So I thought I’d share my thoughts. Because, well, they’re my thoughts. I want them to be your thoughts too. We’re a social species, so I want my thoughts to influence your thoughts. Then they’ll be our thoughts.
But were they ever really mine? (More)
Who Does Your Thinking, Part I – Framing ‘Your’ Thoughts
This week Morning Feature will consider an intersection of cognitive science and critical theory, asking to what extent it’s true when we say “I think.” Today we’ll examine again the concept of frames as discussed by Dr. George Lakoff in The Political Mind. Tomorrow we’ll extend frames to the critical theory concept of cultural hegemony: how we often defend our culture’s status quo even when it harms us. Saturday we’ll explore how we can help each other think better and challenge harmful frames.
My Desk Chair
As I write this, I’m sitting in My Desk Chair. Those three words together trigger a cascade of ideas in my brain, and they probably trigger some in yours as well. It’s My Desk Chair, meaning it’s at My Desk, although both are in the family room and other people sometimes sit in this Desk Chair. But it’s My Desk Chair in the sense that my family accept that I have a first claim on using it, and they know I expect to find it in the same condition in which I left it.
Apart from that, My Desk Chair is really just a Desk Chair, albeit more comfortable than most other Desk Chairs I’ve used. It has rollers and arms and it swivels and tilts, but I didn’t need any special instructions on how to use this Desk Chair. It has basically the same parts and works the same way as other Desk Chairs. Indeed in most respects My Desk Chair is really just a Chair. Even if I’d never seen a Desk Chair before, I wouldn’t need special instruction or attention to sit in this one. I sit in My Desk Chair pretty much the same way I’d sit in any Chair.
Layers of Frames
My Desk Chair exists as an object in the real world, or at least I perceive that it does. But My Desk Chair also exists as a frame in my brain, a bundle of ideas encoded in connected sets of neurons. When I see that object, or the words “my desk chair,” a cascade of signals travels along those neurons. We call those signals “thinking.”
But note that most of my ideas about My Desk Chair really aren’t specific to My Desk Chair. I use most of the same ideas for all Desk Chairs, and for most Chairs in general. Indeed many of my ideas about My Deck Chair aren’t even specific to Chairs. They’re ideas I apply to Furniture (may I use it, may I move it, is it fragile, is it heavy, etc.) or more generally to Inanimate Objects (what is it, where is it, whose is it), or most generally to Not Me (is it tangible or just an idea). If I want to move My Desk Chair across the room, that thought uses most of the same neural connections in my brain that I’d use to move any Desk Chair, or indeed any Chair, piece of Furniture, or Inanimate Object.
This layered-ness is an important concept about frames. For example: I might ask a family member to move off My Desk Chair so I can use it, but I wouldn’t ask My Desk Chair to move out from under the family member. Family Members may move when you ask them to – or not, depending on how you ask and their moods – but Inanimate Objects won’t move unless someone or something moves them. I know that about (almost) all Inanimate Objects, so I don’t need to also know that specifically about My Desk Chair, or other specific Desk Chairs, Chairs, or Furniture.
Unconscious and Conscious Reasoning
Indeed, unless I’m questioning that frame as I am here or making a joke, I wouldn’t think to ask My Desk Chair to move out from under a family member. My thoughts follow the frames I’ve learned over the course of my life, and one of the deep frames beneath My Desk Chair is Inanimate Object: things that don’t move on their own. Most of us are a bit surprised when a stack of Inanimate Objects tips over without anyone touching it. Inanimate Objects are not supposed to do that, and when they do … it attracts our attention.
It’s not that we couldn’t see that stack of Inanimate Objects before it tipped over. We probably saw it at some point – we may have made the stack that is now a pile – but we don’t consciously think about most of what exists or happens around us. Cognitive scientists estimate that 98% of our thinking is unconscious: our brains processing stuff without our awareness, until and unless something requires our awareness. So long as that stack of Inanimate Objects remains as it was, and we don’t need anything from it or to do anything with it, any thinking we do about it will usually be unconscious.
We can do that because frames are not merely bundles of ideas but bundles of analysis as well. We’ll go into more detail tomorrow, but most frames include a comprehensive set of Ways To Think About This: narratives, roles, scenes, goals, strategies, and explanations. Those also exist as neural connections over which biochemical signals travel, and most of those biochemical interactions don’t require or evoke our awareness. As I walk past and my eyes wander in that direction, my brain notes that the Stack of Inanimate Objects is still where I left it.
We rely on unconscious reasoning so much because conscious reasoning is incredibly slow in comparison. Most of us can read aloud faster than we can follow someone else reading aloud. Most of us can also read silently faster than we can read aloud, and think about a passage we’ve read faster than we can read it. And much faster still, we can process the ideas in that passage without consciously thinking of it. It takes far longer to think about the specific series of body motions required to take a sip of coffee than to sip the coffee. The estimated 98% of thinking that is unconscious saves us time to focus on that other 2% … like writing this essay, sitting in My Desk Chair.
So frames are bundles of ideas and related analysis, encoded in connected neurons in our brains. Some basic frames seem to be encoded before birth, but most are learned and refined over the course of our lives. The biochemical interactions between those neurons are what we call “thinking,” and our thinking follows our frames. Frames exist in layers, and much of thinking about surface frames actually happens in their deeper frames. Most of the time we’re not aware of that thinking, because we use unconscious reasoning to save time.
And even when we use conscious reasoning, stepping through a surface frame, much of that involves zipping unconsciously through its deeper frames. As we’ll see tomorrow, that can leave us looking for Someone To Blame for a problem in society … while we practice and defend the deep frames creating the problem.
And whose thoughts are those?