Sunday, February 25, 2007

We Sink Zis Means Somesing

We sink zis is important.
One of my favorite films of all time is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Directed by Steven Speilberg in 1977, it is not only recognized almost universally as a great film, having won dozens of awards for filmmaking, but it illustrates some incredible philosophical ideas. In fact, this post is about (at least) one of them.

In my last post, I discussed the idea that intuition may be much more reliable than cognitive deliberation. Intuition is not exactly a cognitive process, in the sense that we think consciously about it. It is cognitive in that we perceive it, but often without words or thoughts of any kind.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about this intuitive experience. The main character, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, along with a number of other folks, encounter UFOs (alien space ships) at around the same time, most of them on the same night. While they are not abducted (although some are), they are all marked with unconscious impressions of something they cannot explain to anyone. They know they know something; they just don't know what it is that they know.

As time goes by, they become obsessive about this unconscious impression, and several of them begin to draw pictures of it, or create models of it. Neary goes from seeing it in various common objects, to modelling it in his mashed potatoes at dinner, and finally driving his family out of the house in an attempt to build a model of it with dirt, grass, and shrubs he has carried into the house from the front yard.

In the meantime, people from some unknown international governmental agency are seen investigating the people and events associated with the UFOs. They are aware of what has happened, but very secretive about it. Fran├žois Truffaut plays the central character among these covert officials, and at one point he makes the remark in his french accent, "We sink zis means somesing. We sink zis is important." It seems that even the top secret organization doesn't know quite what to make of the visitors or their intention. It does, however, understand that what is happening is real, and that it is probably somehow important.

All of this illustrates a kind of thinking that I think is quite useful at times, in terms of problem-solving. Perception and thought are 2 entirely different things. Perception is pure; it is the conscious (or unconscious) reception of pure data by the mind. Thought is the cognitive process which we use to analyze the data. Thought may or may not be reliable. And it is the cognitive process of thought which creates the conscious model of that which we perceive. Therefore, what we consciously model from our perception may or may not be reliable.

How the mind works is still a subject of much conjecture. We are continually able to gather more data about the activities of the brain, and the behavior and communications of individual human beings. But the mechanism of the brain is still beyond the ability of science to understand. We have recognized and identified a number of different processes which we have names for, but little else. Among these are personal identity, attention, and cognitive control, all of which I want to discuss here.

The human mind (and I refer to the mind rather than the "brain" deliberately, because I don't necessarily want to limit the mind to the organ which we call the "brain") is a multi-tasking operation, behaving in many ways similarly to a multi-tasking computer. Regardless of how many operations may be occurring simultaneously, our minds are constantly performing a wide variety of tasks "at one time." We know that a computer processor is capable of only one operation at any given time, and that it simulates multi-tasking by switching from one task to another at an incredible rate of speed, performing small "slices" of each operation in a large loop process. We don't know whether the human brain does this, however. We do know that the brains exhibits simultaneous activity, which would tend to indicate many simultaneous processes, as if we had many processors in our brains. But exactly what that activity is, we do not know yet.

Still, among those processes, there is one which we call "attention," and it seems to behave as if it is a single thread, which is capable of "time-sharing" like a computer processor. That is, it can jump among many different foci (points of focus) at a high rate of speed. It does seem, however, to only be able to focus on one "thing" at a time. Attention is somehow associated with personal identity, and it may be that our sense of identity comes from this (apparently) single-threaded process; we may identify "self" as this process. I don't know. But I "sink zis means somesing."

However, apparently simultaneously, there are other mental processes at work. There are routines that have been stored, such as those that cause the heart to beat continuously, as well as the operation of the lungs and other organs of the body. We are capable of performing multiple physical tasks simultaneously, such as walking and talking at the same time. These processes are not conscious. We do not consciously control them. At one point we may have consciously directed their development, such as learning how to walk, how to talk, etc. But we don't consciously control them at some point. They are stored as complete routines and executed automatically.

We also know that decision-making is manifested both as cognitive and unconscious process. Well, perhaps it is not agreed upon as to whether it is always a cognitive process, but I will elaborate on that further to clarify. In any case, there is a cognitive control of at least some decision-making, and possibly an unconscious control of other decision-making.

As an analogy of unconscious decision-making, let's talk about a software routine, as an analogy for an unconsciously-controlled stored mental routine, such as walking. A software routine is a set of instructions which contains selective processes. If statements and switch statements are such selective processes, which constitute a form of software decision-making. If one condition is true, one set of instructions is followed. If another condition is true, another set of instructions is followed. Thus, software makes decisions, however unconsciously. Mental routines such as walking must necessarily include such decision-making, albeit unconscious. When we are walking, and we encounter a dip in the ground, our walking process "automatically" accounts for the change in orientation, and the correct combination of muscular adjustments is made, enabling us to continue walking, without any conscious control, within certain limits. If those limits are exceeded, such as a sudden change, a hole in the ground, for example, our conscious deliberative process is notified, and we swiftly get consciously involved in the corrective process.

So, it is at least possible that we make decisions both consciously and unconsciously, and that those decision-making processes which are unconscious are generally more reliable, because they have been constructed ovcr a long period of time, involving a lot of experience.

The conscious deliberative process, while less reliable, probably due to its' apparently single-threaded nature, is that which controls the creation of the unconscious routines that we store and use. How it does this is, of course, not known. And it is entirely possible that poor unconscious decision-making processes are the product of long-term input of bad data. That is, a person who is trained at a young age to distrust authority, by means of a bad parent, for example, may exhibit poor decision-making habits (routines) with regards to other authorities in adulthood. These can be corrected by long-term input of corrective data. But that is the subject of another discussion.

The point which I am getting at here is that problem-solving is a cognitive process as well. As such, it involves the attention, or conscious involvement, of the person doing the problem-solving. Because the modelling process of the conscious mind is not necessarily accurate, as direct perception is, our problem-solving ability may actually be hampered by conscious thought.

We know, for example, that when we are struggling to solve a problem it often helps to "sleep on it." The process of removing the conscious attention from the problem, even sleeping, about which little is yet known, seems to allow the data which constitutes the parameters of the problem to be organized better, perhaps associated with other information that may be related, and of which we are not (yet) consciously aware. It is this act of allowing the (possibly superior) unconscious processes to work on the problem that seems to "inspire" us with new ideas that help to solve the problem. This is sometimes also referred to as "letting go."

I believe that "zis means somesing." It is not pure will that is most capable of solving problems, of coming up with creative solutions; it is "intuition." This speaks directly to the subject matter of my previous post, which is concerned with intuition versus deliberation. That process which is termed "cognitive control," and which may be that which we identify with "self," has a strong impulse to exert control over our other processes. We feel uncomfortable when we cannot trace the logic of a solution. Yet, we are constantly creating solutions to certain types of problems without any conscious understanding of them. How do you walk? Can you enumerate the muscles and components of the nervous system that you employ in order to do it? No, at least without a great deal of scientific study. Yet, it is an ability which almost everyone has.

And so, it is my thought that perhaps we often take conscious control of problem-solving when we would be better off not to. Sometimes it is better to loosen our focus, to "let go" of a problem, to allow ourselves to float freely in a stream of consciousness, in order to most effectively come up with a solution to a dilemma. The more complex a problem is, the less likely our conscious cognitive process is to be able to solve it in any reasonable period of time. It's a simple matter of resource use. If the conscious process is indeed single-threaded, at a certain point it can only switch between so many sub-threads before it runs out of resources. The unconscious mind is apparently not limited in the same way.

In practical terms, when I begin a project, I often wait several days after being given the requirements and parameters before actually doing anything about it. That is, I don't give it much conscious thought at all. I will allow my mind to freely wander to and away from it. I will sometimes "play with it" in my thoughts, deliberately "blurring" my thoughts about it, concentrating on feelings and impressions rather than concrete ideas and thoughts. Then, when I begin the actual planning process, it seems that much of the structure is already present in my mind, having been created by my unconscious thought processes. Like the elves that helped the shoemaker in the old fable, much of the creative work has already been done for me, as if by magic. And the quality of the work is much better than it would be if I had struggled over it consciously.

This is not to negate the function of the deliberative process. It certainly has its' place, and comes to play at just such a point, filling in the details and creating all of the actual end product. The product cannot be produced without it. But the design, the inspiration, comes from the unconscious.

At any rate, while I know that this concept is not yet fully fleshed out, "I sink zis means somesing. I sink zis is important." It is my hope that perhaps this might stimulate others to do the grunt work.

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