01 December, 2009

Synergistic thinking - VI: Nature or Nurture?

Synergistic thinking - I
Synergistic thinking - II
Synergistic thinking - III
Synergistic thinking - IV
Synergistic thinking - V

After a long break, I'm back once again on the topic of synergistic thinking.

Just to refresh: last year, I'd proposed a theory called synergistic thinking, that characterizes a kind of thinking style that may be termed "what-is" thinking. The objective of this kind of thinking is model building or theory formation, as opposed to another kind of thinking called imperative thinking that focuses on skill building or "how-to" knowledge.

Before I begin this article, the standard disclaimer. My background expertise is in computer science and I have little or no background knowledge formal training in psychology. But just as it may be, these series of articles are meant to clarify my thoughts based on observations and experiences about thinking -- something that is of central importance to software engineers and researchers alike. The writing here is based on thinking from first-principles, rather than a more conventional research article based first on surveying "Related Literature."

With the disclaimer out of the way, on to the article now..

While synergistic thinking seems to be more pronounced in some people, it is interesting to probe whether synergistic thinking traits are due to natural factors only, or are they due to the environment of nurture?

The human brain comprises of two separate regions to deal with procedural (or imperative) knowledge and declarative knowledge. Procedural or "how-to" knowledge is the knowledge of "skills" -- like how to ride a bicycle, how to swim -- basically the kind of wisdom that comes from experience. Procedural knowledge is also known to be learnt largely in a non-conscious manner.

Procedural knowledge is learnt by the non-conscious acquisition of patterns of co-variations between events or features. This tacit knowledge acquisition happens not only in the brain but throughout the body. Learning of reflexes is an intrinsic aspect of procedural knowledge -- be it riding a bicycle or driving on the highway. Reflex actions are sometimes handled at much lower levels like the spinal chord to obtain immediate responses.

Imperative thinking in other words, involve the entire body, while synergistic thinking is largely a brain-only phenomenon.

Interestingly, all those whom I've observed to display synergistic thinking characteristics have invariably led fairly sedentary lives. Their idea of relaxation for example, is usually a quiet weekend at home reading or listening to music; and hardly ever something like taking up an outdoor hobby like sport, hiking, etc.

I've noticed this characteristic even in children as young as 2 years. A particularly strong example of this is a young relative of mine who is growing up in the US and visits India once in a while. As a two year old, she hardly seemed to show any interest in routine mischief like climbing up furniture, jumping from them, etc. Instead, she showed an extremely strong tendency towards observation and creating explanations. She could remember specific episodes from her previous visits to India (when she was just 1 year old!) and also make generic axiomatic assertions to explain phenomenon around her. An example: "If you leave the laptop alone, it makes bubbles" -- her explanation for the screensaver. Note the generic "ground truth" nature of that statement. She is not reporting on a specific observation about the laptop making bubbles. She is making a general statement -- whenever the laptop is left alone, it makes bubbles.

Declarative memory that is in charge of "what-is" knowledge like the above, is made up of two kinds of memories -- an episodic memory and a semantic memory.

Episodic memory is responsible for capturing vivid details of specific episodes that we have been personally involved in. Episodes -- or the experience contained within them form the basis on which we build theories.

Semantic memory on the other hand, is responsible for creating and managing a system of axiomatic predicates. Experiences contained in the episodic memory are combined with other knowledge already learnt, to lead to possibly a new set of predicates to fit in with the latent knowledge in the semantic memory.

My theory is that this process of converting the knowledge in the episodic memory into elements of a mental model or worldview, to be stored in the semantic memory -- is precisely the task of synergistic thinking.

Just like procedural knowledge acquisition, synergistic thinking happens in a non-conscious fashion. It is characterized by a number of concurrent cognitive processes working on several sets of episodic and semantic knowledge simultaneously.

A change in the content of our semantic knowledge by the addition of a new nugget of knowledge can cause some "disharmony" (entropy?) because of some potential inconsistencies that it may lead to. Disharmony is bad and needs to be weeded out. But weeding out one disharmonious association may lead to other disharmonies. Hence, several hundreds or thousands of nuggets of knowledge are manipulated simultaneously by the concurrent cognitive processes and disharmony is measured statistically. The thinking is said to have reached a point of "synergy" or "harmony" or "local minima" when disharmony is minimized. Synergistic thinkers are said to get bouts of insights every time they hit a synergy in their heads.

Coming back to the main question of this article -- it is clear to me that some folks are more naturally inclined towards synergistic thinking, while some others are naturally inclined towards procedural thinking. But, is this natural inclination a fundamental trait of the individual, or is it a result of the environment in which they were brought up in?

For instance, maybe the environment does not provide enough opportunity to build skills and therefore the mind is left with no option but to develop theories?

Or maybe it is the case that synergistic thinkers have slight bodily deformations that makes physical skill-building less than enjoyable? For instance, throughout my life, I have never enjoyed physical activity and exertion. Working out and muscle-building has never been "fun". I've never won any running races and I remember how frustrated my dad was trying to teach me swimming. For some reason, my body seems to be built in a way that it does not send enough gratification signals in response to skill building activities. Could this bodily reason be the root cause for my greater inclination towards theory-building and synergy? Or is it that synergistic thinking is so intrinsic to me that the gratification obtained by theory-building is so abnormally high that skill building gratification pales in contrast?

The answer to this question would have several implications in fields like education, medicine and social order.

For instance, if we are just as likely to be synergistic thinkers as we are likely to be imperative thinkers, then education can be seen purely from a perspective of environment building. If we need to teach theory, we build a certain kind of environment and if we need to teach imperative skills, we set it up in another kind of environment.

On the other hand, if people are likely to be intrinsic synergistic thinkers or intrinsic imperative thinkers, then our education models should seriously consider matching thinking types with corresponding types of educational methodologies and career paths, rather than force-fitting all students onto a single kind of examination system.