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How much do we know at any time? Much more, or so I believe,
than we know we know!
-Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger
Has anyone ever told you that you are amazing? Well, you are. You process vast amounts of information off screen. You effortlessly delegate most of your thinking and decision making to the masses of cognitive workers busily at work in your mind's basement. Only the really important mental tasks reach the executive desk, where your conscious mind works. When you are asked, "What are you thinking?" your mental CEO answers, speaking of worries, hopes, plans, and questions, mindless of all the lower-floor laborers.
This big idea of contemporary psychological science-that most of our everyday thinking, feeling, and acting operate outside conscious awareness-"is a difficult one for people to accept," report John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand, psychologists at New York University. Our consciousness is biased to think that its own intentions and deliberate choices rule our lives (understandably, since tip-of-the-iceberg consciousness is mostly aware of its visible self). But consciousness overrates its own control. Take something as simple as speaking. Strings of words effortlessly spill out of your mouth with near-perfect syntax (amazing, given how many ways there are to mess up). It's as if there were servants downstairs, busily hammering together sentences that get piped up and fluidly shoved out your mouth. You hardly have a clue how you do it. But there it is.
As I typed this last paragraph, the words spilled onto the screen, my fingers galloping across the keyboard under instructions from somewhere-certainly not from my mental CEO's directing each finger one by one. I couldn't, without asking my fingers, tell you where the "w" or the "k" are. If someone enters my office while I'm typing, the smart fingers-actually, the cognitive servants that run them-will finish the sentence while I start up a conversation. More impressive are skilled pianists, who can converse while their fingers play a familiar piece. And then there are the Cornell University students whom psychologists Ulric Neisser, Elizabeth Spelke, and William Hirst trained to copy dictated words with one hand while they read stories with full comprehension. We have, it seems, two minds: one for what we're momentarily aware of, the other for everything else-for doing the computations involved in catching a fly ball, for converting two-dimensional retinal images into three-dimensional perceptions, for taking well-timed breaths, for buttoning a shirt, for coordinating our muscles when signing our names, for knowing to jump at the rustle in the leaves, for intuiting the next master chess move.
Or take driving. When one is learning, driving requires CEO-level attention. We minimize conversation and focus on the road. An American's first week of driving in the United Kingdom or a Brit's first experience driving on the Continent is the new-driver experience over again, requiring concentration as one gradually masters left- or right-sided driving. With time, driving skills are learned, then "over-learned." Like most of life's skills, they become automatic, thus freeing consciousness for executive work. The light turns red and we hit the brake without consciously deciding to do so. While driving home from work we may be engrossed in conversation or worry, so our hands and feet chauffeur us to our destination.
Indeed, sometimes they chauffeur us home when we're supposed to be going elsewhere. "Absent-mindedness is one of the penalties we pay for automatization," notes mental lapse researcher James Reason (who joins animal behavior researchers Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger on my short list of aptly named psychologists). If the boss doesn't direct a different route, the servants-serving our usual interests-do what they're trained to do. But Boss Consciousness can intervene at any time. Unlike Freud's unconscious mind, filled with rebellious, repressed workers in conflict with management, cognitive science's unconscious mental workers are friendlier, more cooperative, and more speedily efficient. Their motto is "we aim to serve."
Be glad for this "automaticity of being." Your capacity for flying through life mostly on autopilot enables your effective functioning. With your mental butlers handling the routine and well-practiced tasks, you can focus on the big stuff. While others take care of the White House lawn, fix meals, and answer the phone the president can ponder international crises and the state of the nation. Much the same is true for you. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed in 1911, "Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them."
We have all experienced the automaticity of being. Absentminded professors know the phenomenon well. Sometimes after leaving the bathroom I feel my face to see whether I've shaved. At a late-morning bathroom stop I check the mirror to see whether I've yet combed my hair. After walking down the hall to our department office I'm often without a clue why I'm there (like shaving and hair combing, the automaticity of walking doesn't require our holding our intent in mind).
CHILDREN'S INTUITIVE LEARNING
Some things we know we know, but we don't know how we know them. Consider your absorption of language. If you are an average secondary school graduate you know some 80,000 words (likely an underestimate given that you're reading this book). That averages (from age 1 to 18) to nearly 5,000 words learned each year, or 13 each day! How you did it-how the 5,000 words a year you learned could outnumber by so much the roughly 200 words a year that your schoolteachers consciously taught you-is one of the great human wonders. Before you could add 2 + 2 you were creating your own original and grammatically appropriate sentences. Your parents probably would have had trouble stating the rules of syntax. Yet while barely more than a toddler you intuitively comprehended and spoke with a facility that would shame a college student struggling to learn a foreign language or a scientist struggling to simulate natural language on a computer.
Even infants-well before they have begun thinking in words-possess striking intuitive capacities. We are born preferring sights and sounds that facilitate social responsiveness. As newborns, we turned our heads in the direction of human voices. We gazed longer at a drawing of a face-like image than at a bull's-eye pattern, and longer at a bull's-eye pattern (which has contrasts much like those of the human eye) than at a solid disk. We preferred to look at objects eight to twelve inches away, which, wonder of wonders, just happens to be the approximate distance between a nursing infant's eyes and its mother's.
Our perceptual abilities develop continuously during the first months of life. Within days of birth, our brain's neural networks were stamped with the smell of our mother's body. Thus, a week-old nursing baby, placed between a gauze pad from its mother's bra and one from another nursing mother, will usually turn toward its own mother's pad. A three-week-old infant, if given a pacifier that turns on recordings of either its mother's voice or a female stranger's, will suck more vigorously when it hears its now-familiar mother.
Babies also have an intuitive grasp of simple laws of physics. Like adults staring in disbelief at a magic trick, infants look longer at a scene of a ball stopping in midair, a car seeming to pass through a solid object, or an object that seems to disappear. Babies even have a head for numbers. Researcher Karen Wynn showed five-month-old infants one or two objects. Then she hid the objects behind a screen, sometimes removing or adding one through a trap door. When she lifted the screen, the infants often did a double take, staring longer when shown a wrong number of objects. Like animals' native fear of heights, this is intuitive knowledge-unmediated by words or rational analysis.
LEFT BRAIN/RIGHT BRAIN
For more than a century, we've known that the brain's two sides serve differing functions. Accidents, strokes, and tumors in the left hemisphere generally impair activities of the rational, verbal, nonintuitive mind, such as reading, writing, speaking, arithmetic reasoning, and understanding. Similar lesions in the right hemisphere seldom have such dramatic effects.
By 1960 the left hemisphere (or "left brain") was well accepted as the dominant or major hemisphere, and its quieter companion as the subordinate or minor hemisphere. The left hemisphere is rather like the moon's facing side-the one easiest to observe and study. It talks to us. The other side is there, of course, but hidden.
When surgeons first separated the brain's hemispheres as a treatment for severe epilepsy, they effectively created a small population of what have been called the most fascinating people on earth-split-brain people who are literally of two minds. The peculiar nature of our visual wiring enables researchers to send information to either the patient's left or right brain by having the patient stare at a spot and then flashing a stimulus to the right or left of it. (They could do this with you, too, but in your intact brain the telltale hemisphere that received the information would instantly call the news to its partner across the valley. Split-brain surgery severs the phone cables-the corpus callosum-across the valley.) Finally, the researchers quiz each hemisphere separately.
In an early experiment, psychologist Michael Gazzaniga asked split-brain patients to stare at a dot as he flashed HE•ART. Thus HE appeared in their left visual field (which transmits to the right brain) and ART in the right field (which transmits to the left brain). When he then asked them what they had seen, the patients said they saw ART and so were startled when their left hands (controlled by the right brain) pointed to HE. Given an opportunity to express itself, each hemisphere reported only what it had seen. The left hand intuitively knew what it could not verbally report.
Similarly, when a picture of a spoon was flashed to their right brain, the patients could not say what they saw. But when asked to identify what they had seen by feeling an assortment of hidden objects with their left hands, they readily selected the spoon. If the experimenter said, "Right!" the patient might reply, "What? Right? How could I possibly pick out the right object when I don't know what I saw?" It is, of course, the left brain doing the talking here, bewildered by what its nonverbal right brain quietly knows.
These experiments demonstrate that the right brain understands simple requests and easily perceives objects. In fact, the right brain is superior to the left at copying drawings, recognizing faces, perceiving differences, sensing and expressing emotion.
Although the left brain is adept at literal interpretations of language, the right brain excels in making subtle inferences. If "primed" with the flashed word foot, the left brain will be especially quick to then recognize the closely associated word heel. But if primed with foot, cry, and glass, the right brain will more quickly recognize another word that is distantly related to all three: cut. And if given a verbal problem-what word goes with high, district, and house?-the right brain more quickly than the left recognizes that the solution is school. As one patient explained after suffering right-brain stroke damage, "I understand words, but I'm missing the subtleties." Thus, the right brain helps us modulate our speech to make meaning clear-as when we ask "What's that in the road ahead?" instead of "What's that in the road, a head?"
Some split-brain surgery patients have temporarily been bothered by the unruly independence of their left hand, which might unbutton a shirt while the right hand buttoned it, or put groceries back on the shelf after the right hand put them in the cart. It was as if each hemisphere was thinking "I've half a mind to wear my green (blue) shirt today." Indeed, said Nobel laureate psychologist Roger Sperry, split-brain surgery leaves people "with two separate minds." (Reading these reports, I imagine a split-brain person enjoying a solitary game of "rocks, paper, and scissors"-left hand versus right.)
When the two minds are at odds, the left brain acts as the brain's press agent, doing mental gymnastics to rationalize unexplained actions. If the right brain commands an action, the left brain will intuitively justify it. If the right brain is commanded to laugh, the patient will respond with laughter. The left brain, when asked why the laughter, will rationalize, perhaps pointing to the "funny research." If a patient follows an order sent to the right brain ("Walk"), the left brain will offer a ready explanation ("I'm going into the house to get a Coke"). Michael Gazzaniga concludes that the left brain is an "interpreter" that instantly constructs theories to justify our behavior. We humans have a quick facility for constructing meaning.
Most of the body's paired organs-kidneys, lungs, breasts-perform identical functions, providing a backup should one side fail. Not so the brain's two halves. They are a biological odd couple, serving differing functions, each seemingly with a mind of its own. From simply looking at the similarly shaped hemispheres, who would suppose that they contribute so uniquely to the harmony of the whole? And not even Freud (who didn't anticipate the cool intelligence of the hidden mind) could have supposed that our brains are humming with so much resourceful activity outside our conscious awareness, and that our interpretive left brain, grasping at straws, can so speedily intuit false explanations for our behavior. Beneath the surface there is much intelligence, and above the surface there is much self-delusion.
My ninety-three-year-old father recently suffered a small stroke that has had but one peculiar effect. His genial personality is intact. He is as mobile as before. He knows us, and while poring over family photo albums can reminisce in detail. But he has lost most of his facility for laying down new memories of conversations and everyday episodes. He cannot tell me what day of the week it is. He enjoys going out for a drive and commenting on what we're seeing, but the next day he cannot recall our going anywhere. Told repeatedly of his brother-in-law's death, he would still express surprise on learning the news.
Oliver Sacks tells of another such memory-loss patient, Jimmie, who thirty years after suffering brain damage in 1945 would still, when asked who is president, answer "Harry Truman."
Excerpted from Intuition by David G. Myers Copyright © 2004 by David G. Myers. Excerpted by permission.
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|Pt. I||The Powers of Intuition|
|1||Thinking Without Awareness||15|
|3||Intuitive Expertise and Creativity||51|
|Pt. II||The Perils of Intuition|
|4||Intuitions About Our Past and Future||67|
|5||Intuitions About Our Competence and Virtue||87|
|6||Intuitions About Reality||104|
|Pt. III||Practical Intuition|