This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 03 table of contents.

Two Modes of Thought

In a little-noticed 1963 article, Ulric Neisser wrote, "Many writers have distinguished two types of mental processes." One type is well ordered, easy to describe, and controlled through conscious processes such as planning. The other type is harder to describe and less easy to control. It is characterized by parallel processing (many things going on at once). Neisser added:

What did Neisser point out in his 1963 article?

It cannot be a coincidence that the two corresponding modes have appeared as alternative possibilities in the design of "artificially intelligent" systems—that is, in programming computers. In that field, the two possibilities are often called "sequential" and "parallel."

Neisser pointed out that sequential or serial processing corresponded to what another psychologist, Jerome Bruner, called analytic thought. Simultaneous or parallel processing corresponded to what Bruner called intuitive thought. Here is how Bruner (1960) described the two.

How did Bruner describe the two modes of thought?

Analytic thinking characteristically proceeds a step at a time. Steps are explicit and usually can be accurately reported... Such thinking proceeds with relatively full awareness of the information and operations involved. It may involve careful and deductive reasoning, often using mathematics or logic and an explicit plan of attack. Or it may involve a step-by-step process of induction and experiment...

Intuitive thinking characteristically does not advance in careful, well-planned steps. Indeed, it tends to involve maneuvers based seemingly on an implicit perception of the total problem. The thinker arrives at an answer, which may be right or wrong, with little if any awareness of the process by which he reached it. (Bruner, 1960, pp. 57-58)

What is analytic thought? Intuitive thought?

The analytic mode of thought occurs when we focus our attention and use our brains consciously to devise a strategy or plan of action. This is the type of controlled processing that Posner described as lighting up the anterior cingulate gyrus (previous page).

By contrast, the intuitive mode of thought does not necessarily benefit from attention. In this mode, important processes must be allowed to happen, because there is too much going on at once for the executive process to guide it all. This type of activity involves parallel processing (what Bruner described as "implicit perception of the total problem").


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