kitchen table math, the sequel: Way too much thinking

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Way too much thinking

I've mentioned (a gazillion times -- sorry!) that I'm writing a book to do with the basal ganglia.

The basal ganglia handle nonconscious learning and intuition. (Turns out intuition is a real thing - ! Basically, intuition is nonconscious category learning.)

Meanwhile, the entire education world is obsessively focused on conscious processes.

Critical thinking.

Problem solving.

GROUP problem solving.

Cognitive science (and common sense) tell us that all of these activities depend upon nonconscious processes, but never mind.

Here's a typical passage describing current thinking (thinking!) in cognitive science:
A great deal of complex cognitive processing occurs at the unconscious level.


It is largely accepted that lower levels of processing (e.g., motor reflexes, sensory analysis) can operate outside of perceptual awareness (implicitly) (e.g., Castiello, Paulignan, & Jeannerod, 1991). And although the existence of nonconscious computations at higher levels (e.g., semantic or inferential processing) has been controversial (Dixon, 1971; Eriksen, 1960; Greenwald, 1992; Holender, 1986), a range of empirical findings on the unconscious over the last several decades has led most cognitive neuroscientists today to believe that mental activity can occur outside of conscious awareness (Hassin, Uleman, & Bargh, 2005). Some have argued that all information processing can, at least in principle, operate without conscious experience, and that consciousness (C) may thus be of a different nature (Chalmers, 1996). This view goes along with the hypothesis that nonconscious processes can achieve the highest levels of representation (Marcel, 1983). A large amount of complex cognitive processing appears to occur at the unconscious level in both healthy and psychiatric and neurological populations. For example, evidence from patients with blindsight (Goebel, Muckli, Zanella, Singer, & Stoerig, 2001; Weiskrantz, 1986), prosopagnosia (Renault, Signoret, Debruille, Breton, & Bolgert, 1989), implicit awareness in hemineglect (Cappelletti & Cipolotti, 2006; Marshall & Halligan, 1988; Vuilleumier et al., 2002), nondeclarative learning even in amnesia (Knowlton, Mangels, & Squire, 1996; Knowlton, Squire & Gluck, 1994; Turnbull & Evans, 2006), and the “split-brain” syndrome (Gazzaniga, 1995) supports the idea that unconsciously processed stimuli can activate high-level cortical regions.

- The Neural Basis of the Dynamic Unconscious
Expertise is heavily nonconscious. Most of the time experts don't know how they do what they do,  they just do it.

Yet all of K-12 these days seems to be premised on the belief that being able to "explain your answer" equals "understanding."

That belief is nonsense on stilts.

Yes, experts think when they solve problems. But eureka moments come out of the depths.

We have no access to our nonconscious minds, and we can't explain what our nonconscious minds do.

What's more, if we didn't have nonconscious minds, we wouldn't solve problems.

So what happens to problem solving when you stop teaching the nonconscious mind?

What happens to problem solving when you believe that conscious "thinking" is all that matters?

Here's Barry on Explaining Your Answer.


Barry Garelick said...

See also this article.

Anonymous said...

This snippet reminds me of occasions when someone drives when tired. They pull into their driveway and do not remembering how they got home.

ChemProf said...

I got to spend the summer doing the kind of research I did in grad school and as a postdoc (way to expensive for my primarily undergraduate environment), and was reminded how much thinking happens in the back brain -- there is just a lot of "Ok, that didn't work, is it our equipment or our setup or are we thinking about the system the wrong way?" or "I need to walk away from this and just think about it or even take a break." Sometimes it is really helpful to talk through the problem with someone else who also understands it, and it is important to communicate your results, but yeah, you need to train that back brain.

Luke Holzmann said...

As I read, I kept thinking about Gladwell's "Blink" ... thinking without thinking.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious. What would nonconscious teaching and learning look like?

Also, wouldn't the only way to prove whether or not explaining your answer is "nonsense" be to have a random assignment experiment in which some students were taught to explain their answers and others were not? It may be a sign that I'm a little Aspie, but I've never understood why people get so emotionally invested in something that has not been proven by a gold standard experiment.

Anonymous said...

late to the party, but have you read Rodolfo R. Llinas' I of the Vortex. He discusses the seat of procedural learning of FAP's - Fixed Action Patterns (such as rote memorization of multiplication tables)as being tied to the Basal Ganglia. This is also touched upon in the book Where Mathematics Comes From, How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being, by George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez