Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thinking

I've been thinking a lot lately about thinking. Actually, I've been thinking about thinking for years now and I've come to realize that my thinking about thinking is drastically different from the thoughts of others.

What I'm writing this morning is just the start of something. I'm not sure where it will all go, but I figured I'd start anyway.

Thinking as a Skill
Many people closely associate thinking with words like intellect and intelligence. The capacity to think is directly linked to levels of intellect or intelligence and these levels are assumed to be innate and relatively fixed. As a result, one's capacity to think is assumed to be innate and largely invariant.

Of course, there are no such things as intellect and intelligence; they are paradigms that were invented to better understand thinking, ways of thinking about thinking. They only exist because they were considered to be useful in better understanding thinking. However, in my experience, they seem to be anything but useful because they tend to limit us in our development of thinking.

How else would you think about thinking? I think about thinking as a skill that can be learned and developed. Like any other skill (playing the piano, throwing a football, painting or writing) some of us start out better equipped than others. However, like any other skill, our starting capacity for thought is in no way an indicator of our potential for thought. Except in the rarest of cases, any one of us can become a great thinker and certainly any of us can become a better thinker.

The question is not one of "if?", it's one of "how?"

Unfortunately, based on erroneous notions such as the fixed capacity of intellect, we tend to treat the starting point as the capacity limit.

It's not.

The Mind Fallacy
The word mind has become part of the vernacular. Although it is used frequently, I daresay that most of us would be hard-pressed to provide a clear, specific and accurate definition of it.

Notions of an incorporeal component of being date back to the spirits of Animistic religions of the third millennium BC. The Greeks later formalized the concept of soul identifying three properties: thymos (emotion), menos (rage) and nous (intellect). Of these three, it's the concept of nous that most closely resembles what we would refer to as mind.

Even Plato and his student Aristotle disagreed on the very nature of soul, Plato arguing that nous is incorporeal and immortal and Aristotle arguing that it would be impossible for an incorporeal soul to interact with a corporeal body. However, despite the debate regarding the particulars, this Greek paradigm of soul formed the basis for intellectual discussion for millennia.

However, Rene Descartes ended the use of the Greek paradigm arguing that the incorporeal soul does not consist of three parts (thymos, menos and nous), but one, the mind and further, that the mind is not just concerned with reasoning, but also with perception and the senses. The Cartesian model of mind is that of consciousness, the awareness of everything that is happening to us, and it is one that operates independently of the corporeal.

The pervasive acceptance of Descarte's distinction between mind and body led to many false starts in psychology and psychiatry as the orthodox resisted notions that mental illness might have biological or physiological components.

The more modern equation of mind and brain is an improvement upon Descarte's paradigm, but it only gets us part way to a functional model that can be used to facilitate change in mind. Indeed, our emotional states, our perceptions, our awareness, and our processing of information all appear to be a body-wide efforts not limited to our brains and nervous systems.

As Aristotle put it, the mind is just a way of talking about our psychological powers (perceiving, thinking and remembering, etc.) In short, the mind doesn't exist.

To be clear, the mind not existing isn't important except in that we recognize that there is no mind, it's just a way of thinking about thinking... about what goes into thinking... about the side-effects of thinking... about changing how we think. We only get ourselves into trouble when we start thinking about the mind as a thing rather than as a model.

I Walk, Therefore I Think
A primary reason that we humans think the way we do is that we walk exclusively upright on two feet. Our thinking is actually a side-effect of bypedal locomotion.

From an evolutionary perspective, as we emerged from the jungle onto the savannah, we adapted in order to survive. Whereas staying low to the ground and being able to climb quickly were important to surviving in the jungle, they weren't much good on the open plains where standing upright (allowing us to see greater distances) and running on two legs (taking longer, faster strides) became more useful survival characteristics.

However, standing erect, maintaining balance on a sustained basis, and running over long distances required a completely different physiology. Our bodies changed: our brains, our nervous systems, our cardiovascular and respiratory systems, our feet and hands. The amount of control required to maintain balance required that our brains not provide all the control, but instead, for some of that control to be distributed to the end points. Running fast over distances required our lungs and legs to operate independently unlike quadrupeds (e.g., dogs) whose rate of breathing is directly linked to the rate of running.

All these changes resulted in a significantly different capacity for thinking.

Why is this important? Well, if you're having trouble with your mind (reasoning, logic, perception, emotion awareness), the challenge may best be addressed by something as simple as getting up and walking. It's not your brain and there is no such thing as your mind; it's the whole package and evolutionarily the package developed in the way it did largely to support walking and running upright.

More to Come
OK, that's a start. We'll see where this all goes. I've got so much more to think about. Maybe I oughta go take a walk.

Happy Saturday!
Teflon

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