What is thinking?

Humans have long-since seen themselves as being at the top of the animal kingdom, set apart from other creatures by our superior intelligence. At the forefront of our mental powers are our abilities to reason and think.

But what is thinking? And if thinking is the special skill that sets us apart from other animals, why is it that we all think differently? Why is it, for example, that when presented with the same facts, circumstances and information, one person will draw one conclusion while another might conclude something altogether different?

I began pondering this question after reading "On Intelligence" by Jeff Hawkins. Hawkins believes that the central function of the brain is to remember and that thinking is therefore a form of "pattern-matching" process.

For example, suppose I provide you with two boxes, one red and one yellow, and ask you to sort a pile of red and yellow cards into the appropriate box. The exercise is easy and would require little thought as the correct box for each card is obvious. But now suppose I added some orange cards into the equation, which box would you put them in - the red box or the yellow box?

Since orange is made by combining red and yellow, it could be considered to be both colours or neither. There is no "right" answer and it is therefore not surprising that different people would be likely to choose different boxes. The choice a person would make would therefore not be based on some form of objective reasoning, but on personal preference.

For a slightly more complex illustration of this point, study the following image and answer the question that appears next to it:

Which number is most unlike the others?

Once again the question appears to be ambiguous so different people will suggest different answers. Some people might view the question mathematically and suggest "one third", as it is the only number that is a fraction. Others might view the question grammatically and suggest "thirty-one", as it is the only number that is hyphenated. More artistically-minded people might select "thirteen" as, unlike red and blue, purple is not a primary colour and is obtained by combining red and blue. More lateral-thinkers might also suggest "thirteen" as it does not contain the word "one" in it and extremely creative thinkers may select the black number "2", as all of the other numbers contain the number one and/or three.

The point is that while every person considering the question is using the mental process we call "thinking" to derive their answer, their view of which answer is the best one is subjective. Thinking is therefore a personalised process.

So why do people think in different ways?

If Jeff Hawkins is correct then thinking is nothing more than a process of pattern-matching. His argument is that when we see, feel, smell, taste or hear something we add that information to our stored memories in order to draw "fill in the blanks". For example, if I showed you a photograph of a close friend or relative with 75% of the picture covered up, I am sure that it would take you no time at all to work out who it was as your memory would easily fill in the missing 75%. However, if I tried the same exercise using pictures of people you knew but who were far less familiar to you, you would struggle to achieve anything like the same degree of success as your memory of their faces would be nowhere near as strong.

Thinking is therefore a process of comparing our stored memories to either new information or to other stored memories. Since we naturally give greater weighting to the strongest memories, those that conform to "our view of the world" will tend to take precedence over memories which might contradict this view. If this is indeed the case, then it would explain why, when faced with the same facts, different people can draw radically different conclusions.

Published October 2009

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