Thinking about Thinking

So far, in my reading of Minsky’s Society of Mind, his hypothesis, that the mind is an agglomeration of specialized agents working in conjunction with each other completely meshes with observations of my own behavior. In particular, I’ve noticed that when I get stuck thinking about a problem, I’ll endlessly repeat, in my head, the knowledge and reasons surrounding the problem until the solution/new path/new thought occurs to me. It’s not me that’s doing the thinking here, rather It’s me that the thought occurs to, which explains the phrase, “It occurred to me that…”). So our Ego has the mistaken opinion that it’s the originator of all the thought in the mind, while all the time it’s more the receiver of the thoughts which occur in the brain.

But if this is true, then what is it that makes one person smarter than another? It must be that more thoughts (maybe of different character) occur to the smarter person. But then how does one make themselves smarter? One probable method would be to do daily exercises in logic puzzles and brain teasers, on the presumption that it will exercise and stimulate some parts of the brain from latent dormancy into activity, and that this sort of change in brain activity will be of general use in life’s daily problems. I’m not a psychologist, and have no data on the efficacy of this approach, but it seems plausible. More helpful, would be a correlation between specific types of problems and wether experience in solving particular instances of that type will extend to an increased ability to solve all problems in that class.

Yet the revered smarts of Einstein and Leibniz isn’t that they were particularly good at solving instances of know problems, computers can do that better than any human, it’s that they saw connections and aspects of unsolved problems that then allowed those problems to be solved. What brain calisthenics would help you to answer the currently unanswered questions? Here I draw a blank and even have a difficult time speculating. History is replete with anecdotes about flashes of insight that answer the prepared mind (penicillin was found in dirty dishes, structure of benzene revealed in a dream of snakes, gravity with the fall of an apple, etc). But beyond extended concentration on a given problem to prepare the mind, none of these tales suggest a general approach for encouraging the frothy bubbling of thoughts that the brain must present to the consciousness trying to solve the problem. Intelligence then will vary as a result of the computational structure in underlying medium (neural brain) that supports thought.

I’m at a loss when I try to conjure up a method by which we can transform my brain’s architecture so that it can better do my thinking for me. If Minsky is right (and I really think he is) then the solution must lie in the study of multi-agent systems and emergent behavior. Unfortunately, we are still developing the non-linear methods and mathematical tools that will help an understanding of such systems. But the research will be useful for much more than the study of thought, it applies to a very wide range of things found in nature (Economic behavior, Environment/Ecosystems, Evolution + Game Theory, etc.) and cuts across so many fields that it’s likely everyone has a roughly equal chance of contributing, wether they realize it or not. This really is the age of the multi-disciplined researcher.

Update: a Reasonable Deviations post about the Creativity Machine, which incorporates an apropos feedback mechanism, that readily models the difference between the consciousness which experiences thought and the separate generative mechanism of thought.