How is a stream of consciousness not thinking? We all know what a stream of consciousness feels like – it is the incessant babble that resonates in our head during almost all of our conscious lifetime. In fact, it is the defining characteristic of consciousness. If we are conscious, we have a stream of consciousness.
So, if a stream of consciousness defines consciousness, can we reasonably argue that consciousness is thinking? That would mean that by thinking we mean any awareness of mental activity is thinking.
I believe that the majority of people would identify with that definition. If you are aware of mental activity, consciousness, you are engaged in thinking. This would accord with Dr. Jos Eggermont’s description of the brain – the organ of selection. With a non-stop stream of sensory inputs, the primary purpose of the brain is to select an appropriate response to that input. Hence a stream of consciousness is a form of thinking – constant monitoring of our inputs to determine our responses to them.
However, because of the sheer size and organization of our brains, we have a great deal of control over our responses. For the most part, we can weigh different responses in a number of different ways. We have reflexive responses that we have no control over – if a flying object is detected by the rods of our peripheral vision that has a trajectory that might impact our heads, we duck and raise our arms. A perfectly reasonable automatic response that does not lend itself to due reflection and in-depth decision making in order to formulate an appropriate response.
According to this model of thinking, many animals possess some form of thinking ability. However, when layers of complexity are added to our environment, the ability to process potential responses increases. This ranges from the simple complexity of our physical environment – we have figured out how to live virtually anywhere, including in space – to our complex social systems that have evolved to increase our ability to meet the bottom two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: basic physiological needs and the need for safety and security. There are a few other animals that have achieved this level of thinking.
The third level of Maslow’s Hierarchy is also met by the formation of secure social groupings – the motivation for belonging and connectivity. The concepts of family, kinship, and ingroup/outgroup thinking are enabled.
So, what sets our thinking apart from other animals that can all achieve this basic thinking. It is the control over our social standing. The control over respect and esteem that we can exert. This level of thinking becomes quite sophisticated and is observable in a few non-human species but is one of the things that ultimately define us.
However, the real defining feature is the ease with which we can use abstract concepts to represent, understand, define, and control our world. We use complex abstractions to communicate with each other and even share other abstractions. The primary use that we have for abstractions is for representations and complexities of our physical environment. Concrete thinking. Making abstract representations of the concrete world around us, communicating them to others, and devising complex responses to complex inputs. Using our ability to manipulate and control complex abstractions gives rise to sophisticated social hierarchies and novel methods of dealing with both individual and group problems.
We have devised marvelously abstract methods to understand and communicate meaning about the concrete world around us. The abstractions of symbol manipulation to represent the world through reading, writing, and mathematics are both unique and brilliant. We have even devised tools to assist us with understanding and manipulating many of these complex abstractions – from a stylus and writing surface to AI. These tools assist us in navigating and controlling our environment and its inputs ranging from the physical to the social world around us.
However, as anyone who has learned to read will know, learning to wield these tools of abstraction is more than a stream of consciousness. Directed learning involves the control and direction of our own mental activities. This takes effort and, having evolved to conserve energy for basic survival (needed or not), the natural state of our bodies is to conserve energy. Or, if there is excess energy, it is either stored or used to engage in activities that increase our abilities to individually thrive and/or contribute to the success of our ingroup – including our place within that group.
This is the level of thinking that defines almost all (well over 90%) individuals. It has served our society well and we are, by far, the most successful species to take control of our environment and mold it to meeting the requirements of our survival.
So what of the other 10% of people whose thinking goes beyond focussing on the concrete.
This small group of individuals learn to understand and manipulate abstractions of other concepts and ideas, including other abstractions. These are the individuals that we look to as being really, really smart. Brilliant “thinkers” who can see things and make connections in the physical and abstract world that are missed when the focus is on the concrete. Experts in various fields who have developed their abstract cognitive (thinking) enablers to allow them to engage in real complex thinking tasks that can go well beyond the concrete.
However, we need to consider another level of complexity in our environments and, hence, our thinking. We have all heard of a "jack-of-all-trades". Someone who can do many different things but doesn’t really ever gain expertise in any one area. Rarely do jack-of-all-trades prosper to the same degree as individuals who focus their energies into gaining expertise in a particular area. We would all like the trained professionals available to take care of a real problem as opposed to a generalist who kind of knows a bit (or even a lot) about a whole variety of subjects. There are places for generalists, but these seem to be limited to the important need of seeing connections between areas that others might miss – creativity and innovation - and even this needs a certain level of expertise to really flourish. Natural selection has favored the development of expertise over generalists. The rewards are greater for the expert than for the non-expert.
Generalists usually arise when someone is forced, usually through circumstances beyond their control, to learn things beyond their initial area of primary interest. This might be because of a lack of available expertise through the scarcity of the expertise of scarcity of resources to access expertise. Someone figures out how to fix their own car because they can’t afford a mechanic.
Mastering several skills accessed through concrete cognitive enablers is rare. It arises when the responsibilities of an individual require them to engage and learn a broad range of abilities during an early learning phase. Learning to read in a reading class and being forced to read in almost all of the other classes a person takes in early education means that the ability to master this concrete cognitive enabler is available across virtually any context. It is generalizable and useful in whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Occasionally, people find themselves forced into these kinds of positions of responsibility early in a career, and the result is usually a highly valued key member of an organization. Highly developed concrete cognitive enablers that are accessible across a wide variety of contexts.
The same thing applies to learning to harness our abstract cognitive enablers. The additional expenditure of energy that is needed to develop abstract cognitive enablers is what keeps most people from doing so. Just like the development of concrete cognitive enablers, the development of thinking using abstract cognitive enablers is almost always confined to a single area of expertise. A specialist who focusses on a single subject in order to increase their worth, through esteem and reputation, to the ingroup to which they belong. It is rare that anyone learning to master a set of abstract cognitive enablers is forced to engage in a wide variety of responsibilities during the learning phase. The learning of abstract cognitive enablers is intensive and the training is reserved and protected for few individuals. This training is virtually always highly focussed in order to produce world-class expertise – at least that’s the theory. Whatever the reality is that emerges from the systems we devise, about 10% of the population develop a solid set of abstract cognitive enablers that are available to understand, control, and manipulate multiple abstract concepts within a narrow field of expertise.
The rarest kind of thinking is found when an individual is forced, usually by circumstances well beyond their control, to engage in a wide variety of responsibilities while engaged in learning how to master and use abstract cognitive enablers. Because of the cost of this kind of training and the lack of tightly focussed expertise that emerges in these circumstances, nobody ever really sets out to end up in this category. When someone enters into a highly competitive PhD program for specific training, it isn’t their intention to become a generalist with the ability to wield abstract cognitive enablers within and across almost any context. Nobody starts out with that goal in mind. But it does happen – occasionally.
With the rapid development of our tools to assist us in thinking, I am of the firm belief that these abstract cognitive generalists are going to emerge as the most valuable members of our society – being able to engage in valuable activities that are going to be beyond the abilities of any kind of tool we develop for centuries – at least. Since these individuals are rare enough in our society as thinkers, and usually arise by accidental circumstances, why would we seek out a way to design a tool that can have these abilities. It is going to be difficult enough to develop tools that can truly understand, control, and manipulate abstract constructs in the first place. I highly doubt that we will see, even basically successful prototypes of these kinds of tools, within the next century.
I think that the most enthusiastic AI cheerleaders who swear otherwise do so from a position of ignorance of how abstract cognitive enablers really work. We know that it is virtually impossible to understand the workings of a concept while constrained by the concept itself. Fully understanding how abstract cognitive enablers work can’t be done under the ceiling imposed by the enablers themselves. A higher level of thinking will be required. I think that this level will require the abstract cognitive enabler generalist. Someone who can examine an enabler in action in various contexts and abstract the commonalities and articulate them in a way that allows others to understand fully how they are developed.
Since the majority of thinking is based on concrete thinking abilities that see little value in developing abstract cognitive enablers – or think that they, as individuals, are already endowed with these abilities, this highest level of thinking is almost beyond comprehension. Almost all of the rest of the thinking is engaged in by those with abstract cognitive enablers focussed within a specialized field. And those engaging in that kind of thinking lack the self-awareness to realize that these thinking abilities are constrained by their own training and our inability to overcome the evolutionary advantage of specialization that is a part of that constraint. If you ask anyone if they want to really learn to think - at the highest level possible - their answer will almost always be “I already know how”.
With the ability of our society to fully leverage the potential of a future of cyber-enhanced thinking relying on developing abstract cognitive enabled thinking as generalized as reading, we are not off to a promising start. All we are going to do is perpetuate our constrained models of thinking and society with more and more powerful tools being wielded by those who have control of the levers of power - themselves constrained by the level of thinking that they have acquired.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We know how to nurture and develop abstract cognitive enabled generalists. We just won’t do it because we are either ignorant of the need or frightened by the truly unknown.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.