The fundamental insight about consciousness that conflicted so heavily with Tor Norretranders in my last post could be summarized as follows: the mind cannot be easily divided into “conscious” and “nonconscious” because in truth these are connected in a continuum. Iain McGhilchrist refers to a “hierarchy of attention” where David Gelernter talks of a “continuous spectrum” of “mental focus.” Gelernter’s stupendous book “The Muse In The Machine” is devoted entirely to this point:
“Here is my argument. Human thought is laid out in a continuous spectrum. Every human mind is a spectrum; every human mind possesses a broad continuous range of different ways in which to think. The way in which a person happens to be thinking at any given moment depends on a characteristic I’ll call ‘mental focus.’ Focus can be high or low or medium; it changes throughout the day, not because the thinker consciously changes it, as he might consciously raise his arm, but in subliminal response to his physiological state as a whole. Fatigue…makes focus go lower. Wide-awakeness makes it go higher.”
Gelernter continues by stressing that the dichotomy between right-brain thinking and left-brain thinking, or reason and intuition, or convergent versus divergent thinking, and so forth entirely misses the point. “Mine is a story of continuity: of one cognitive style unfolding smoothly into another. What the dichotomists miss is merely the crux of the matter: that these two styles are connected; that a spectrum joins them, a spectrum that runs in one continuous, subtly graded arc, from the intense violet of logical analysis all the way downward into the soft slow red of sleep.”
Norretranders completely misses the truth in the following quote from Coleridge: “Fancy is blended and modified by choice.” Our conscious thought affects our unconscious or low-spectrum thought, and vice verca; it is not a one-way affair. Tor misses much of the subtlety of consciousness and concludes that if its not obviously on the scene, unconsciousness rules. He would have us believe that when driving, for example, we are either totally conscious of driving or completely running on unconscious “autopilot.” Whereas “Dennet points out (1991) that we shouldn’t imagine driving to be carried out ‘unconsciously’ under these circumstances…that it’s merely absorbing a lowered level of attention,” Gelernter reminds us. Tor has failed to account for the “cocktail party effect” of Keele (1973), where “the minimal levels of mental attention devoted to the peripheral conversation were sufficient to grab your attention when something really interesting (like your name) cropped up. By the same token, an unusual event as you are driving or shaving would grab your attention and redirect it,” Gelernter writes. That is, consciousness is still on the scene, but minimally. When we are distracted by a daydream while driving, we are more accurately described as being at medium-focus, Gelernter says, and continues by suggesting that “Psychoanalysts cultivate this medium level of focus–asking to be knocked over by an association or an insight, but primed to leap immediately to their feet again and retake control.” Notice that these analysts are consciously “asking to be knocked over”; that is, they are consciously primed both for insight and to retaking control. Finally, Gelernter puts Norretranders’ project of “cutting consciousness down to size” into perspective by correctly pointing out that “human cognition has been cut down to computer-like size. The computer is the Procrustean bed of modern thought science.”
Gelernter succeeds in showing that artificial intelligence research has narrowed its definition of intelligence to only the high end of the spectrum–to high-focus, rational thought–and that it will always fail so long as it ignores everything on the lower end of the spectrum, especially emotions, which are traditionally opposed to thought as if the two were at war (thanks a lot Plato!). Instead, Gelernter affirms Marvin Minsky’s view that “our culture wrongly teaches us that thoughts and feelings lie in almost separate worlds. In fact, they’re always intertwined”; that “We’ll propose to regard emotions not as separate from thoughts in general, but as varieties or types of thought.” The same sentiment is expressed by R. B. Zajonc, who writes that “…in nearly all cases,….feeling is not free of thought, nor is thought free of feeling,” a perspective also espoused by Hofstadter (1981). Gelernter tells us that “an emotion serves as a kind of ‘abstraction’ of a thought or memory,” a “content-transcending abstraction.” Of course, modern science is slow to pick up on truths that philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have known all along: for example that we don’t think only with our brains but also with our bodies. Ironically, Gelernter unwittingly inverts a clever metaphor that Schopenhauer enjoyed using when he asserts that “a violin uses its strings to produce sound; but take away the sounding board–the instrument’s bridge and its body–and the sound you wind up with is a thin parody of the real thing.”
I am immensely indebted to Gelernter’s insightful work, but wish to add one point to his analysis of creativity. He points out three key facts about creativity that get in the way of scientists trying to “cut it down to size:” creativity comes from 1) “the linking of ideas that are seemingly unrelated,” 2) “as a bolt out of the blue,” and 3) not concentrating hard or “putting your mind to it.” It is this last point that needs a little clarifying. Gelernter simply gets a little overzealous when he says that, in terms of creativity, “hard work does not pay” because his thesis is about the importance of low-end thinking (which doesn’t feel like hard work of course). He parsimoniously rejects Andy Clark’s theory that “unanticipated similarities…are discovered because of cognitive glitches that allow pieces of separate but similar memories to be accidentally mixed up,” because he finds it unlikely that such dissimilar memories would be stored so close together in the brain and because insights feel like a wave of clarity, not a wave of confusion or an unanticipated “glitch.” However, he is being too hasty with this dismissal and fails to see a potential convergence of his perspective with Clark’s because of his emphatic allegiance to fact #3.
On the next page after he articulates his three facts, Gelernter discusses an example that Penrose uses that should drive my point home. Penrose investigates the example of Poincare, who had a mathematical insight while casually boarding a bus: “This complicated and profound idea apparently came to Poincare in a flash, while his conscious thoughts seemed to be quite elsewhere.” Now, I pointed out in my last post that fact #2 is a little disingenuous, so I will not belabor the point further except to point out the obvious fact that this is a case of a mathematician having a mathematical insight; that the insight didn’t come from too far “out of the blue” at all. Here is the point I would like to add: although Poincare’s “conscious thoughts seemed to be quite elsewhere,” they most certainly were conscious and on the scene, which could explain Clark’s “glitch” without requiring the dissimilar memories to be stored near each other in the brain. Moreover, this is accomplished because of consciousness! Gelernter concludes that “Penrose, the distinguished and highly creative physicist, doesn’t achieve inspiration by concentrating. He achieves it when he is relaxing, when he is precisely unconcentrating.” Ignoring the point that Penrose’s inspired thoughts are precisely about physics, and thus obviously benefit from the decades of conscious thought he has invested in the topic, we can see also that consciousness is the bridge between the seemingly unrelated memories or ideas! These don’t need to be side-by-side in the brain tissue for one of Clark’s “glitches” to combine them into a novel analogy. Consciousness acts as an unintentional probe, with its high-focus beam passing through swaths of brain tissue that would never intentionally be associated with the question in the back of Penrose’ mind. Poincare’s conscious thoughts were not circling the problem in the back of his mind, but they were probably necessary for such an unusual connection of memories or ideas to have taken place. When writers suggest that insight does not involve consciousness or concentration, they are simply mistaking these things for intention. The consciousness or concentration that was on the scene was not intentionally trying to merry two dissimilar memories or ideas, but it was certainly necessary for such a marriage to take place!
When Wordsworth talks about insight and describes “that happy stillness of the mind which fits him to receive it when unsought,” he should have added the parenthetical “at the time, that is.” He most certainly was seeking poetic insights his whole life long, consciously, but you can’t force insight to emerge immediately from stints of concerted effort or conscious willpower. The insights will emerge later, when the poet is not willing them to come intentionally, but this hardly shows that conscious, high-end thought was unnecessary for insight! It just shows that intentional concentration on the problem is unnecessary at the time of the “eureka moment.” I simply wanted to show that 1) it was necessary well before the insight, and 2) that it was even necessary at the time of the insight, though it was not intentionally directed at the problem whose solution was produced in the insight. Gelernter is trying to balance the mind sciences, which have swung to one end of the pendulum, but accidentally makes his case too emphatically on this particular point, pushing the pendulum just off of a perfect balance. However, I am sure that he would appreciate someone pointing out yet another example of his fundamental thesis about reason and intuition, conscious thought and unconscious thought: that “these two styles are connected“….”one cognitive style unfolding smoothly into another.”