Two Modes of Thought
I will describe here, at some length, what will appear to most readers to be rather obvious: that we, and probably many other animals, have at least two easily recognizable modes of thought.
The two modes are not mutually exclusive. They are, nevertheless, complementary. Each mode has its strengths and its limitations, and we normally call upon each as needed.
I will give several examples of each of these two modes of thought. Mainly towards the end, I will briefly touch upon how the existence (and so also the properties and importance) of these two modes is increasingly ignored or neglected in our schools, and on how this affects the education of our students.
Readers who are interested might also want to read the discussion between Peter Isackson, Sherman Pridham and myself in the comments section of one of Peter's Facebook posts, the one at:
We can walk and chew gum at the same time. And some of us may even be able to juggle balls while doing so. But most of us cannot thread a needle while riding on a galloping horse, or learn the calculus while playing ping pong.
There are modes of thought that are in some ways analogous to ways of seeing. As we walk or drive, our vision takes in many perceived objects and movements around us at the same time. We are aware of all of these simultaneously. This is as "non-sequential" as we get, perhaps, in our perceiving. In the language used for computers, our eyes and brain are "parallel processing".
However, this is a relatively diffuse awareness, very sensitive to movements in the periphery, but without sharp focus on any one object or movement.
If we wish to thread a needle, or shoot an arrow at a target, or avoid hitting the person crossing the street in front of us, we switch to a different kind of vision--that of central focus. The rest of the field becomes more of a blur, which we ignore in relation to the object of our attention, which stands out in sharp, precise detail.
It is the same with thought.
When we first learned to drive a car, especially a stick-shift (manual transmission) car, as some of us will remember, we needed to put our full, conscious attention on each action--including (for stick-shift vehicles) steppping on the clutch pedal while releasing the gasoline (accelerator) pedal, and going through the complex spatial arm-motions of manually changing gears.
We also had to focus on controlling our speed by using the gas and brake pedals, while steering and avoiding other cars, etc. Many of us probably found it difficult to do all of these things at once; we tended, instead, to focus on each immediate or primary task, while losing partial sight of, and so also full control over, the others.
The whole thing was rather daunting, though surely also exhilarating in its way. Adrenalin levels were high, we clutched the steering wheel tightly, and we could only do this for a while before being exhausted.
If we had already watched our parents or others driving, or had driven toy vehicles as children, this first experience of driving an automobile on the roads might have been less stressful and more successful.
But after we had driven for a few months, definitely a year, we might have climbed into our car after work and then thought freely about this and that as we drove, seemingly effortlessly. We might then have found ourselves, almost miraculously, home, with little conscious memory of how we got there.
As we were driving, we might have been thinking about other things that concerned us, looking at the things we were passing by on our route or otherwise occupied. Yet we took all the correct turns and did all the other things needed to get from our workplaces to our homes--doing all of this without much conscious effort--unmindfully, as it were.
What had happened was that we had been able, by practice, to delegate all the main sub-tasks involved in the task of driving a car to parts or modes of our body-mind that did these in parallel, with speed, and without need of fully conscious monitoring and correction. So our conscious focus gave the "top-level" command, so to speak, "Go home.", and the "mechanical" parts of what was needed were carried out smoothly and rapidly at "lower levels".
This left the conscious focus free to attend to other things, including vital ones--such as noticing that there was someone (nowadays, perhaps with a cell phone in hand) stepping into the street ahead of us. We could then take appropriate action.
In the absence of such urgent demands on it, the conscious focus was able to dwell on other things, including on past events and future plans, or simply on the experience of observing and being.
We can see the same shifts occurring, over time, when we learn to play a ball game--and go from being a complete novice, trying to get the bat to connect to the ball, and then, once that is mastered, trying to direct the ball. It is only much later that most of us reach the stage where we swiftly notice a weakness or opening, and seemingly "will" the ball towards it.
All that is needed for what follows is, at this stage of experience, carried out smoothly and subconsciously at speed, with the conscious focus left free to observe and strategize.
It is as if the bat and the ball have become extensions of our limbs and so of ourselves. It is of course the same with a car and with musical and other instruments. One seems to become aware, also, of a sort of "life" in each of these things that are inanimate. We learn to recognize and pay attention to minute signals from these entities--and to respond, consciously or subconsciously. So there is a sort of expansion of self that goes beyond mere control.
So we see that there are parts or functions of the mind that can be likened to a well-designed set of computer subroutines, or to parallel processing. This mode of functioning can do a lot of things simultaneously, and at great speed. We may call this the "subconscious parallel processor" mode.
Then there is another mode of thought that is more like the linear flow of the main program. By necessity, this is a serial (sequential) process. This is because it can only attend to one thing (or a very small set of things) at a time.
But it can focus on detail; it can fuss over things, ponder, correct, etc.
It is usually very slow, compared to the mode described earlier. It can coexist with that other mode, and may perhaps be a special part of it--a vital one, accompanied by full awareness.
We may call this the "conscious focus" mode (as we have been doing).
Each era has had its analogies for mental function. I have fallen into the computer and programming metaphors, complementing a visual one. We should of course understand that these are just metaphors. We do not really know how minds work.
We do not even know what minds are--or what mind is.
Can the knower know itself?
These two modes of thought are evident also in language. Most of us listen to and speak our first and (practiced) second languages without any conscious awareness of the tremendous amount of mental processing that must be going on. We hear someone speaking, and we know what is meant by it. We think a thought and, even as we are thinking it, that thought might emerge as speech.
But if we we were to study language in detail, as we might do when formally learning a second language, we would see the tremendous complexity of it, at many levels. The conscious focus cannot deal with this complexity. The subconscious parallel processor can. This can occur without even a conscious thought, without our conscious awareness of all the work that the mind is doing.
So when do we use which of these two parts or modes of our minds--which may be just two out of many more?
Well, when we are learning something for the first time, or when we are checking a mathematical proof, or otherwise making sure of logical consistency, or threading a needle, or making sure that a carpentered joint is fitted correctly, or when we are listening, with care, to someone describing the difficulties they are facing, or listening with attention to a lecture on a subject that is new or difficult for us, we need then our full conscious focus. We would not succeed without it.
When we are walking, running, driving, playing a competitive game, and even in the acts of speaking and listening, we need also the speed and the breadth of the subconscious parallel processor to complement the sharp (but slow and sequential) attention provided by the conscious focus. This is of course also true of practiced writing, reading, typing, etc.--indeed, all activities that require practice and habituation.
We could not live without the subconscious parallel processor. But we would be very limited without having also the conscious focus to call upon.
This duality of mental functioning is unlikely to be confined to humans. As we observe domesticated animals, such as cats and dogs, go about their lives, or watch the interactions between lions or eagles and their prey on our screens, we can infer that very similar abilities must be present and functioning in these and other animals.
The subconscious parallel processor mimics, to a degree, the largely unconscious functioning of the rest of our body-mind, from our breathing and our heartbeat (over which we do have some conscious control), "down" to the cellular and molecular levels. However, unlike some processes that we are born with, the processes it deals with have to be learned. Habits and skills of observation and action, and more, have to be formed and honed.
So you would find it hard to thread a needle if I were to constantly jog your elbow, or if you were riding on a galloping horse. And most of us might find it hard to read a book or an article on a subject that was new or difficult for us, when surrounded by others speaking loudly in a language that we understand.
The conscious focus is not being allowed to form and sustain itself, being distracted and diffused instead. We might feel frustrated and acutely aware that we cannot succeed in these circumstances. This, by the way, is similar to the situations that prevail, too often, in the classrooms in many of our schools--especially nowadays. Is it any surprise that many students and teachers become discouraged and lose confidence?
So also, without much practice, most of us would not be able to play a game or a musical instrument or speak or understand a language, in a way that others might find passable or bearable. This is because the subconscious parallel processor has not yet been able to learn, assimilate and automate the required set of skills--or even been able to learn to recognize the elemental set of objects to operate upon.
As we should also surely understand, facts and skills are also needed. The modes of mind described before cannot operate on vacuities or on general abstractions alone.
A language has words and relations between words. Carpentry has tools and materials and their uses. Theoretical physicists may use logic and mathematics, but they also try to test both their assumptions and the validity of the logical chains they have used by comparing the results they obtain with experimental data. A musician has to learn to use an instrument or his/her voice and also has to learn pieces passed down through the years.
For several decades, and continuing even till the present, the learning of the multiplication tables was de-emphasized, indeed discouraged, in the schools. Then the mathematics teachers in later grades would complain that their students, except for a few exceptional ones, or those coming from schools or countries that operated more traditionally, could not handle the topics being taught and lacked even in basic number sense, seemingly lacking in mathematical ability and so also in confidence in that field.
Part of what was and still is occurring is that a student learning algebra cannot as easily fall back on a mastery of arithmetic to make sense of algebra. So also, a student learning physics is bogged down in the mechanics of solving equations and so is not free to focus on the other things of importance.
The subconscious parallel processor has not built up its powers in this field. The conscious focus has to try to do its work instead, slowly and painfully. It is not free to learn; it is not at ease to respond to questions or even to formulate questions. The student is therefore likely to be dismissed as being "dumb".
Indeed, he or she has been, perhaps unwittingly, but nonetheless successfully, dumbfounded--struck dumb.
Such a student might lapse into diffidence and apathy or might vent his/her frustration in other ways.
We normally expect that both the span and the depth of a child's attention will increase with age. But this can only happen in circumstances where a certain degree of diligence is expected and the intrinsic reward of successful accomplishment--such as one gets from persevering at a difficult mathematics problem and finally solving it on one's own--is routinely experienced.
Some might in fact still argue that that traditional academic practices, such as the learning of the times-tables, are surely a waste of time and a turn-off in the age of calculators, which have now been with us for decades, and of computers, which already are listening and speaking to us.
I will not try to argue with them here. I will only say that vehicles have been with us for a long time. But should we then forego our legs?
What explains the acquiescence, even the support, of many of our citizens to policies and actions made by a government--on the social, economic and foreign policy fronts--that harm their own long term interests, not to speak of others within the country and, especially, in far away places, in ways that are often of life-and-death importance?
One may argue that this acquiescence and wrongheaded support is due, in large part, not to any lack of intelligence or critical faculties on the part of the citizens, but rather to a lack of acquaintance with the basic facts of geography, history, politics and economics.
Some might argue there are no such facts--only conditioned perceptions. Again, I will not try to argue with them here, except to say that they are, in my opinion, seeing only part of the whole truth in this matter.