversation is a common method of “thinking”, but repeating
clichés, stories and case-making conversations are not recommended. I heard
Marvin Minsky, the guru of artificial intelligence at MIT, claim at a digital
arts conference many years ago, that he hated to repeat himself. Subsequently, I
heard him repeat this idea at least twice. My guess is that Minsky made this
claim numerous times over several decades.
Life is a repetitive affair and most humans copy and repeat what they and
others say and do with little or no modification over a lifetime. Minsky’s
aversion was to humans who repeat themselves mindlessly and tediously and who
annoy or obstruct smarter, more progressive humans who are interested in
continuous learning and evolving understanding.
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Understanding the human brain is essential to become a well-informed, modern
Stephen Gislason MD, the author of
the Human Brain, is a physician-writer who is good at making complex subjects more
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Further reading: Neuroscience Notes, Intelligence and
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