Archive for the ‘Problem Solving’ Category

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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