Shelf Life

I Think Therefore I Am…What?

The great mystery of the brain.

By 3.28.14

Mr Pipo Connected (Wikimedia Commons)
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Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction
Edited by John Brockman
(Harper Perennial, 432 pages, $10.90)

Before mass media came up in the mid-twentieth century there was the public lecture, at which some person of eminence or accomplishment would address a hall full of curious citizens. The Internet equivalent is supplied by nonprofit foundations like Edge.org and TED.com, which spread interesting ideas by inviting thinkers to give online talks.

Thinking is a spin-off from the Edge.org website and the various conferences it sponsors. It consists of twenty-two “unedited transcriptions of scientific talks and conversations” by scholars who investigate minds and brains. From their bylines I tallied twelve psychologists (minds), six cognitive scientists (brains), two philosophers, one researcher in linguistics, and one statistician.

The keynote is set by one of the cognitive scientists, Vilayanur Ramachandran:

The brain is a 1.5-kilogram mass of jelly, the consistency of tofu, and you can hold it in the palm of your hand, yet it can contemplate the vastness of space and time, the meaning of infinity, and the meaning of existence.  It can ask questions about, ‘Who am I?’, ‘Where do I come from?’, questions about love and beauty … and all these questions arise from this lump of jelly.  It is truly the greatest of mysteries.

Hard to argue with that. Thinking is slightly less mysterious today than it was twenty years ago, though, and Thinking covers the highlights.

The speakers’ topics range widely: from brain changes during adolescence to the strangely extreme empiricism of the Pirahã, an Amazon tribe whose language refers to nothing outside immediate experience; from the origins of morality to “affective forecasting errors”—misjudging how we think we’d feel if such-and-such were to happen. 

Certain big ideas recur. The unconscious mind, for example, has been thoroughly rehabilitated after its twentieth-century detour through Freudianism. Far from being a madhouse of seething conflicts deformed by childhood traumas, the unconscious is now seen as a well-oiled machine that works hard to deliver “heuristic” judgments: fast, good-enough-most-times processing based on instinct and internalized experience rather than plodding logic. It is the home, for example, of stereotypes—those snap judgments we are nowadays supposed to think of as deplorable, but without which everyday life would be impossible.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized this version of the unconscious in his 2005 airport bestseller Blink. The pioneering research had been done thirty years earlier by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, establishing the field of Behavioral Economics and greatly improving the assumptions about human nature that economists had previously worked from.

As Kahneman points out in his contribution to Thinking, our unconscious minds not only work hard, they work harder than necessary. The words “vote, note” rhyme, and so do the words “vote, goat”; but test subjects are much slower to affirm the rhyme in the second case than in the first because their minds have, unconsciously and quite unnecessarily, generated the spelling.

The actual term “unconscious mind” is deeply out of favor, perhaps because of the Freudian taint. Kahneman, in the 2011 book summarizing his work, calls it “system one,” and contrasts it with “system two,” the conscious part of the mind, which, when there is time for reflection, can override the judgments of system one. (I wish Ramachandran, in the talk included here, had repeated his very repeatable aphorism that: “You don’t have free will but you may have free won’t.”)

Psychologist Gary Klein puts a different spin on the unconscious, contrasting thinking based on experience with thinking based on algorithms. Klein has studied firefighters, trying to understand how they make life-and-death judgments under stress. Introducing himself to one veteran of the trade, he said:

“We’re here to study how you make decisions, tough decisions.”

He looked at me, and there was a certain look of not exactly contempt, but sort of condescension… and he said, “I’ve been a firefighter for 16 years now. I’ve been a captain, commander, for 12 years, and all that time I can’t think of a single decision I ever made.”

That takes some explaining, but Klein does a good job.

Key inputs to system one come from the emotions, so the feeling-thinking dichotomy of folk psychology keeps surfacing here too. After a few sightings, the reader knows he will eventually meet David Hume. Sure enough, there he is on page 304: “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” 

That’s in the book’s longest chapter, “The New Science of Morality.” The Hume-quoter is Jonathan Haidt, whose 2012 book The Righteous Mind belongs in the backpack of anyone exploring this territory. Haidt, with a backward glace to Plato, offers another metaphor for systems one and two: as an elephant with a rider perched on top. Virtue ethics, which Haidt—like Hume—favors over rule-based or outcome-based ethics, are a matter of “training the elephant.”

Thinking is full of interesting things to think about, but comes off in printed form as what sailors call a “quick lash-up,” unillustrated and, yes, unedited. All the talks in it are on the Internet in both video and transcript (here, for example, is Ramachandran’s), so strictly speaking a book is not necessary. Presumably it’s a courtesy to us geezers stuck in the age of ink on paper. I appreciate the courtesy, while quietly wondering how much longer publishers will bother.

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About the Author

John Derbyshire writes "Shelf Life," a books column, every other week. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum).