Walks of Mind
Illuminating What Goes on in our Mind
Please enjoy reading this walk. It has been
created by John Cochrane for your interest and, hopefully, benefit.
A Walk in the Park
©John Cochrane 2005-2006
This primer gives a background to the rest of Walks of Mind and is itself written as a walk. Here we uncover a simple way of thinking about ourselves and what may be going on under the surface. We look at how memory is used and how I believe that evolution has given us a surprising legacy that affects much of our thinking. And we look at some basic ways of thinking that give us our primary experience of living.
Evolution of Memory – The Power-House of Learning
There is a little noticed process going on in our heads that is key to almost everything else. Much of our thinking and much of our appreciation of life involves the use of memory. Memory, it seems, is a vital part of daily living. But what actually is it? What is it for? Why does it work in the way that it does? And why does it sometimes fail to ‘work’?
It may seem obvious that we remember things so that we can learn from personal experience. But this learning is not quite the sort of thing that we think of today as learning. This is not about schools and books and computers. This is not about exams and business skills. The learning that is important here is what allowed our ancestors to survive over the millions of years that our mind was evolving.
Also, memory is personal; my memory is a record of my experience and not yours. My memory does not directly tell me anything about my dad or his dad or what Doris from next door was up to last night. I may remember things I have been told by others, but I do not remember the direct experience of others.
The point here is that our personal memory helps us to learn things that matter directly to us. Our personal learning attempts to make ‘sense’ out of all the mish-mash of things that happen to us and things we choose to do so that we can make the most of life.
Personal learning in survival terms might mean how to recognise that heavy black clouds come before rainfall on the hills and that if you go trudging through the bog when you see those clouds you might have to swim like crazy when the flood water comes – best not go near the bog next time eh? Or eat the small green apples and you get bellyache for a day. Or go near uncle Vanya when he’s shouting and he’ll fetch you a clout that will rattle your teeth.
Basically, memory allows us to fit our experiences together in such a way that we can build up a mental picture of how our world works. The pictures we draw up in our mind’s eye guide us through the rest of our lives, and we work on them more or less constantly. Each new memory goes in to fill in a blank or to strengthen what is there already.
Of course, it is actually the links between a memory and what we think about it that is important. Our learning is not the memory of a particular event but our thoughts about what it means to us. When we get a bunch of memories that fit a particular idea then this becomes our broader learning. Lions are dangerous – avoid them, or wet clay feels great on the skin after a long day in the Pineapple grove, or don’t leave an oasis when the Sun is high or the wind devils will get you!
Personal learning also includes abstract beliefs about the world, fears or warnings about different situations, ways of talking with people, and practical knowledge. In an historical context, practical knowledge would include such things as where and when to find food or shelter, and how to get at it safely.
My claim is that the ability to learn from experience must be and is at its core a general-purpose ability. There may be a tendency for us all to think in certain ways, but our personal learning is our own. It gives us the chance of learning the things that are important to each of us as individuals. It helps us avoid danger, it helps us predict what may happen soon, it helps us work out what to do next. Memory provides us with a general means to learn from life’s experience in order to influence our behaviour in the future, to enhance our ability to survive and prosper. Memory is the power-house of learning.
I may not know how it does it, but I will expect my mind to have a way of storing memories and ways of analysing memory and making links to between old and new thoughts, which in their turn are also stored in memory. I will be able to store memories of experiences, I will be able to store thoughts, I will be able to recover these stored thoughts and memories and reassess them so that I can, if necessary, re-learn or put a new learning in place.
But memory is not conscious. I do not get to choose exactly what I remember or where I remember it. I can influence my memory but I cannot choose to have a perfect recall of a particular experience or to be able to remember a particular fact when I want it.
Drawing from my own experience, even when I have gone through periods of hard study and crammed myself with facts, speculations, and ideas, I have never had the experience of being able to successfully enforce a particular memory. So what is going on here? Why is memory not straightforward? Why don’t we have a perfect ability to remember and choose cross-links between our memories that suit us? After all, this is a basic ability of all computers so why should we, with so much more raw power than even the latest mega computers, have such obvious limitations?
Memory on Demand
We can see a little further into this by looking in at what works and what does not work for us. Let’s say I want to remember to phone someone at a particular time. These are some of the ways that I know of that I can help myself to remember:
All of these work to some extent and they all work in a different way. So, there are obviously a number of different ways to influence our ability to remember. Some rely on making associations (links between otherwise unrelated things), some engage our excitement and interest, some link vision and other senses, some use imagination, and some focus on concentration. Although all work to some degree, for me at least, none work perfectly, none will be sure to give me the result that I want.
There are many more methods that can be used to help to improve memory. Although I have taken a particular type of memory task as the example, the same applies to other memory tasks; there are a variety of ways of getting memory to work better. The techniques that seem to work best for me make use of imagination and associations of one sort or another.
The point I am getting to here is that these techniques work because they make use of something that happens naturally in the mind when the mind goes about remembering. And, the mind uses memory in more than a single simplistic way.
OK, let’s draw breath here. We have just started this walk but we have already shown up some important points about exploring what goes on in the mind. You can see how we have been able to start to build some ideas about memory using simple observation. Memory, amongst other things, supports personal learning. Memory is not a conscious process. Memory may be used in a variety of ways. I actually believe that different parts of our mind use memory in different ways and that each of these has come about to give us a better chance to survive.
Some of these ways seem obvious. A memory of geography will allow us to re-find food and water. A memory of events will allow us to avoid dangers and to recognise opportunity. A memory of faces will allow us to identify friend from foe. A memory of facial expressions and body postures linked to behaviour will allow us to avoid unwanted confrontation or to make friends more easily. A memory of things that we have thought will allow us to deal with new situations more rapidly.
According to this understanding there is no single repository of knowledge, no single way to directly store and recall a memory. We know from research of brain function that memories are, at the very least, held in different places for long-term and short-term use. I am suggesting that there may be more to it than that. I am suggesting that there may be a number of places that memories are stored and a number of ways that memories are used, and that each is the result of meeting a different evolutionary need.
Layers of Activity
What we have just covered by looking at memory can be done for other parts of the mind as well. We can think of the mind as being the end result of evolution with different situations leading to the development of different abilities. Or if you are not happy with the workings of evolution, you can think of it as different parts of the mind specially designed to handle different tasks, though that approach is perhaps harder to grasp.
When you look at a jigsaw puzzle you see a large number of pieces that clip together to make a bigger picture. Each part is special in itself and not like any other part. You could say that each part knows about or depends upon each other part that it locks together with. This is a little like my image of the mind, a number of different parts that come together to make up the mind as a whole.
And just as every part of a jigsaw puzzle has its place, every part of the mind has its role. Everything that goes on in our mind happens for a purpose and that purpose meets a particular need.
Getting back to the evolutionary vision, evolution is a process that happens over a long period. The evolution of mind has been going on pretty much for as long as life has existed beyond the stage of simple organisms and plants. Your mind and mine are based on all that development, with the millions of steps that have gone into it. There is no reason at all that we should imagine (or experience) our mind as a simple structure designed to perform a simple task. It is more likely that there are many many things going on at once, many layers of activity built one on another.
The earliest or simplest examples of memory and thought may be very remote from our current experiences but that’s what must have existed in our distant past and there may well be vestiges of them remaining in us now. I think of our most recent thinking ability as built on top of, or being a modification of, what has gone before. More recent activities, such as conscious thinking, our verbalisations, and our ability to reason logically, will exist on top of, and in combination with, older activities.
This is in part why memory is not a simple function. Memory is accessed through and used by a number of different parts of the mind, each using memory in its own way in order to give us improved abilities.
Can you see where the next step is going to take us? Each new evolutionary development will work in combination with the previous developments and, as each new development provides something new, there is also likely to be an element of competition going on. The evolution of a ‘new’ ability will produce new behaviour. The new ability will be, and must be, at odds with those parts of the mind that produced the ‘old’ behaviour. Our old behaviour must be overruled or tricked into inactivity. My latest whiz-bang ability of mind will attempt to hook into existing capabilities to produce my new behaviour. Sometimes it will overrule, sometimes it will trick, sometimes it will subvert, sometimes it will hijack. My new ability will do whatever it takes to get its job done. The image that we build up is of layer on layer of mental activity like a pack of cards. Sometimes these are working together but often they can pull in different directions.
This is very different to the normal view of the brain working like a single super-computer, with all the abilities neatly designed to work together and always produce the best possible result. It is also different to the original research ideas that each physical structure of the brain has a single role to play.
Have you ever found yourself confused or uncomfortable in some situations? Of course you have, we all struggle at times or find ourselves in the middle of events and do not know how to proceed. I suggest that at least some of these moments, or longer periods even, are when we have different parts of our mind active at once. Each part that is active is pushing us toward a particular behaviour. We talk of being in ‘two minds’, or we may experience discomfort or anxiety. Sometimes we ‘know’ what to do but somehow cannot bring ourselves to do it – we have a thought-out logical solution but are drawn in a different direction by our emotions or our ‘gut’ feeling.
Conscious and Non-Conscious
Thinking I know that some people can be put off by the idea of non-conscious thought. If you are one then bear with me through this bit, there are some important points to pick up that will help us through the other walks.
The part of my mind that I am often most aware of is my conscious mind. Indeed this is one definition of consciousness – our centre of awareness. And, I tend to think of my conscious mind as being based on logical thought. But my conscious mind is by no means the whole of my mind. It can also be thought of as a kind of mouthpiece or director of something much bigger. At any one time there will be many parts of my mind active and monitoring my experience, selecting actions for me to perform, and attempting to influence my behaviour. I do not have direct awareness of many of these and I have no direct control over them either. I will react to hunger, to threat, to sexual triggers, and so on in ways that I do not understand or initiate consciously.
Parts of my mind will be producing hormones or activating my body organs in ways that may have not changed significantly in millions of years. Each of these ‘primitive’ activities will have been developed to provide a particular survival benefit or to deal with a particular problem, and each will contribute to my present experience of life. Most will be totally non-conscious.
My conscious thinking deals with some very abstract types of thought. I am able to write these words and describe my ideas because of my ability to think consciously. My non-conscious thinking deals with my automatic reactions to events and the running of my body. It keeps my legs going in a regular and appropriate manner as I walk. It times my breathing. It balances blood flow to different parts of my body, and so on. It is also my non-conscious mind that, in the main, handles memories. It is my non-conscious mind that, in the main, produces the physical feelings that I associate with emotions. It is my non-conscious mind that guides my behaviour in certain key situations.
When I dream, when I get flashes of inspiration, when I meditate, when I have celebrated my birthday with one or two too many drinks, when I am passionately in love or passionately angry, at these times I may become more aware of activities of my mind that are normally non-conscious.
An interesting observation or insight that I get when I become more aware of my non-conscious mind at work is that there is much more going on than I am normally aware of. My mind is much more complex and much more versatile and creative than I normally realise. The way that newer abilities are built on older ones and the potential for competition between parts of my mind that I would expect to come from evolution supports this model of conscious and non-conscious.
Those memory techniques that we looked at before work because they activate non-conscious abilities that actually do the remembering, or they activate the abilities that do the recall of memories. By consciously going through a particular procedure I influence a part of my mind that is not under direct conscious control and ‘fool’ it into doing what I want. And this is, of course, a vital effect that allows us to modify our own behaviour and to take full responsibility for our actions. This is one of the keys to successful personal development and change.
But how do we Think?
Do you think in pictures or words?
This is a question that I have from time to time been asking people since I was adolescent and I am still surprised at some level by the answers that I get back. I expected this question to be confusing to most people and to have no real meaning for them. I was hoping that it would lead on to people giving me at least some feedback about themselves.
To my ongoing surprise, even when I ask the question today, most people that I ask say almost immediately “I think in pictures”. I find this surprising because
In fact I know very well that I do not just think in words, just as other people do not just think in pictures, but I experience my consciousness, the focus of my attention, very directly as a kind of internal conversation. Visualisation and mental imaging are challenges for me, though seemingly contrarily I am good at working out 3-dimensional problems. Also, I can experience very vivid dreams and my fantasies are often visual. But these are not my main conscious way of thinking and dealing with life.
As my primary conscious thought process tends to be a verbal one, I tend to think and reason very much more slowly than some people. I can easily become confused around faster-thinking people, I can only follow a single conversation at once, and I cannot talk and listen at the same time, as some others seem able to do.
There are some other observations that have gone along with my ‘pictures or words’ question. Of those that I have spoken with, people that respond that they think in words tend to be less able to play musical instruments and less able to write the word ‘minimum’ without stopping to think (less good at remembering sequences of particular body postures), but are often good at logical reasoning. Much of this fits with my (rather limited) understanding of current wisdom that left-brain thinking includes logical and verbalised thought and right-brained thinking is more concerned with context and intuition along with learned physical skills.
I bring up these observations about different ‘ways of thinking’ to emphasise the point that there is much more going on in the human mind than we often realise and that there is no single simple description of how the mind works. Even that question, “How do you think?”, only directly addresses a part of the conscious part of the mind. And yet the conscious mind is just the surface of the mind.
The majority of our mind is, I believe, non-conscious but this non-conscious part often sources and drives our conscious thinking and the states of mind that we experience throughout life.
In this walk we started off with a look at memory, a non-conscious process that has its roots early in evolution and which enables us to learn from our experiences. Increasing complexity implies a range of modifications of the basic ability to remember and possibly a range of actual methods to store and retrieve memories.
We went on to look more broadly at the way that all recent developments in the brain, and hence of the mind, are likely to have been evolved as add-ons or modifications to what already exists. Each adds specific benefits and meets a particular survival purpose. This begins to build up a picture of a complex mind with much activity happening at non-conscious levels. It also introduces the idea that newer abilities will often be to some extent in conflict with our older abilities.
Next we considered that the conscious mind is only a small fraction of the total mind, and it is the mind in total that results in our personal behaviours and experiences of life. We have had a quick look at ‘how’ we think consciously and at how this highlights the importance to our individuality of the layers of activity in our minds.
This walk is a broad foundation to the more specific walks in Walks of Mind. The ideas that we have looked at here, of the possible influence of evolution, of the way that different abilities combine together to influence the whole, are taken further in the other walks where we look at some of the major features of the mind and our experience of being alive.