A Few Thoughts on Thinking

Two gems from this morning’s New York Times Book Review:

From: The Catastrophist By LEON WIESELTIER (a review of THE SECOND PLANE – September 11: Terror and boredom, By Martin Amis.)

On Sept. 10, 2001, nobody in America seemed to know anything about Islam. On Sept. 12, 2001, everybody seemed to know everything about Islam. Well, not quite; but it is really a wonder the way the arcane particulars of an alien civilization now trip off every tongue. People who would not know if a page of Arabic is upside down or right side up helpfully expound upon the meaning of jahilliyah. Sayyid Qutb is quickly overtaking Reinhold Niebuhr as the theologian about whom the un- or antitheological pronounce with the most serene authority. Nothing creates intellectual confidence like catastrophe. After the mind breaks, it stiffens; in the aftermath of grief, it lets in only certainty. In a time of war, complexity is suspected of a sapping effect, and so a mental curfew is imposed. From the maxim that we must know our enemy, we infer that our enemy may be easily known.

From: Patch Job by ANNIE MURPHY PAUL (a review of KLUGE – The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, By Gary Marcus.)

As defined by the author, a kluge (rhymes with huge) is “a clumsy or inelegant — yet surprisingly effective — solution to a problem.” Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University and director of the N.Y.U. Infant Language Learning Center, borrowed the word from the field of engineering, where it has long been the term of art for a useful but ungainly improvisation. […] Around midcentury, the word was adopted by the pioneers of early computing; a 1962 article defined a kluge (or kludge) as “an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole.”

And that, Marcus writes, is a fair description of a fleshier contraption: the human body. Take the spine. It would make more sense, and spare us much Advil, if we had four cross-braced columns of vertebrae instead of a single vulnerable one. Or the retina: it faces the back of the head rather than the front, burdening us with a blind spot where a clump of wiring gets in the way. We’re a collection of patches and fixes, held together with the biological equivalent of duct tape — the handiwork not of an intelligent designer but of the rough-and-ready processes of evolution. Engineers and computer programmers resort to kluges when pinched for time or money. Evolution “kluges” its solutions because it has only the crudest tools at its disposal: genetic mutations and millions of years. Natural selection can select only from what genetic accidents have made available, and the features it chooses may remain in place not because they are optimal, Marcus writes, but “because evolution just didn’t find a better way.”

What’s true of our aching backs and blinkered vision also applies to our brains. The human mind, Marcus writes, is “the most fantastic kluge of them all,” an organ whose “haphazard construction” is apparent in our memory slips, credulous beliefs and self-defeating choices.

The early pages of “Kluge” are invigorating fun, as Marcus introduces the concept and explores its application to the evolution of the brain. The notion of nature as an ingenious but often careless technician, content to make do with what’s available, at first seems inspired, one of those unexpected analogies that help us look at everything afresh. Indeed, if we are to think of the mind as a kluge, Marcus asserts, “our very understanding of ourselves — of human nature — must be reconsidered.”

The reviewer goes on to pan the rest of the book, so I am doing what she suggests and just point out the first part (of the book and of her review).

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One thought on “A Few Thoughts on Thinking

  1. A week later I was reading the NYT again and found this wonderful article “Can You Become a Creature of New Habits.” Some highlights:

    “It seems antithetical to talk about habits in the same context as creativity and innovation. But brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.

    “Rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.

    “But don’t bother trying to kill off old habits; once those ruts of procedure are worn into the hippocampus, they’re there to stay. Instead, the new habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass those old roads.

    “The first thing needed for innovation is a fascination with wonder,” says Dawna Markova, author of “The Open Mind” and an executive change consultant for Professional Thinking Partners.

    Read the whole thing here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/04/business/04unbox.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

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