New Minds, New Thoughts, New Future
How the Boundaries of Thoughts and Minds are Being Re-shaped, and What that Means for Us
I’ve been obsessed with thinking for some time now. I want to understand how we can do it better. But in order to improve any process, you need to have some understanding of how the current one works. Nor do we know as much as we’d like to about the supposed place where thinking happens: in the mind. For all the work that various disciplines have done, there is still so much about thinking and minds that we just don’t understand — but not for lack of trying.
The What and How of Thinking
Part of the problem is the subjectivity of thought. Scientists — whether psychologists or neuroscientists — know plenty about what happens in the brain when people report certain thought processes or experiences. But we don’t yet have a way to know the subjective “what it’s like” of those experiences — as people have them. This might be something we could ignore, if only such experiences were incidental to the meat of thinking and basically bland in nature. But that is not the case. Our subjective experience while we’re engaged in thought is complex and difficult to describe. What’s more, in many cases that subjective experience can be what motivates us to follow a given train of thought — past the point where there are any logical tracks left for said train to follow.
Another problem for any scientific analysis of thinking is that thoughts are not as simple and divisible as we sometimes characterize them to be. Anyone who has attempted insight meditation (or a few other kinds) can attest to the complex nature of thoughts. They may appear to be discrete entities — restricted to one point in time, and one “space” in our attention. But upon examination, we see that various ideas and sensations bombard us simultaneously — like a pack of excited children talking over one another. We hear whichever one we most fix our attention on, and perhaps catch some parts of the others. But it’s hard to separate what is what in the din.
A final problem — which is perhaps the most exciting one — is that it’s not as clear as we might assume where any given thinker ends and another begins. By way of example, let’s say I am typing a sentence on my computer, when I come up with an idea. The idea is so rich and complex — at least as I experience it — that what I write on my computer (and thus what is stored in the cloud) only relays one part of the rich tapestry of that thought.
The WHERE of Thinking
The lion’s share of the well-known and well-funded work being done on thinking is done with a focus on one location: the brain. But the truth is, even a small amount of investigation has given evidence to back the idea that thinking takes place in areas all over the body. As a recent article in Nature elaborates:
The ongoing exploration of the human microbiome promises to bring the link between the gut and the brain into clearer focus. Scientists are increasingly convinced that the vast assemblage of microfauna in our intestines may have a major impact on our state of mind. The gut-brain axis seems to be bidirectional — the brain acts on gastrointestinal and immune functions that help to shape the gut’s microbial makeup, and gut microbes make neuroactive compounds, including neurotransmitters and metabolites that also act on the brain.
As much as we’d like to hold onto that quaint notion that our brain is all there is to the mind, so much of the data tells us otherwise. There a hundred ways one can try to explain away the interaction between brain and gut in an effort to keep that quaint old “brain-only” paradigm, but at a certain point, we’re just being silly to do so.
If we can admit that mental activity extends beyond the brain, it is a little bit easier to then take a slightly more risqué (but more richly rewarding) step, and say that perhaps mental activity extends beyond one single body.
A Collaborative Consciousness
Since the time when humans have become able to program machines to store and process data, we’ve colloquially referred to the work they do as thinking. And while may of us liberal arts & humanities softies (like me) try to talk about how impoverished machine thinking is compared to what we humans do — that way of conceiving it might be due for a change.
Earlier, I gave an example of someone interacting with a computer while thinking, as a way to introduce the idea that perhaps it’s not so clear that we can constrain the boundary of a thought to one place. The more we humans use machines as part of our cognitive processes, the more difficult it becomes to separate the two when it comes to thinking and thoughts. If it makes any sense to say that my gut, my appendages, and my central nervous system are part of my mental experience, I think it also makes sense to say that my computer, my smartphone, and the pieces of software I use are also part of it as well.
Much like we have been conditioned during our lives to interact with a cooperate with our bodies, so have we done the same thing with machines. Though they are not physically attached to us, they are intellectually and cognitively attached. They are part of the extended thinking thing that is our nervous system and the flow of ideas and information between us and the machines.
This is a heady thought, but it’s worth playing with. The more collaborative our work with machines becomes, and the more immersive it becomes, the less it makes sense to enforce boundaries of thinkers and thinking to one physical body.
Beyond the Dynamic Duo
Just as we should not be content to restrict the idea of a thinker to a person but not a machine, we should also not be content to restrict thinking and thoughts to one person in a group environment. This is not so radical a suggestion. We already kind of buy into this idea. We talk about the “mood in a room”. We refer to “groupthink” and “consensus” all the time. These things point toward a perhaps already blurry boundary between the individual thinking and thoughts of each person in the group, and some larger entity that is the group’s mental life.
If we try to make sense of sentences like that last one using the old way of thinking about mentality — namely the one brain/one thought paradigm — we’ll stumble and squirm. That’s where we have let ourselves be more open to viewing thinker and thought as not restricted in space or time. The thinker — as well as the thought — can be extended in both dimensions.
If there is reason to believe that thinking is not restricted by space — that is, where in our outside of a body it is done — then why suppose that it is restricted by the other remaining dimension? I’m referring, of course, to time.
If it becomes difficult to say that thinking takes place only in one discrete physical space, it makes even less sense to try to say there are temporal boundaries. If you have ever tried to perceive where a thought begins and ends in time, you’ll see what I mean.
Some thoughts can (and do) flicker in and out of existence without us having time to be aware of them. Others seem to span eternities. And though we assume that my thinking about a pink elephant yesterday was a different thought than my thinking about it today, is that necessarily true? Our memories have been found to be quite unreliable (pick your favorite experiment), and so who is to say that either my elephant thought is not the same today as yesterday, or that the two are not just one large thought, spanning a few days with my attention only picking up on it a few times?
G.W.F. Hegel based an entire philosophical opus on the premise that ideas can and do live long an fruitful lives, where they do battle with each other, combine with and modify each other, and so on. Again, heady stuff, but in a time when I can essentially chat face to face with someone on the International Space Station while I’m in my pajamas in Illinois — why can’t we get a little heady?
So What Does this Mean?
By and large, what I have written so far has been descriptive in nature — that is, I’m attempting to suggest a way of describing how things are. But what I’m really interested in is how changing our description of thinking and minds can offer us new and better prescriptions — that is, what we should do to improve our thinking.
There is always the simple intellectual benefit associated with changing the way you look at something. Simply taking on a different point of view, and a different mental model of something can have radical beneficial effects for one’s thinking. The various “revolutions” in science bear this out.
A really great book on the topic (that should probably be required reading in high schools) is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In the book, Kuhn talks about the process by which big steps are taken in science that seemingly came out of nowhere and changed everything. It’s worth exploring in detail, but I’ll simplify it here by saying that simply changing how we view whatever system our theories are trying to describe can allow us to take huge steps in manipulating those systems to our advantage.
So, if we can begin to view minds and thinking as unbound by both space and time, what kind of advantages might we realize? I apologize for not bringing answers, but I should have warned you that my background is philosophy, and that’s kind our thing.
Suffice it to say that minds are not what they used to be; they’re more. And I think that’s a good thing. But we’re still getting our bearings when it comes to thinking — be it human or machines doing it. We can take baby-steps in the realm of implementation, but let’s take leaps and bounds in the realm of thinking about it. It might just be what saves us from ourselves.