The Guess Worker



  • Thinking is the process which leads to the formation of new concepts.
  • Thinking can be conscious or unconscious.
  • Unconscious thinking is fast. It deals with recognised concepts.
  • Conscious thinking is slower and requires more energy. It deals with new information.
  • The mind is motivated to think by feelings of interest, satisfaction and frustration.

Why should we bother to be conscious of our thoughts? Isn't it a waste of time and effort? After all, it's tiring to concentrate on a difficult topic for a long period. It's also very slow. Think back to when you learnt to read. Then you had to spell out each word before you knew what it was. Today, in contrast, you quickly recognise most words. Unconscious thinking, unlike conscious thinking, is very fast. What's the point, then, of being conscious?

It is very unlikely that we are aware for no reason. Evolution wouldn't have allowed us to be so uneconomical with energy. Also, taking too much time to make a decision can be dangerous: you could be dead before you have decided whether to fight or flee from a wild animal.

Why don't computers need to be motivated?

In my last post I wrote that consciousness is a motivator. That's easy to understand if we consider, for example, feeling hungry. But what about thinking? Why would consciousness motivate us to do that? Computers, after all, don't need to be motivated, so why should we?

Let's think about this last sentence. What makes a computer solve a mathematical problem, check spelling in a text or search the Internet? It is, of course, you at the keyboard, and the engineers who design the programs who make the computer do all these things. If that's the case, then what makes you work at the computer? What makes the engineers design the programs? In other words: what motivates you and the engineers? The answer is: human needs and wants. You work at the computer because you want or need something. The computer, in contrast, is not conscious and doesn't want or need anything. So why don't computers need to be motivated? Because, externally, humans provide the function of motivation for them.

How, then, does consciousness motivate us to think? To answer this question we first need to think about what thinking is.

Does this ring a bell?

I'll begin with Pavlov's dogs. At the end of the nineteenth century the behavioural scientist Ivan Pavlov conducted a series of experiments in which he showed that dogs could be conditioned to salivate using various stimuli - for example, most famously, the sound of a bell. Whenever food was given, a bell would be rung - the dogs, in time, would associate the sound of the bell with food. Later, although food was not given, the dogs would still salivate when the bell was rung.

Even without knowing anything about neurology, we can make an assumption about what has happened in the dogs' brains. Somehow a new linkage has been formed in their neural networks. The process of creating such a linkage is called learning. In this case, the linkage is between two sets of information - about food and the sound of the bell. The linkage itself can be called a concept. In words we could express the concept as: the sound of the bell means food. The dogs very probably were not conscious of this concept. Even when we humans make associations of this kind, we are usually not conscious that we have done so.

The dogs, though, were almost certainly conscious of the two original sets of information. Information, in this context, is anything the consciousness can be aware of. There are two categories of information: external and internal. Our brains receive external information through our sensory apparatus - we experience this as sight, taste, touch and so on. Internal information includes the emotions, pain, pleasure - and concepts. We can be aware of all these kinds of information, but why are we sometimes aware and at other times unaware of the same kind of information?

Old information isn't interesting

We know from experience that we tend to be conscious of new information, whereas we usually switch off if the information never changes. Suppose there were a loud explosion in my normally quiet street when I was sitting at home. Of course, I would be conscious of the blast. But what if I were a soldier stationed for months on a raging battlefield with missiles constantly exploding all around me? I probably wouldn't notice the noise any more - except, maybe, for the very loudest bombs. This makes sense: new information means new situations which might hold either new dangers or new opportunities. Old and constant information, in contrast, can be dealt with routinely.

What about concepts, then? Concepts are a type of information and clearly they are not always unconscious. As I'm writing here, many concepts are entering into my consciousness. It's the same when I am reading, talking or even day dreaming. Often I can hear my own thoughts in words in my head. If I were being conditioned like Pavlov's dogs, I might say to myself when the bell rang  "Ah, that means dinner." In other words, I have made the dogs' unconscious concept into a conscious thought. Now, why does that happen?

Does the mind treat concepts as it treats other types of information? That is: are new concepts brought into the consciousness and are old concepts left in the unconscious? Probably yes, sort of, but the process is a bit more complicated and subtle. In a sense, all concepts are "old", because they are all formed in the past. They are stored in the memory to be used again when situations repeat themselves in the future. If concepts aren't new, why should they ever be brought into the consciousness? I believe for one reason: if the concepts are connected to new information. I can think of two circumstances in which this happens: when a concept is used to create another concept and when a concept is being confirmed.

Making concepts conscious helps to make new concepts

I hope to illustrate these ideas in more detail in another post, but for now I'll just give a brief example. When you and I see the word cat, we recognise almost instantly what the word is. Recognition is a process by which information received by the brain is matched with a concept in the memory. Recognition occurs almost instantly because it is unconscious. There is no need to bring information into the consciousness if it is recognised: the stored concept can fulfil its role entirely in the unconscious.

A child who is learning to read also has many concepts already stored in the memory. It already has learnt the concept of a cat, knows the sound cat represents this concept, it knows how to produce the sounds C, A, and T and knows which sounds the letters represent. But it hasn't yet made the linkage between the written word and the sound. So how does the child learn to read cat? It has to spell out the word: it has to bring each letter in turn into the consciousness and see if it can find a linkage. If a concept has already been partially learnt, the child confirms it by checking with other information. In this way the concept becomes reinforced and, in time, firmly fixed in the memory.

This, then, is the way concepts are brought into the consciousness. But what's the reason for bringing them there? By learning to read the word "cat", a child had made a linkage between the written symbol and the concept of a cat. An entirely new concept has been formed. To make this concept, the child uses its consciousness. So, somehow, making concepts conscious must help in the creation of new concepts.

But how? Through motivation. Consciousness motivates the mind to increase concentration, to intensify the search for new information and to form new concepts. Interest is the feeling which powers this motivation. The reward for successfully forming a new concept is the feeling of satisfaction and the deterrent against failure is disappointment or frustration.

What is thinking?

In later articles I want to elaborate on these ideas. But before I finish here I must tie up one loose end: what is thinking? Well, thinking is the activity I have described above: it is the mental process leading to the formation of new concepts. Thinking can be unconscious, or partially unconscious and partially conscious. It's easy to understand playing chess as leading to the formation of new concepts - but what about wondering what's for dinner? Or thinking about which clothes to wear to a party? Or dreaming? None of these sound much like concept formation - but they are. Perhaps it'll be spaghetti is a concept, just as dreaming about running naked in the street is a concept. Even remembering the past is an exercise in concept formation - I had pickles in my sandwich yesterday is a concept which is being confirmed and reinforced as I'm thinking about it.

So thinking is always about making concepts. And concept is the topic I want to explore further in my next post.

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