Skip to content

March 1, 2011


Why do we think what we think?

by Peter Skillen

I have recently been exploring, and struggling with, lots of issues related to if, and how, the internet changes the way we think.

For the most part, at this point, I believe it does.  I have said so in relation to Nicholas Carr‘s “The Shallows“.

I am also fascinated by our ignorance in how we come to know.

I am also fascinated by our ignorance in how we come to know.  I have yakked, maybe even preached, about metacognition and the importance of helping our students to develop metacognitive awareness and skills. However, our minds do not reveal the whole truth – even when we try hard! Check this ‘tables’ illusion and the implications for teaching these skills.

…our minds do not reveal the whole truth – even when we try hard!

I have been reading An Impenetrable Machine by Emily Pronin, an associate professor of psychology at Princeton University. This has given me more to ponder in this regard.

She describes a subject in a psychology experiment who stands in a room where a couple of cords are hanging from the ceiling and there are various objects lying around. The subject’s task is to tie the two cords together, but, alas, they are too far apart to grab them both at the same time. Various strategies are tried but fail.

Then the experimenter casually bumps into one of the cords which then swings to and fro. An idea suddenly comes to the subject. Tie a weight to one of the cords and swing it like a pendulum. Then grab the one cord and the swinging one will come to you.

Here’s the fascinating part.

“Most of the subjects fail to recognize the experimenter’s role in leading them to this new idea. They believe that the thought of swinging the cord just dawned on them, or resulted from systematic analysis…” and so on.

There is much research like this that indicates that people are often extremely unaware of the actual causes of their thoughts and ideas.  “We know what we think, but we don’t know why we think it.”

So does the internet change how we think?  Like Emily, it is hard to accept that I don’t know what goes on in my own head. It is troubling to accept that our own mental processes are sometimes impenetrable. Yet, if I am really honest with myself, I have always known this. It is rather arrogant of us to think we do. Yet, it is something that human creatures are always striving to understand. From Plato to Freud and more, we struggle to rationalize and understand. The onslaught of new brain science research is also spawning a new breed of ‘knowers’ whose research is being misunderstood, understood shallowly, or misapplied. However, I digress. 🙂

Complete neuron cell diagram. Neurons (also kn...

Image via Wikipedia

As stated in the article, it should be no surprise that we are unaware of the causes of our thoughts. Can you imagine the enormous complexity of all the biochemical processes and firing of neurons that give birth to thoughts? Each neuron has thousands of synaptic connections to other neurons.

Emily Pronin goes on to suggest that the ‘obscurity of Google’s inner workings…makes its potential effect on my thoughts somewhat unnerving. My thinking may be influenced by unexpected search hits and extraneous words and images derived via a process beyond my comprehension and control. So although I have the feeling that it’s me driving the machine, perhaps it’s more the machine driving me’.

I love this analysis. My thoughts about the internet’s effects on my thinking have been more related to ‘knowledge flows’, distractibility, focus, ‘multi-tasking’, ‘connectivism’, and the ‘reading’ of a greater variety of media forms which cause us to understand differently than a ‘traditional’ text stream.

This perspective is also in line with the most known of McLuhan’s points – ‘the medium is the message’. My interpretation of which is that we get messages and meanings as a result of the media within which we are immersed (in addition to the intended content).

I think I need to read more about these ideas!  Thank you Emily.

How about other folks. What are you noticing about your thinking these days as a result of your excessive online lives?  🙂

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mar 9 2011

    Hi Peter,

    I know that you and I have talked extensively about the effects of the internet on our brains and what we are ‘trying’ to observe around our own behaviours with it all. The myth of multi-tasking, the partial attention, the reduced attention span…these are the things that led me to read The Shallows and I’ve been trying to balance and observe my online participation since then, somewhat successfully.

    I really need to actually read McLuhan’s work once and for all. I don’t have a solid understanding of the common phrase that we hear “the medium is the message”, rather I think my understanding is rather shallow. As a Canadian studying media, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only read interpretations of McLuhan’s work so…time to dig in!

    It’ s interesting to hear what Pronin says about the internet, or more specifically Google, and it’s ‘inner workings’ controlling us! I remember Carr’s references to the fact that Google is designed to make us click rather than reflect. I’ll try to be more cognizant of my googling behaviours from now on!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Mar 10 2011

    Yes, why don’t you dive into the McLuhan work and I will revisit it again. Also, please check out the Skin of Culture by Derrick de Kerckhove.

    When people say that “it’s not about the technology” they are wrong. I understand their intention – but you cannot ignore its first-order AND second-order effects.

    thx for the chat


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Note: HTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to comments