Monday, January 14, 2013

What thinking can


Actually it’s an intriguing idea that people can think consciously, or that they can “think” for short. Some scientists believe that thinking is merely an epiphenomenon. From this point of view, it would make no difference, whether we would think or not: we would behave in the same way in both cases. I don’t endorse this viewpoint, but here I’ll not discuss the arguments pro and con. Others scientists take the view that our thinking does cause or at least does influence our behaviour. This idea seems more plausible to me, but here I’ll pass over this viewpoint, too. However, even if the idea that thinking is a mere epiphenomenon is true and man would be a very complicated kind of machine (in the way Descartes thought that animals are), it remains intriguing: For who has ever heard of a man-made machine that thinks? Apparently man is more than just a construction of nuts and bolts that fasten a physical structure.
What I find even more intriguing than the idea that man can think is that man can think about thinking. In my last blog, I have given an example of such “meta-thinking”, when I wondered whether a certain thought of mine was a case of cognitive dissonance reduction or whether I “really meant” what I thought.
Scientists are divided over whether thoughts can influence the behaviour of the thinker. But how about meta-thoughts? Take this example from my last blog: You always wanted to buy a yellow car, but in the end you buy a grey one, because the dealer had only this colour in stock. You think: “Actually a grey car fits me better”. Then you realize that you are reducing a cognitive dissonance and you change your opinion: “A grey car doesn’t fit me better. I wanted a yellow car, but the dealer did not have it in stock. I had no choice, but I still prefer a yellow one”. In this case you had a meta-thought, but it had no influence on your behaviour. If your thinking is epiphenomenal, than your meta-thinking is as well.
Is this always so? I can take the study by Festinger again for showing how meta-thinking might influence behaviour, but actually thinking about thinking in order to influence our behaviour is something we often do. For instance, you have to do an exam on a theoretical subject. Your traditional strategy is to learn all the stuff by heart by repeating the required reading so often that it becomes stored in your brain. Then your teacher tells you that another good method is explaining the subject matter to someone else. You decide to test the method and you ask a friend to be your audience. By doing so your thoughts about how you think have changed your behaviour. In this way our meta-thoughts often change our behaviour.
The case just described seems to substantiate the view that our meta-thoughts can influence the way we think and by means of that our behaviour. If so, it will not be difficult to prove that thinking can directly cause behaviour as well. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that some unconscious process in the brain is triggered by what the teacher told and that it is this unconscious process that both changed the learning behaviour and produced the meta-thoughts about learning. Then meta-thoughts are adaptations to what you actually do, just in the way as reducing a cognitive dissonance is a way to make thoughts and facts fit.

Note: I took the argument at the end from William S. Robinson. See his blog http://yourbrainandyou.com/2011/12/12/do-conscious-thoughts-cause-behavior/

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