Is Cognition Thinking?

“Here is Edward Bear coming downstairs now, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels there really is another way, if he only could stop and think of it.” A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin

The term cognition is a general category, not well understood. An even more confused and confusing term is thinking. Many commentators cannot separate thinking and cognition. Cognition really refers to all the processes that allow humans to know what is going on out there and how to respond. You can begin to understand cognition by examining how humans find food, eat and move in a coherent spacetime frame. The brain is a matrix of meaningful connections between the body inside and the environment outside. Humans have an innate sense of spacetime. Maps of spacetime can be found in the cerebral cortex. Sensory information flows into these spacetime maps and motor output flows out. Our speech grows from movements in spacetime and communications with sounds. We often use metaphors of movement in descriptions of everything that happens. Humans act on the world through praxis or skilled movements.

The terms, thinking and thought, are often used as a synonym for cognition but this is incorrect. A giant leap in understanding cognition is realizing that talking is thinking. We talk to each other and talk to ourselves. Thinking is selftalk, listening to others, speaking with others, reading and writing. Speakers and listeners form thinking groups and in the best case arrive at a common understanding of what is going on out there.

Selftalk is the only conscious mode of thinking and is so implicit in consciousness that “thinkers” fail to identify selftalk as their primary mode of thinking. Thinking is, therefore, storytelling, a form of argument. If you want thinking to mean something else such as processing information, solving problems, making decisions or creating new ideas, then “thinking” is not a voluntary process that occurs in consciousness.

Cognition involves many abilities that existed before language developed. Cognition is rooted in a deep and innate understanding of how the world works. Cognitive structures in the brain are built from raw materials such as sensation, movement and emotion. Deep cognitive processes are about recognizing the relationships among events, making decisions, sequencing in spacetime, and problem solving. Nonverbal “thinking” is revealed in tool making, tool use, mimetic behavior, actions and simulations. Gestures, drawings, models and constructions are independent of language and proceed spontaneously in the brain.

The best way to problem solve is to examine the problem closely, talk about, write about it, draw pictures and diagrams, make models and then wait. Each human has a built in query system and a problem-solver that operates in its own way, on its own schedule and delivers solutions to consciousness when it is ready. Sometimes self talk is part of the problem-solving process but often talking is not required. The solution to a problem or a creative new idea arises from an unknowable process, as a gift. I wait hours before I understand new information or can solve a problem. Big problems may take weeks or months to solve. New insights and paradigm shifts may occur after many years of struggling with wrong notions. This book consists of a long series of spontaneously arising ideas that I record. Sometimes, a new idea makes old ideas obsolete and I have to change an entire text to accommodate the new understanding. The process of writing requires selftalk rehearsal and constant revision that is more or less spontaneous and evolutionary.

Meaningful conversation is a common method of “thinking”, but repeating clichés, repetitive stories and case-making conversations are not recommended. I heard Marvin Minsky, then the guru of artificial intelligence at MIT, claim at a digital arts conference many years ago, that he hated to repeat himself. Subsequently, I heard him repeat this idea at least twice. My guess is that Minsky made this claim numerous times over several decades. Life is a repetitive affair and most humans copy and repeat what they and others say and do with little or no modification over a lifetime. Minsky’s aversion was to humans who repeat themselves mindlessly and tediously, people who annoy and obstruct smarter, more progressive humans who are interested in continuous learning and evolving understanding.