Extracts from 'Understanding Thinking'

 
 

These level jumping associations enable us to build up complex experiential categories that transform a continuously changing flow of sensory experiences into hierarchical categories of relatively stable objects. These hierarchies can be multi-themed. Mice can be simultaneously classified as rodents, pests, and pets.

This is how neural networks achieve multiple hierarchical classification, generalisation, abstraction, and property indexing.


Figure 2.9 The multiple classification of experiences.


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The ability to access classes of things by their properties is a particularly important component in everyday practical creative common sense. It enables us to think of temporarily fixing a broken fan belt with a length of hosepipe, a pair of tights, a roll of sticky tape, a length of telephone cable, some wool unravelled from an old jumper, pyjama cords, dressing gown belts, etc. We can follow the property-based neural associations to find any number of things with the necessary properties, in this case: long, thin, strong, flexible, able to be knotted or joined into a loop, and readily available.

A person whose brain had categorised its experiences using only the names of things (and has not been trapping its experience of the properties of the things), would not be able to make that creative leap. Name indexes are good for communicating; property indexes are good for solving problems.


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The postmodern attack on meaning, and its refusal to observe, discriminate, evaluate or comment, is preventing us from learning from our experiences, and from updating and fine-tuning our models of reality. It flies in the face of our basic nature, and of the one undeniable reality we do have, our perceptual system, which gets pleasure from, and survives by, creating usable meaning out of our personal and cultural experiences.

I for one, get a real (neurochemical) buzz out of constructing and fine-tuning my understanding of things, forming and refining categories, spotting patterns of cause and effect in time and space, judging and discriminating, assessing risk and opportunity, building flawed but effective models of the world and applying them. When things go wrong, I try to learn from it and update my maps and models of reality. When I screw up I apologise, offer to make amends, and try to make sure I don’t do it again.

I use my understanding to build houses, fix cars, write music, cook meals, spot danger and do all sorts of other fun and useful things. It is a fundamental part of my humanity. It becomes even more interesting as I realise the extent of the sea of my false assumptions and the need to take account of my inherent subjective judgementalism. I enjoy making meaning. I love discriminating. It is crucial to both my survival and my sense of identity.

I create and define myself by consolidating my experiences and then discriminating between what I like and what I don’t like, what I respect and what I will not tolerate, what might work and what probably will not work. I do not enjoy living in a culture which is being stripped of its meaning, its wisdom, its balance and its effectiveness.


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The presentation and consumption of conscious rational rules is not, on its own, very useful. They become valuable when they are used to organise and then consolidate a richly structured, well-timed sequence of experiences.


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Brain scientists have recently discovered the neural mechanism that underlies our top-down ability to restructure previous experience in the light of a new high-level concept or organising principle. There are reverse-projection neurons which can connect the areas representing high-level generalised concepts, back down to the areas representing the mass of relevant primary experience, where they can release neurochemicals which establish and strengthen the relevant level jumping connections. Hence that pleasurable neurochemical ‘Eureka’ feeling, when confusion suddenly turns into clarity because of the introduction of some new organising idea or principle (force, energy, socialism, capitalism, etc.).


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Our brains are very absorbent, so we should take care what experiences we expose them to. We should bear in mind that as a result of the dualistic nature of our perceptual apparatus, we need quite a range of experiences before we can start making sensible judgements about the many optional fruits available on the tree of the knowledge of this and that. When we are ready, we can start to take some control over what stuff we want to keep in our brain, and what meanings and emotions we want to associate with that stuff.


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Our brains are perfectly capable of understanding large dynamic systems, it is our language that is the obstacle. Linear sequential language is very clumsy at describing complex interactive system dynamics.

Despite the fact that every building, machine, and system that we create, starts life, and is communicated as, some form of diagram, our educators continue to value text over diagrams, as a means of communication. Because text is so poor at modelling dynamic systems, our education system offers most people very little practice at thinking about dynamic interconnections.

Unless you choose to study something like plumbing, building, mechanics, engineering or systems analysis, you are not likely to have much contact with dynamic systems thinking, and even if you do, your teachers probably won’t explain that this style of thinking is a transferable skill, which is usable in all subject domains, not just in that specific field.

So, in this increasingly systems-orientated world, with increasingly systemic problems to deal with (globalisation, culture clashes, market economies, the environment, etc.), we really do need to improve both our individual and group ability to model, understand and communicate dynamic systems.

The principles are easy, and well within our intellectual grasp, even at an early age, so start young, and if you are too old to start young, start now.


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Games – humans play lots of different thinking games. Each game has its own socially agreed rules for what to pay attention to, what to ignore, what’s important and what is not, what moves and transformations are allowed, how to explain things to different audiences, rights, rituals punishments, etc.


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Games

Our culture has a great many games on offer. Think for a moment about the different external rules in operation in each of these different activities: sport, art, business, education, political ideology, the media, old religion, established religion, new spirituality, medicine, alternative therapies, social worker, detective, civil servant, judge, anthropologist, explorer, artist, engineer, architect, film director, etc.

Each of these games has its own set of rules that tell us what to pay attention to, what ideas and concepts to apply, which ones cannot be applied, what types of conclusions and predictions are acceptable, what language can be used to discuss them, and much more.

Old-style thinking about thinking tends to focus on just a few isolated aspects, such as logical forms of argument, evaluating evidence, classes of problem, framing, induction, deduction and analysis, but thinker enjoys a much richer life than that. It gets great pleasure from being able to really understand, and immerse itself in the rules of many different games. It enjoys building up a pool of experience of the complex dynamics that can emerge from the interaction of these simple sets of rules. It enjoys:


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This intelligence is no longer internal. Evolution has enabled us to step beyond the immediate control of the autopilot, triggering our behaviour in response to perceived events and circumstances, and the tyranny of the multi-headed egos. We became able to deliberately, consciously and socially, agree on idealised plans which encapsulate the cultural group’s accumulated experiences of the best way to react to particular situations. Everyday we submit to external plans that tell us what to pay attention to, what things mean, what models to adopt, how to interpret events, and how to behave.

This development has obvious advantages, but it requires that we leave behind the comfort, the immediacy and certainty of real-time reactions, and move into a rather more confusing mental world where we have no choice but to base our current decisions and actions on assumptions, models, goals, and predictions which will almost certainly turn out to be seriously flawed, before very long.


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This is the main difference between us. We live in the same world but we see it differently.

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If you want to be successful at something, find people who are already successful at it and study their models, their values, their access to skills, knowledge and resources, and most important of all, find out how they orchestrate their emotional vectors. Then have a good honest look at your own package of strengths and weaknesses. What is holding you back? What adjustments would you like to make to your values, your models, your resources and your emotional orchestration? Are there some historical decisions that need updating and reinterpreting, some parts that need integrating? If you really want to change these things you can. It is up to you.


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Whilst the past does, in general, have a big influence on our future, we can decide to exercise some control, and change the way we perceive and react to the world. We can't completely wipe the slate clean, but we can deliberately move away from the external influences that frame our experiences and trigger habitual reactions. We can start to build new neural network associations, new interpretations, new understandings. We can exercise some deliberate control over the experiences and ideas we pass through our neural networks. Thanks to those top-down reverse-projection neurons, we can review our old experiences in the light of new conceptual frames, and thanks to the flexibility of our plastic memory systems, we can update our interpretations of old experiences, cascading those changes through our current models of reality.


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The Moral

So here is a moral. Our brains are very absorbent, so we should take care what experiences we expose them to. We should bear in mind that as a result of the dualistic nature of our perceptual apparatus, we need quite a range of experiences before we can start making sensible judgements about the many optional fruits available on the tree of the knowledge of this and that. When we are ready, we can start to take some control over what stuff we want to keep in our brain, and what meanings and emotions we want to associate with that stuff.