Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Thinking about thinking

Since I last wrote about this, I've done more reading and thinking about how we humans perceive, interpret, judge, learn, think and communicate about the world. Perhaps this started with Proust was a Neuroscientist, but there are loads of interesting books I've been finding. Even The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World was about how early culture and language shapes our modern world.

Last month I read one much more interesting than it sounds: The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, which details the debate in Enlightenment thinking between the English Burke and the American Paine, which produced the American Left and Right, and perhaps in Europe the British versus the continent. This followed Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, which detailed the changes in both knowledge and philosophy at the very beginning of the Enlightenment, chiefly through short biographies of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. So that's the historical view; I want experiment and neuroscience!

The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics was particularly interesting, since it covered how children learn language, as well as a survey of how linguistics as a field has thought about that. Now I'm reading two books simultaneously, and they are sparking thoughts back and forth. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt is an excellent follow-up to The Great Debate, but in an analytical way, rather than a philosophical debate. Right alongside, an older book by George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. This book is heavy, in every sense of the word, but so rich. I was glad I had read the psycholinguistics text first, and the analogy book last summer, so that I could make sense of this scholarly, radical, amazing tome. I must quote the top Amazon comment on the book:
Lakoff concentrates on the way people *really* think, not the way philosophers would like them to. His approach: We use cognitive models that we acquired in childhood to solve almost every problem - to estimate, to schedule, to infer. What strikes me most about the cognitive science of metaphor is the possibility to apply it to many fields like computer interface design, social sciences, linguistics, you name it. His argument is partly very sophisticated, yet understandable also for a non-philosopher, and he comes up with lots of examples and evidence. This book has become a kind of "creativity technique" to me, I find myself developing new ideas based on Lakoff's approach all the time. Among the people who have no scientific interest in the matter, I recommend this book to designers, programmers and everybody in the field of communication. It is worth every minute you read.
I guess we all know that how we think we see and make sense of the world isn't the way we actually see and justify our decisions. The implicit bias tests prove that, over and over. But these books illustrate the inside of my own head, the life I've lead with my family, my culture, my fellow humans, and how we're getting along. I hope as more is understood, more of us will learn about human nature, so we can improve our lives, our families, companies, politics and policies. It is better than accepting the thinking that got us where we are today.