Wednesday, May 18, 2011

consciousness not necessary for thinking

OCBBM | As we go from simple to more complicated aspects of mentality, we enter vaguer and vaguer territory, where the terms we use become more difficult to travel with. Thinking is certainly one of these. And to say that consciousness is not necessary for thinking makes us immediately bristle with protest. Surely thinking is the very heart and bone of consciousness! But let us go slowly here. What we would be referring to would be that type of free associating which might be called thinking-about or thinking-of, which, indeed, always seems to be fully surrounded and immersed in the image-peopled province of consciousness. But the matter is really not that clear at all.

Let us begin with the type of thinking that ends in a result to which may be predicated the terms right or wrong. That is what is commonly referred to as making judgments, and is very similar to one extreme of solution learning that we have discussed.

A simple experiment, so simple as to seem trivial, will bring us directly to the heart of the matter. Take any two unequal objects, such as a pen and pencil or two unequally filled glasses of water, and place them on the desk in front of you. Then partially closing your eyes to increase your attention to the task, pick up each one with the thumb and forefinger and judge which is heavier. Now introspect on everything you are doing. You will find your self conscious of the feel of the objects against the skin of your fingers, conscious of the slight downward pressure as you feel the weight of each, conscious of any protrubances on the sides of the objects, and so forth. And now the actual judging of which is heavier. Where is that? Lo! the very act of judgment that one object is heavier than the other is not conscious. It is somehow just given to you by your nervous system. If we call that process of judgment thinking, we are finding that such thinking is not conscious at all. A simple experiment, yes, but extremely important. It demolishes at once the entire tradition that such thought processes are. the structure of the conscious mind.

This type of experiment came to be studied extensively back at the beginning of this century in what came to be known as the Wurzburg School. It all began with a study by Karl Marbe in 1901, which was .very similar to the above, except that small weights were used. [16] The subject was asked to lift two weights in front of him, and place the one that was heavier in front of the experimenter, who was facing him. And it came as a startling discovery both to the experimenter himself and to his highly trained subjects, all of them introspective psychologists, that the process of judgment itself was never conscious. Physics and psychology always show interesting contrasts, and it is one of the ironies of science that the Marbe experiment, so simple as to seem silly, was to psychology what the so-difficult-to-set-up Michaelson-Morley experiment was to physics. Just as the latter proved that the ether, that substance supposed to exist throughout space, did not exist, so the weight-judgment experiment showed that judging, that supposed hallmark of consciousness, did not exist in consciousness at all.

But a complaint can be lodged here. Maybe in lifting the objects the judging was all happening so fast that we forgot it. After all, in introspecting we always have hundreds of words to describe what happens in a few seconds. (What an astonishing fact that is!) And our memory fades as to what just happened even as we are trying to express it. Perhaps this was what was occurring in Marbe’s experiment, and that type of thinking called judging could be found in consciousness, after all, if we could only remember.

This was the problem as Watt faced it a few years after Marbe. [17] To solve it, he used a different method, word associations. Nouns printed on cards were shown to the subject, who was to reply by uttering an associate word as quickly as he could. It was not free association, but what is technically called partially constrained: in different series the subject was required to associate to the visual word a superordinate (e.g., oak-tree), co-ordinate (oak-elm), or subordinate (oak-beam); or a whole (oak-forest), a part (oak-acorn), or another part of a common whole (oak-path). The nature of this task of constrained associations made it possible to divide the consciousness of it into four periods: the instructions as to which of the constraints it was to be (e.g., superordinate), the presentation of the stimulus noun (e.g., oak), the search for an appropriate association, and the spoken reply (e.g., tree). The introspecting observers were asked to confine themselves first to one period and then to another, and thus get a more accurate account of consciousness in each.

It was expected that the precision of this fractionation method would prove Marbe’s conclusions wrong, and that the consciousness of thinking would be found in Watt’s third period, the period of the search for the word that would suit the particular constrained association. But nothing of the sort happened. It was the third period that was introspectively blank. What seemed to be happening was that thinking was automatic and not really conscious once a stimulus word had been given, and, previous to that, the particular type of association demanded had been adequately understood by the observer. This was a remarkable result. Another way of saying it is that one does one’s thinking before one knows what one is to think about. The important part of the matter is the instruction, which allows the whole business to go off automatically. This I shall shorten to the term struction, by which I mean it to have the connotation of both instruction and construction. [18]

Thinking, then, is not conscious. Rather, it is an automatic process following a struction and the materials on which the struction is to operate.

But we do not have to stay with verbal associations; any type of problem will do, even those closer to voluntary actions. If I say to myself, I shall think about an oak in summer, that is a struction, and what I call thinking about is really a file of associated images cast up on the shores of my consciousness out of an unknown sea, just like the constrained associations in Watt’s experiment.

If we have the figures 6 and 2, divided by a vertical line, 6/2, the ideas produced by such a stimulus will be eight, four, or three, according to whether the struction prescribed is addition, subtraction, or division. The important thing is that the struction itself, the process of addition, subtraction, or division, disappears into the nervous system once it is given. But it is obviously there ‘in the mind’ since the same stimulus can result in any of three different responses. And that is something we are not in the least aware of, once it is put in motion.

Suppose we have a series of figures such as the following:What is the next figure in this series? How did you arrive at your answer? Once I have given you the struction, you automatically ‘see’ that it is to be another triangle. I submit that if you try to introspect on the process by which you came up with the answer you are not truly retrieving the processes involved, but inventing what you think they must have been by giving yourself another struction to that effect. In the task itself, all you were really conscious of was the struction, the figures before you on the page, and then the solution.

Nor is this different from the case of speech which I mentioned earlier. When we speak, we are not really conscious either of the search for words, or of putting the words together into phrases, or of putting the phrases into sentences. We are only conscious of the ongoing series of structions that we give ourselves, which then, automatically, without any consciousness whatever, result in speech. The speech itself we can be conscious of as it is produced if we wish, thus giving some feedback to result in further structions.

So we arrive at the position that the actual process of thinking, so usually thought to be the very life of consciousness, is not conscious at all and that only its preparation, its materials, and its end result are consciously perceived.
16. K. Marbe, Experimentell-Psychologische Untersuchungen uber das Urteil, eine Einleitung in die Logik (Leipzig: Emgelmann, 1901).

17. H.J. Wattt, “Experimentelle Beitrage zur einer Theorie des Denkens,” Archiv fur geschite der Psychologie, 1905, 4: 289-436.

18. The terms set, determining tendency, and struction need to be distinguished. A set is the more inclusive term, being an engaged aptic structure which in mammals can be ordered from a general limbic component of readiness to a specific cortical component of a determining tendency, the final part of which in humans is often a struction.