Saturday, February 17, 2007

Intuition - Leaving is Besieging

For Christmas, my Princess gave me a new subscription to Scientific American Mind magazine, which I have bought previously at several airports on occasion. At one time I had a subscription to Scientific American magazine, but somehow I let it lapse. I had always enjoyed reading Scientific American magazine. Its articles are written not by journalists, but by scientists and researchers. They deal with cutting-edge science, and I am a cutting-edge type of person.

When I discovered Scientific American Mind magazine, which is published by Scientific American, I immediately fell in love with it. The subject matter is fascinating, as it joins together research from several fields that until recently have remained largely separate: Psychology/Psychiatry, and Neuroscience. Only recently have we had the tools to undertake a serious study of the mechanisms of the brain, which, like most of our body, is composed of trillions of nearly-identical cells, neurons for the most part, but which is capable of incredible computational skill, such that it will be a long time before computers begin to catch up with it. There is an inner simplicity to its structure which yields an enormity of complexity and power.

At any rate, while perusing the web site and the magazine recently, I came across a series of articles provoking thought in me, which I would like to share. In fact, most of what I read in Scientific American/Mind provokes thought in me, but this line of thought in particular has pervaded my mind quite a bit recently. This leads me to believe that there is something important (at least to me) lurking underneath it somewhere.

In this case, I was poking around on the Scientific American web site, and came across a series of blog posts, which were all centered around the concept of Intuition versus Deliberation, and related to several articles that deal with the concepts in various ways. It seems that there is now scientific evidence that "intuition" is more reliable than "deliberation" in the decision-making process. I believe (intuitively?) that this is likely to be confirmed, and that the consequences of these discoveries is likely to bring a great deal of benefit to the human race.

Our conscious mind is at least from shortly after birth, almost entirely consumed with that process we call "Thought." Thought, Cognition, and Consciousness are all closely related, and all related to the process of pattern-recognition, abstraction, modelling, and organization which is constantly occurring in our mind, at least when we are awake (or "conscious"), and perhaps even when we are not.

Because we are social beings, we have also developed languages that enable us to communicate thoughts as abstractions to one another, and because we use that language pervasively throughout our lifetime, it is also a large component of our thought process. We often think in "words," as if we were having a conversation with ourselves. This thought process is enormously complex, and must consume a great deal of menta resources, as evidenced by the sheer size of the areas of the brain devoted to it.

However, there is another process at work in our brains as well, one that precedes thought. Our brain is, after all, a computer of sorts. It is capable of performing incredibly complex calculations far faster than any computer we have yet created. It is also capable of learning, responding "intuitively" to positive and negative stimuli, and creating various subroutines that govern the decision-making process.

A perfect example is that of walking. We are not born with the capacity to walk. It is learned when we are infants, and it takes several years to learn it. We learn it by a combination of factors, including observation and motivation. We are motivated by desire. A baby wants to move from one place to another. It begins by squirming, then rolling, followed by crawling, and finally walking. Walking involves the coordination of thousands of muscles, combined with the perception of very fine differences in balance. It is not an easy trick to master. This is why robots do not yet have legs (at least like ours). Yet, once we have learned how to do it, we perform it without any cognitive thought involved. Each step involves a complex sequence of perceptions, both internal (balance) and external (environment), followed by a sequence of decisions (which leg to move, how much force to apply to which muscles, etc.).

Thus, it is provable that we are capable of making decisions accurately without conscious thought.

Therefore, it is logical to presume that we might be able to apply the same sort of process to our other decision-making. We are constantly making conscious decisions as well. We decide what to eat, what clothes we should wear, whom we should marry, whether and when to use force as a means to accomplishing our goals. However, our conscious thought process is somewhat hampered with our language. Our language is inexact, and at times ambiguous.

The language of integral mathematics is rigorous and exact. It is this very exactness which makes computers so reliable (not software, but computers - that is a different topic altogether). Computers deal exclusively with integral numbers, and apply exact mathematical rules to them. 1 + 1 always equals 2. A computer processor is, at it's core, simply a counter. It adds by counting up, and subtracts by counting down. Multiplication is a derivative of addition, and Division is a derivative of subtraction. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are the basis of all mathematics. Mathematics is the basis of all computer programming.

Human language, on the other hand, is much less exact. We employ a limited set of linguistic symbols to represent a nearly (or perhaps entirely) limitless set of ideas. How we accomplish this is by employing the same symbols in different ways, in a highly-complex system of context and association, which is not integral in nature at all. When we parse human speech, we must interpret it. Each individual word is evaluated in the context of the words with which it is combined. Even more ambiguously, words are evaluated in the context of a set of ideas which forms an environmental influence upon their meaning. In other words, language is highly nuanced. Hence, we may at times have difficulty understanding one another. And because we use language internally in our cognitive thought process, we may even have difficulty understanding our own thoughts.

This thought process is further influenced by desire, which forms an environmental influence upon our internal language. We hear what we want to hear. We believe what we want to believe. We are capable of deliberately, and even unconsciously ignoring "unpleasant" thoughts and ideas. What You Seek Is What You Get.

Quite often, this leads to an internal conflict of thought, a debate of sorts which is constantly being conducted in our cognitive thought process. This is the essence of deliberation. The resulting decisions may or may not be helpful. Therefore, we are prone to "error." This can be seen in such things as "criminal" activity, immorality, and psychological disturbances of various sorts.

However, it is important to remember that there is still a part of our brain which remains incredibly reliable. This is the part of our brain which makes decisions without thought, without deliberation, the part of our mind which we use to walk, to run, to dance, to throw a ball, and so on. Is it possible to employ that reliability in the cognitive decision-making process? I believe this has already been demonstrated.

Albert Einstein spoke of the "leap of intuition." He often proposed ideas that did not arrive via any deliberative or logical process. They just "seemed right." It took a great deal of logical and scientific work to confirm these ideas, and many of them were confirmed long after his death. Yet, they were confirmed.

As children, before we are capable of conceiving complex abstract ideas, we seem to have a similar intuitive ability to "know" what is the right decision to make. Certainly, we do not always make the right decision as children, but when we are confronted with the consequences, we generally own up to our mistakes. It is simply desire which causes children to make wrong decisions, just as it is desire which causes adults to make them. The difference is that the child will "know" that they are doing wrong. An adult will often rationalize wrong-doing.

The word "intuition" is derived from 2 Latin roots, "in" (at, on) and "tueri" (to look at, watch over), and in that sense, essentially means "direct perception." This is a revealing definition, as it infers that one can perceive things without cognitive thought, which is of course true, as exemplified by infants.

It would seem that if it were possible to employ such intuition in the decision-making process, as we do when walking, and filter out the internal dialog/debate, the consequences of our decisions would improve dramatically. Various scientific studies I have been reading about in Scientific American Mind, and elsewhere seem to confirm this idea.

In fact, various forms of meditation seem to focus on such a process, that of emptying the cognitive mind of all abstract thought. While meditation seems to be associated with religion in many cases, I believe there is some aspect of the process which is not religious in nature, but purely a form of mental discipline, one that allows the intuitive, unconscious, and highly-accurate mechanism in our brains to be used in the decision-making process.

I look forward to hearing about continued study in this area.

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