What is Thinking?

What have psychologists and neuroscientists discovered about the thought process? Many of the findings have been discussed in previous chapters, but we can summarize them here. First, the brain is modular, consisting of many specialized areas. In sharp contrast to what scientists assumed as recently as the 1940s and 1950s, brain tissue is not "general purpose" computing machinary. Most brain areas have highly specific functions. In brain scanning research, a specific task will typically result in activatation of many areas, but the areas are not random, and they do not move around; they are highly specific.

What have modern scientists learned about the thought process?

Second, the various specialized areas are coordinated by executive processes in the frontal lobes. We can infer from the effects of lobotomies that creativity and comprehensive planning, among other talents, are vitally dependent on the areas just behind the eyes, the prefrontal cortex. If by thinking you mean sitting down and planning something in detail, coming up with a strategy that brings together your various talents and abilities in coordinated action, the frontal areas are key. Even dreaming and daydreaming are forms of brain activity that seem to involve the frontal lobes. As we will see in the section on metacognition at the end of this chapter, training the executive processes to slow down, analyze, double-check, and learn from research on thinking itself can improve school performance and scores on so-called intelligence tests.

Third, many other brain areas outside the frontal cortex play their own specialized roles in intelligent activity and thinking. The cerebellum, for example, is at the back of the brain, and it was known historically as an area that coordinated motor activity. Modern brain scanning studies showed it was also activated when people had to screen out or inhibit a thought or action...a previously unsuspected and specialized function. Many parts of the brain probably have unsuspected functions that will be discovered only when brain scanning researchers think of clever ways to reveal them.

How are the executive processes important? How are they limited?

Fourth, the brain is creative in more ways than we usually appreciate, and that creativity is widely distributed. People routinely confabulate or make up explanations for unexpected brain activity or actions, giving the conscious executive processes credit for skilled productions that have their origins elsewhere in the brain. Many vital cognitive processes are bottom-up in character, meaning that organized activity emerges from the combination of smaller processes, rather than being directed from above by an all-powerful executive. Indeed, the most skilled performances (such as creativity in language, music, and sports) involve autonomously-acting circuitry, trained by previous experience to attain a high degree of automaticity or independent action.

The executive process is important. It may be the most highly developed talent of modern humans, setting us apart from early competitors such as the Neanderthals. The executive process plans, guides, and contrains the brain's creative activity, much the way a business executive plans, guides, and constrains the activity of a corporation. However, as with a corporation, most of the productive work is not done by the executive. It occurs in out of the way places, not directly known to the executive process. For example, the effects of brain damage are typically unknown to a patient until testing forces the executive process to confront lost talents.

In conclusion, the brain is like a community or corporation, and thought processes are like its productive activity. Marvin Minsky, an influential theorist in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science, called it The Society of Mind. Like a society, it can give the appearance of smooth and coordinated action, while under the surface is a world of variability and widely distributed talents and skills.

Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey