Thinking about thinking

Aidan Kearney takes a moment to think about thinking - and how we can promote diversity and inclusivity of thought.

Take a moment to stop and observe the world we live in; really stop, and really look for a couple of minutes.

One thing that will strike you is the scale and the complexity of it; all of its moving parts and interactions – even in the apparent simplicity and silence of nature.

On reflection, it seems remarkable that human beings can usually navigate this complexity, almost unthinkingly.

That’s because we have a distinct advantage in tackling this complexity; a fantastic machine we all possess inside our heads – the human brain.

Yet, how often have you really thought about your thinking machine? How often do we think about thinking?

Consider this fact. It takes 83 billion different neural connections and multiple collaborative centres in each brain to help us navigate our world. That’s right - 83 billion.

But what does this mean? We all know how we think, don’t we? We’re in control of our own minds, aren’t we?

Think about the times – amidst life’s complexity – when you have felt angry, nervous, and anxious, perhaps before a job interview, or while stuck in traffic, or before an important meeting, presentation or negotiation.

Few of us would want those negative feelings again and they probably didn’t help.

So what’s going on? Why would your brain give you outcomes that aren’t helpful?

It’s down to how our thinking machines are constructed.

Our brains have two systems; a hot, impulsive, emotional, survival system, which moves us towards opportunity and away from threat (real and perceived) and is centred around our limbic lobe; the other is a cool, reflective, flexible, problem solving system and centred around our frontal lobe.

That’s not the end of the story, however, as those 83 billion neurons in your thinking machine are re-wired and re-organised to instil long-term learning about our experiences and the world we live in.

Our hot and cool systems can access this learning to help form our behavioural responses, helping us to gauge whether something is perceived as a threat or opportunity. In turn, this determines whether we need to respond emotionally or whether we need to engage our problem solving cool system, checking for evidence and weighing things up.

This re-wiring helps us to make shortcuts about the world, helping us navigate the complexity. We stream incoming stimuli, and filter it through our perception so that we make sense - or sometimes not so much sense - of the world around us.

Be honest and ask yourself; have you ever assumed that you knew what was going on, only to discover something that changed your understanding? Have you ever asked yourself, why can’t everyone else see what I see, in the same way I do?

It’s perfectly normal and it happens to us all.

It’s because each of our thinking machines is different – a unique product of our differing life experiences and how we’ve interpreted them.

Our desires, fears (real and perceived) and opinions differ. How we respond and react to various stimuli differs and evolves over time. We are constant works in progress and can continue to learn and change our thinking machine.

Think about learning to drive, playing a musical instrument or a similar skill; the effort you needed when you were learning and yet how automatic this complex task seem now.

Our learning and psychological short-cuts undoubtedly help us navigate our complex world but these shortcuts pose challenges as we read, interpret, and respond to the world slightly differently. In neuroscience terms we create an internal model of the world which is informed by our truth of what happens, not necessarily the whole truth.

Failing to take account of this and thinking that everyone sees the world the way we do can lead to what psychologists call false consensus effect. This ‘thinking machine error’ is not an isolated incidence either. The whole arena of cognitive bias is well documented and the ramifications can be enormous; optimism bias has been studied as a key factor in the 2008 economic crash.

The unique way we perceive and think about our world and challenges we face, allows us to collaborate, learn from each other and bring different perspectives to solve problems.

This diversity and inclusivity of thought is a fantastic attribute but necessitates us being able to stay in our cool system and manage any perceptions of threat when someone challenges our thinking, proposes a different approach or disagrees with us.

Our hot system may activate based on perceived challenge to status, authority or security so it’s incumbent upon us to recognize and manage this, to promote environments which support and encourage diversity and inclusivity of thought. None of us have all of the answers all of the time; however, if we co-operate and collaborate, the chances of finding optimal solutions increases.

And that’s where I invite you to return to thinking about thinking. We all need to create some psychological distance between our thinking and the actions we then take. Our hot system may propose a response that we decide to go with, but first at least be mindful of what influenced that approach, and how thinking machine errors we could hijack our actions.

The key is to recognise the thought process, testing the rationale and evidence for it, and then decide the course of action before we take it. We need to think about thinking.