Archive for the ‘Cognition’ Category

Daddy, is this true?  If there were giants, then a football to them would be the same size as a pea to us.

That was, word for word, a completely out-of-the blue utterance by our 6 year old daughter, Lillian.

Her “if…then” construct is what is known as a counter-factual conditional – If [something that is not in fact true] then [something else that is not in fact true], and to correctly construct such conditionals you use subjunctive verb forms (were… would be…).

I’m amazed that somehow, without any explicit instruction at all, Lillian can spontaneously express counterfactual conditionals with perfectly grammatical sentences of complex construction.  (In saying this, I’m not implying that I think Lillian is somehow especially advanced.  I assume she’s showing a normal developmental progression.  It is that progression which is amazing.)

But what really amazes me is that somehow, without instruction, she’s acquired the conceptual capacity to talk about the truth value of counterfactual conditions.  (Aside: in some of our workshops we teach professionals such as intelligence analysts to try to avoid talking (i.e. thinking) about truth of conditionals, where there are regular alternatives, since it is so much more cognitively demanding than thinking about regular statements.)

No wonder linguists have argued that humans have a kind of innate  capacity for language acquisition.

[repost of a shorter version posted on another blog]


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The eminent journalist and author James Fallows writes an influential technology column, and in the latest one has discussed Rationale, in the context of software tools to help people “develop, refine, and express ideas”.

I didn’t realise it upon first reading, but buried in the article is an account of the various kinds and levels of intellectual work. By implication, at the peak of this intellectual pyramid is… deliberative thinking of the kind supported by Rationale.

Some quotes:

    “Do computers make us smarter? Probably not. But they can reduce the burden of some largely mechanical processes through which we develop, refine, and express ideas—which is a lot of what it means to think… In a surprisingly wide range of other ways, the simple, brainless efficiencies offered by computers can assist in the tasks that make up intellectual work. Before considering one especially ambitious new offering of this sort, it’s worth reviewing the practical, chore-like components of high-level modern work and the corresponding programs that, in my view, handle each chore best…”

“An elementary step is capturing thoughts—ideas, obligations, possibilities—when and where they occur to you…The next largely mechanical task is saving material you come across in your work, whether it is something unexpected on the Internet or the result of more purposeful research…The next practical task involved in thinking is finding things when you want them—the right citation for your legal argument, the right chronology to remind you who said what when…Next is sorting, the important and subtle task of grouping items according to similarities and differences. In a sense, this kind of pattern recognition is the highest level of human intelligence… Both sorting and the next step, outlining, take us closer to the point where mechanical processes merge with intellectual ones. Assigning something to a category inevitably affects our conception of that category, and arraying ideas visually, as in an outline, inevitably affects our view of how the ideas fit…”

“This leads to the newest ambitious entry: Rationale, an “argument processor” from a start-up company in Melbourne, Australia, called Austhink…”

“In operation, the Rationale program is quite simple. You state a main contention you are trying to test—I should buy a new house, we should invade Iran—and then systematically list each of the supporting claims for it. Then you list the objections to each claim, and the rebuttals to those objections, and so on until you’re down to first principles—all of which are shown as connected boxes on a map…”

“The more factors there are to weigh in making a decision—and, especially, the more views there are to reconcile when more than one person is involved in a choice—the more helpful this logic map can be.”

You need to be a subscriber to Atlantic Monthly to access Fallows’ full column online. (In the US, everyone should be a subscriber, because it is such a great magazine and subscriptions cost almost nothing.) Non-subscribers can email me, and I’ll email you a link from the magazine website which should work for three days.

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Itzy Sabo is the creator an excellent Outlook plugin which lets you file emails quickly and easily. I don’t use it anymore since I switched to Gmail, where there’s no longer any need to file emails away. However I still keep an eye on Itzy’s blog, Email Overloaded, which often has interesting posts about coping with information and task overload.

He’s had a couple of posts recently about unconscious problem solving, and while he makes some good points, it seems to me he makes the common error of thinking that problem solving is either conscious or unconscious, which is a false dichotomy, and then the consequent error of thinking that to solve problems more effectively you should try to rely on your unconscious by e.g. sleeping on it. I replied on his blog as follows:

The odd thing about this discussion is the idea that when we’re consciously thinking about some problem, it is the conscious thinking which solves the problem. In fact, even when consciously thinking about the problem, the real “heavy lifting” is happening unconsciously; consciousness is a kind of haphazard window or commentary on that unconscious activity. Sometimes problems get solved when we’re sleeping, or otherwise unattending to the problem, because the mind is just doing its thing; indeed it might be doing so more effectively because conscious thought is not interfering. Consciousness is like some idiot manager who has been imported into an organisation in some domain the manager doesn’t really know anything about, and who tries to direct people who know much better than he does what needs to be done. However the lesson of all this if we want to think more effectively is not to just “sleep on it”, i.e., [not to] not consciously think about it at all. Sometimes we’re lucky and we find that our unconscious mind comes up with a solution, but often it doesn’t, and just hoping for a good outcome is hardly an effective problem solving technique. (People who talk up the wonders of “sleeping on it” etc. tend to be committing the classic fallacy of noting hits and ignoring misses.) The way to think more effectively is to deliberately (note – not “consciously”) harness the great power of our unconscious thinking to external structured representations and procedures. I’ve written about this in two blog entries here: http://rtnl.wordpress.com/tag/cognition/

[It does feel a bit odd taking a comment on someone else’s blog and making it an entry on your own blog. Double dipping in the blogosphere? But I’m putting it here because the stats for this blog indicate that the posts on the role of conciousness in problem solving are particularly popular, and I’m guessing that readers of this blog interested in that topic are unlikely to be reading Email Overloaded.]

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Watch Le Grand Content – a short, well-produced and very entertaining video.  I’m not sure what it is meant to be – some kind of graphical poetry?  But it strikes me as an excellent portrayal of how conscious thought unfolds when one is trying to think about something.  Moments of structure mixed with free associations; occasional patches of sense but the whole thing amounts to an incoherent ramble.   Conscious thought is not very good at staying on topic and organising itself into structures which “hang together” in some useful way.  This is why we can generally think more effectively when conscious thought is paired with external representations which do sit relatively still and maintain their structure.  It is also why Rodin’s classic Thinker


is such a misleading picture of thinking, even though it is almost always the first think people think of if you ask them to picture thinking in their minds.  If you could see inside Rodin’s Thinker’s mind, you’d probably be watching something like Le Grand Content. 

Here’s a much better picture of thinking:


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Last week the New York Times published its “6th Annual Year in Ideas” in its Magazine.  81 bite-sized presentations of new ideas or trends; worth a read.  Trouble is, not much of what we read is remembered for very long.  Below I’ve listed the ones I’d like to be able to recall in a week or even a year’s time. 

  • Empty-Stomach Intelligence.  Mice think better when they’re hungry.  Maybe we do too.  “Ghrelin” is the hormone at work.
  • Eyes of Honesty. People are more virtuous when they’re being watched.  Even by obviously-fake eyes, such as on a poster.
  • Hidden-Fee Economy.  People can be sorted into “sophisticates” who seek low up-front prices and avoid hidden fees (such as exorbitant mini-bar prices in hotels), and “myopes” (or “suckers”) who are constantly shelling out.  
  • Homophily. Social websites are exploring ways to overcome “our inexorable tendency to link up with one another in ways that confirm rather than test our core beliefs.”
  • Hyperopia – an excess of far-sightedness.  In the long term, ants tend to have more regrets than grasshoppers about how they spent their time.  This quirk of human psychology doesn’t mean you should just relax and indulge now though.   
  • Low Starting Prices.  On Ebay, lower starting prices result in higher final prices – a kind of reverse anchoring effect.  This is because the anchoring effect is overcome by other effects.  A low start price results in many more bidders, enhancing the apparent value of the item, and exploiting people’s sense of commitment to create greater competition.
  • Publication Probity.  The Journal of Spurious Correlations is devoted to publishing only negative results, aiming to counteract pervasive “publication bias” whereby positive results are published much more readily than negative, distorting our understanding of the world.
  • Voting Booth Feng Shui.  How we vote is affected by where we vote.  People voting in schools are more likely to vote for state support for education.

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Sheryle Bolton at Brain Reserves has an interesting post commenting on recent research suggesting that “down time” can improve performance.  In that research, a lengthy rest period after memorization appeared to improve recall performance. 

In her post Sheryle goes on to describe the familiar experience, that we can sometimes solve a difficult problem by “sleeping on it.”  She concludes “Our brains clearly need some down time to work on their own without our conscious interference.” 

The conclusion is clearly right.  Our brains do the vast majority of their processing – and ultimately, our thinking – without conscious interference or indeed any kind of conscious access at all.  Our conscious mental life is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. 

In fact our conscious mental life is so partial, fragmented and haphazard that it is risky to try drawing any conclusions about what is or isn’t in, or done by, our conscious mental life from observations of that conscious mental life.  Consciousness is an unreliable observer of itself.  Just as we are not conscious of everything around us, we are not conscious of everything about consciousness.

So for example, the fact that we often wake up with the solution to some problem with no awareness of conscious processing of the problem doesn’t prove that it was solved solely by our unconscious minds.  Another possibility is that our conscious minds were involved in working on the problem during those sleep hours, but due to the peculiar nature of sleep, all that conscious work has been forgotten by the time we wake up. 

We know that most of what we are conscious of while we sleep – our dreaming – is not remembered when we wake up.  (Some people use special techniques to try to increase the amount they remember.)   Even the fact that we had that dreaming experience is not generally presented to conscious awareness once we wake up. 

So there is nothing mysterious in having large parts of our mental life go by and, at a later point in time, our having no awareness of it.  At that point, it may as well not have existed at all.

I once had a student who asserted that he had conclusive evidence that zombies exist.  For many months, he claimed, he was one himself.

In the philosophical literature on consciousness, a zombie is a person just like you or me in outward behavior, but who has no “inner” conscious mental life at all.

We had a dialogue a bit like this:

Student: I was a zombie once.

Me: What makes you think you were a zombie?

Student: One day I suddenly became aware that for the previous few months I had had no conscious experience at all.  But I had been going about all my activities quite normally. 

Me: Here’s another hypothesis: during those months, you were conscious in the normal way, but one day (strangely enough) you suddenly couldn’t remember any of that conscious experience.  A bit like waking up from a good sleep – you had lots of great dreams, but you wake up in the morning unable to recall any of their contents, and not even consciously aware that you had any dreams at all.

Student: No, that’s not what happened. I really was a zombie. 

To me, the “couldn’t remember” hypothesis is more plausible hypothesis than the “was a genuine zombie all that time” hypothesis.  Just apply Occam’s Razor.  The memory failure hypothesis requires a one-time mental dysfunction.  The zombie hypothesis requires something very unusual to be going on for months on end. 

So, bringing this back to the main point: people often say that, when a problem is solved after sleeping on it, that this shows that they can solve problems unconsciously. 

To me it is more plausible that they solved the problem with the usual mix of unconscious processing (doing, as with everything, most of the work) and chaotic conscious awareness.  It is just that, due to the nature of sleep, they retained no awareness of all that conscious activity.

Which brings me to a larger point – when it comes to effective thinking, the conscious/unconscious distinction is really a red herring.  Whether activity is conscious or unconscious just doesn’t have much to do with whether it is effective or not. 

The debate “is it better to think consciously about a problem, or let your unconscious mind do the work?” is ill-conceived.

It is obvious that conscious thinking, by itself, is not much help in solving problems. 

In workshops, I often present a problem and ask people to think hard about it. 

For example, you could try the famous McKinsey problem – how would you move Mt. Fuji?  (We don’t use that particular problem ourselves, but it is a good example for current purposes.)

After giving people a while to think about it, I ask: what was going through your mind when thinking about it?  What did your conscious mind DO to help you solve problem?

People generally answer that, on reflection, there were two things going on.  First, they were conscious of the problem itself.  Second, they were conscious of the need to think hard about the problem.  In other words, one part – half? – of their conscious activity was acting like a kind of cheerleader on the sidelines – making a lot of noise, but not really affecting the way the game goes.

Clearly, cheerleading is a waste of mental effort – it would be much better to direct that cognitive activity in more productive ways. 

Often, people do end up solving the problem, and I ask – where did the solution come from? How did you get it?  The answer, generally, is that it somehow popped into their minds, out of nowhere.  Suddenly, there it was.

In other words, even when consciously thinking very hard about a problem, what people are often doing is relying on their unconscious mental processing – what I call the subconsious genius – to simply – magically – deliver up the answer.  

But don’t get  me wrong – the path to better thinking is NOT “just let your unconscious mind solve your problems.”  Because unconscious processing, for all its wonderful strengths, has lots of limitations as well. 

It can solve some problems brilliantly – problems such as what is that thing I’m looking at?

But our native/innate/untutored unconcious mental powers are quite hopeless at many other tasks – such as should Australia become a republic? 

For many, if not all of our most interesting intellectual challenges, unconscious mental processing needs to be augmented or harnessed by something else.   That “something else” is not conscious thought processes – at least, not consciousness per se.  Conscious activity is as likely as not to just get in the way.

Rather, what we need to make our thinking more effective are things like

  • systematic or structured processes (conscious or not) for tackling complex problems
  • augmentation by external resources which can handle those aspects of complex cognitive tasks which our biological brains are not well adapted to handling – such as holding and manipulating complex structures of information in short term memory.

So, ditch the conscious/unconscious distinction.  It is much less helpful than others, such as the important one Sheryle raises at the end of her post:

practice on cognitive process (fluid intelligence) is just as important as acquired knowledge (crystallized intelligence). It takes both to keep our mental edge.

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