We were never meant to think: Upgrading your autopilot

The LDC Development Team is running a series of four masterclasses on thinking, organising and collaborating facilitated by Dr Adrian West and Dr Sophie Brown from Company of Mind.
Register now for the following face-to-face workshops in this series:
Getting Organised for Research (and Life) – Thursday, 6th June 9:15 – 16:30
Problem Solving and Decision Making – Tuesday, 18th June 9:15 – 16:30

Here are some thoughts from Company of Mind on the next masterclass on 6th June “Getting Organised for Reserach (and Life)”:

Why trains of thought derail

Thinking isn’t something the brain is meant to do – at least not “rational thought”, a relatively recent  invention. That observation might explain a lot about what goes on in our heads. What is the brain for then? What’s natural? How about sitting on the savannah feeling hungry so we look for food; feeling tired so we go to sleep; feeling scared so we run away…and a whole host of other behaviours so unthinkingly sophisticated that we have survived for untold millennia.  That’s the sort of thing our brain is adapted for, at least according to Daniel Dennet in his work “Consciousness Explained”.

By that view, “Rational thought”  –  the sequential ‘train of thought’ we call ‘thinking’  –  is an artificial activity taking place on ‘brain hardware’ that was never intended to run that kind of program. It’s why losing your ‘train of thought’ can happen so readily. It’s why you’re thrown off by emotional currents.  It’s why sometimes we don’t know what we’re going to say until we start talking, and each word leads us onto the next. Something like that.

How small creatures learn capabilities that dazzle us

Intriguing, but so what? Well it might help us understand why thinking tasks that we think should be easy (like maintaining a train of thought) can be artificially hard. And it might help us to help ourselves be more spectacular in, say, academic life, with some simple tricks or learning.  How so?

There’s a good analogy. It’s like a processor chip, which can only do simple operations – arithmetic and moving numbers from one location to another is all they can actually do.  Over recent decades we’ve taught such simple creatures to do the most astonishingly sophisticated tasks, just by giving them rich sets of procedures to follow that you could say aren’t ‘natural’ for them.

In the same way we can take our own minds and build up artificial habits that yield astonishing benefits. How valuable was if for you to ‘program yourself’ to learn the alphabet?…And on top of that foundation the habits of reading and writing.  Or to work with numbers? Those things now seem effortless to you. These skills aren’t natural, you had to put a lot of effort into learning the alphabet (if you remember that).  

Similarly, there will be habits you could learn – with some effort – that make you seem capable and clever, when in fact you’ve just learnt habits that other people haven’t. Tony Buzan, of mind-map fame, believes ‘intelligence’ isn’t as varied as we’re led to believe, but rather that some people chance across effective learning habit strategies early in life, and others less so. It’s a provocative idea that opens up new vistas of possibility.

Ways to be more fabulous

One area we can examine this way is “organising ourselves” – no-one teaches us how to do that, therefore big gains are likely to be had. The problems I have in mind are where we feel quickly overwhelmed by the pile of things we have to do, or seem somehow to be “tripping over ourselves” mentally.  Yet others appear better able to cope.  They seem able to have more baggage loaded onto them before they throw a fit and kick it all off.  

Why is that? Are there habits of mind we can learn that will transform that capacity for us as much as learning the alphabet did? There are other factors too. If you attended the “Working with Difficult People” workshop you’ll especially appreciate that there are fundamental differences for how people are, which bear on this. Some things are naturally easy for you, yet unnaturally difficult for other people. Surprisingly that doesn’t contradict what I’ve said so far.  The question becomes “For the way I am, what methods can I learn that will be most effective for me?”.  Sometimes that’s transformatively possible. As one researcher at Southampton put it regarding a particular learning:

“It is honestly the most useful thing I have learnt in the last ten years of my life … (in the decade before that I learnt the alphabets!!!)”.

Which must have been exciting.

As with the alphabet, it’s usually a small amount of learning, followed by small practice repeated frequently. Whilst we’re learning our technical skills at University what an ideal opportunity to change ourselves too, so by the time we graduate we’re “more”.

Footnote. This post is related to the workshop “Getting Organised for Research (and Life)“. It’s a provocative discussion of part of the topic, not an introduction to that workshop. For information about the workshop, see the event advertisement.