Space to Think

So thinking can develop

Of Patterns, Prejudice and Slow thinking

Steven Johnson, in his stimulating book, Emergence, offers a quote by the futurist, Ray Kurzweil to emphasis the importance of pattern formation and recognition.

Because each individual neuron is so slow, [Ray] Kurzweil explains, “we don’t have time to think too many new thoughts when we are pressed to make a decision. The human brain relies on precomputing its analyses and storing them for future reference. We then use our pattern-recognition capability to recognize a situation as compatible to one we have thought about and then draw upon our previously considered conclusions.”

This raise two thoughts for me in quite different directions. The first is that Kurtweil seems to be alerting us to a neurological dimension to prejudice; and this may give us some clues as to how to deal with undesirable prejudice in ourselves and society. The second thought is that Kurtweil seems to offer a way of understanding the importance of forms of slow thinking and collaborative dialogue.

If prejudice, at its etymologal and conceptual root, is about expressing a judgement based on a position already arrived at, then perhaps, following Kurtweil, we do this all the time and need to; it is the way we are made. We cannot think quickly enough to assess each situation on merit in the moment and so we follow an existing path in our mentality. We act or speak out of our pre-judgement, prior patterning, prejudice. This is not culpable, but it is dangerous. It does expose us to the possibility of getting dissimilar things confused because they become associated with each other in the convolutions of our minds.

Confused associations could result from an accident of our own history, associating some incidental detail with a traumatic or impressive experience. A confused association could result from inadequate, inaccurate or biased information. A confused association could also result from a superficial and irrelevant similarity between some earlier experience or knowledge and the current situation. In any case it comes close to what psychotherapists may recognise as transference; the acting in a present relationship or situation as a response to a prior relationship or situation.

So if our brains function routinely by the prejudice of pattern recognition what hope is there to avoid the danger of confused association and consequent injustice and missed opportunity?

For me, this insight encourages me to practice that pause between stimulus and response that is a feature of various spiritual and psychological disciplines. Knowing that I am bound to be responding according to precomputed patterns, let’s check the pattern recognition; what is similar and what is distinctive about this situation? what informed my existing patterning? what other patterns might match?

I know that in the heat of the moment this will not always happen and sometimes cannot; but if I am going to turn experience in to learning, something I am committed to doing in my own life and encouraging in others, then the better I get at that pause the more refined my pattern-recognition will become. And if I need to do the reflecting after the fact, then so beit; let’s learn anyway – even if with embarrassment and/or apologies.

And perhaps this links to my second thought about Kurtweil’s observation. Perhaps humans are slow in individual response and need to use precomputed pattern recognition, but that we also can use one another in mutual, respectful and robust dialogue to build more complex patterns and practice pattern recognition in an atmosphere of mutual challenge and accountability. I am not conscious of my own patterns (prejudices) of thought, they are embedded assumptions – my worldview; I need to be in honest dialogue with others to surface and explore assumptions.

Slow thinking seems to be called for. Slow thinking that includes extending the reflective pause between stimulus and response, and that includes disciplined dialogue, a community that is safe enough and committed enough to help me discover that “it ain’t necessarily so.”

March 19, 2008 - Posted by | complexity, dialogue, emergence, learning, slow-thinking | ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] I have offered some reflections on this quote in relation to slow thinking (and prejudice) on my blog, here. […]

    Pingback by Our brains need slow thinking and community « Slow Thinking Headquarters | March 20, 2008 | Reply

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