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A shocking discovery about thinking?

You’ve probably already seen the story. Participants in an experiment were asked to sit and think. The only distraction available was the possibility of giving themselves a mild electric shock. One third of women and two thirds of men shocked themselves to pass the time. One man shocked himself 190 times.The study has widely been reported as finding that students prefer shocks to thinking. That’s not accurate. It wasn’t students who apparently found the experience of having to sit and think aversive. It was everyone (moreover, finding it aversive was unrelated to internet or smartphone use: it’s not because we have short attention spans in the age of twitter that we find it hard). This is ironic, because a common limitation of psychological studies is that they use an all student cohort. When psychologists conduct an experiment involving only students, the media commonly overlooks this limitation. One time the psychologists take care to use a broader sample, and the media reports that the finding is about students.

But I’m more concerned about a bigger limitation, not of the reporting but of the study itself. The experiment just isn’t evidence that people find thinking aversive. Rather, they find a certain caricature of thinking aversive. It’s a caricature that is widely shared (how many times have you seen that Rodin sculpture used as a representation for thinking?) but it’s false. Thinking, genuine thinking, is not something done in an armchair. It is an active processes, involving movement and props, not something that takes place only in the head. Thinking is an activity of an embodied agent, and involves the use of the body.

We know, for instance, that gesture actively contributes to problem solving. Making people sit and think prevents or at least drastically curtails the gestures that are partially constitutive of thinking (sitting with your hands on a keyboard is a different matter; I’ll return to that in a moment). Lots of people find walking conducive to thinking. And, most of all, thinking is a dialogical activity. We think with others, or in opposition to them. Philosophers, who tend to write single-authored papers, nevertheless produce those papers through cycles of discussion with others, formal and informal.

What about sitting and thinking at a keyboard? That combines the power of gestures with the power of external representations. Gestures have contents, and those contents contribute to thinking. Typing also might be understood as having gestural content: the content of the words typed. In producing these contents we are thinking. Further, seeing our thoughts exernalized allows us to manipulate them in ways we can’t when they’re in our heads. Working memory limitations ensure that we can’t keep many ideas active in our heads at once. But on paper, or on a computer screen, we can manipulate paragraphs or larger chunks that represent ideas in ways we can’t in our heads.

We do all this time, so fluidly and unthinkingly we often fail to recognize the extent to which thinking is an activity. Richard Feynman was one brilliant thinker who did recognize this. When someone claimed that some notes represent “the record” of his work, Feynman objected that the paper was the doing of the work. “It’s not a record, not really, it’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. OK?”

It’s not all that surprising that people prefer mild shocks to doing nothing at all. Doing nothing is boring. Thinking, on the other hand, is (for some people, at least) very interesting and rewarding. But thinking is something we do with other people, whether face to face or through the mediation of paper and computers, with tools, and with our bodies. We do little of it just sitting.


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5 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for this, Neil. The reporting of this study bothered me for several inchoate reasons, and I think you’ve articulated a couple of them really well.

    One question: how strong is your commitment to the bodily/enactive view of thinking? Is it, in your view, *impossible* to count as thinking if one is sitting silently in an armchair? Or is it that thinking is realized in a variety of different ways, with central instances being bodily/enactive?

    If the latter, does this suggest that there is something essential to thinking that cuts across armchair ‘thinking’ and bodily/enactive ‘thinking’? If so, what is this essence?

  2. Hi Gina,

    I don’t have a worked out theory of what thinking consists in. Information processing is its heart, but I don’t want to propose that as a sufficient condition (computers process information, but unsophisticated computers aren’t thinkers). Of course we can process information in our armchairs (we do it all the time: when someone is in the fMRI scanner and resting between tasks, the default network activity is thinking). So my claim isn’t anything as strong as thinking involves some kind of bodily engagement.

    Instead I want to say two things. For all of us, extending thinking in various ways increases its power, so though neural processing is at the core of thinking, extension is hardly trivial. Second. for many people bodily engagement is partially constitutive of much of their thinking and without it thinking is less rewarding and engaging. I think that’s true for me. I might be struck by a thought while showering, but I quickly put it aside: I know I’m not going to be able to really probe it until I have a keyboard in front of me. So its not surprising that many people found it hard to engage in the task “sit and think”. I would find it pretty boring. Others might have more capacity for purely onboard thinking, and that individual variation is consistent with the results.

    Of course the data is far from a clean test of the extent to which people find it rewarding to think without bodily engagement. We need an extra condition, in which people are given something to think about .

  3. This is very though provoking, great post. I don’t think that much of psychology ever thought much about what actually thinking is. Jean Piaget – developmental psychologist – once said: “I could not think without writing.” What very much underlines your ideas. While skimming the paper, I also thought that the way the data is presented is at times misleading. For instance, the authors state: “And on average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much: 49.3% reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale.” If this would be a paper about the importance of “thinking” on your own, the authors would probably reported: “And on average, participants enjoyed the experience: 50.7% reported enjoyment above the midpoint of the scale.” Given the stark restrictions of the “activity”, I find these numbers rather high, than low.

  4. When thinking one uses tools and objects, even when these are merely mental abstractions. I suspect that the activity going on in a pondering mind is fairly close to a mind manipulating physical objects, with activations in the premotor and perhaps motor areas (when we imagine things, activations show up in visual areas). Mixing physical and mental motorics makes sense.

    But these tools and objects are acquired: we do not start equipped for good thinking. We need the experience or knowledge to furnish our mental workshop: imagination does need some raw material. In order to manipulate abstract objects one needs to train oneself to handle these objects, both in the sense of holding them stably in mind and in using the right rules to change them.

    So if one is unaccustomed to thinking or simply lack good materials to start with, the result can be unsatisfactory. An intellectual might be able to construct and maintain an enjoyable thought-environment even in very sparse surroundings (I don’t think I have ever been bored since I learned calculus). But it is intensely annoying to find oneself presiding over a self-created muddle in one’s mind: the less feedback, physical support or stimuli, the more likely this outcome is.

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