femme Neuroscience

Some Topics


“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

The term cognition is a general category, not well understood. Cognition refers to 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 is produced by movements in spacetime. We often use metaphors of movement through spacetime in descriptions of events. Humans act on the world through praxis or skilled movements.

The term, thought, is often used as a synonym to 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. Best cases tend to be overwhelmed by an abundance of nonsense and conflicting points of view.

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, storytelling, 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.

Cognition involves many abilities that existed before language developed. Cognition is rooted in a deep and innate understanding of how the world works. Cognitive structures in the brain are built from raw materials such as sensation, movement and emotion. 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 independent of language and proceed spontaneously in the brain.

The best way to problem solve is to examine the problem closely, talk about, 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. Sometimes self talk is part of the problem-solving process but often talking is not required.

The solution to a problem or a creative new idea arises from an unknowable process, as a gift. I wait hours before I understand new information or can 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. This book consists of a long series of spontaneously arising ideas that I record. 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.

Meaningful conversation is a common method of “thinking”, but repeating clichés, repetitive stories and case-making conversations are not recommended. I heard Marvin Minsky, then 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, people who annoy and obstruct smarter, more progressive humans who are interested in continuous learning and evolving understanding.

Cognitive Boxes

To make sense of how humans operate, you have to look closely about how individuals learn, how they depend on local groups for guidance and support and how they organize cognitive structures. You have to understand the differences among cognitive categories such as information, knowledge, facts, opinions and beliefs. I have invented a series of metaphorical constructs that facilitate understanding. The constructs can be verified by observation and experiment. For example, I use bonding tokens and eigenstates to account for many dynamics in close relationships. Another construct, cognitive boxes, makes sense when you look closely at yourself and others around you is that each person acquires cognitive containers that permit learning but also limit what is learned and understood. Intelligence is an important variable in determining the size and variety of cognitive boxes. Some smart people acquire a lot of knowledge and skills, learned and practiced at different times and in different places. They can move easily from one cognitive container to another. Others have a limited number of containers and have difficulty moving from one to another. You can play with the idea of cognitive boxes and develop a better understanding of yourself and others. Religious affiliations and beliefs, for example, are collected in a cognitive container that resists change. Inside a religious container you are consumed by the specific language and beliefs of the religion, its symbols, assumptions and claims. Inside the religion container, you have costumes, rituals and celebrations that can be enjoyable and reassuring. If you zoom down to individuals who belong to local groups, you see them competing with each other, arguing, and failing to reach agreements on important issues. The big divisions are well known and big disagreements are stable over centuries. The smaller disagreements are in flux; some subside, others proliferate. There are infinite possibilities for arguments and finite possibilities for consensus.