To Moshe Bar

Open Letter to Moshe Bar (Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital)

(Regarding your New York Times Grey Matter column “Think Less, Think Better” June 17, 2016)

Dear Sir:
It is true, as you suggest in your article, that "innovative thinking is our default cognitive mode when our minds are clear." It is also true that mental silence is the path to innovative thinking.

Would the following be a productive hypothesis for your research?

As we all know, we think better when we put our fingers on our lips. This is illustrated by Rodin’s statue. I hypothesize that some branch of the mandibular nerve is involved in speech (both internal and vocal) and the reason for the Thinker Phenomenon is that putting our fingers on our lips occupies this part of the mandibular nerve without using it for speech of either type; (One thing this does is stop us from seeing words in our mind. When we speak, either vocally or internally, we speak words) and that when the speech system is thus occupied without words, the mind is free to explore.

The same thing can be achieved by eating (as in your article when you describe how you often eat meals without tasting them--your mind is elsewhere). The same thing can be achieved much more efficiently by blowing out softly over the tongue.

It is obvious that the cognitive center pre-dates language. This is why you can "think better by thinking less." Words did a lot for human knowledge, but in the form of internal or vocal speech they can get in the way of cognition!

In your own case, you need to go to a vipassana meditation retreat to get around this problem--by going speechless for a week.

Words are conservative. They refer to a past state of the cognitive center, which we have labeled with words for future reference. As we go about our daily life, words come unceasingly to mind. This is much more than once in awhile "practicing a pitch before entering an important meeting, or memorizing a list of groceries to buy later at the supermarket". It occurs continuously, in regard to whatever we are seeing or hearing at any particular time--of course, internal speech, rather than your friend’s unusual habit of doing it vocally. This is also in addition to the "ever-present wanderings of a normal mind"-- which are also in the form of words.

With practice, one can learn to view the world wordlessly--habitually blowing out softly over the tongue--and thereby "unburden the load on one’s mind" and let the mind roam free.

With brain imaging equipment, could researchers someday be able to locate the cognitive center and even identify the physical correlates of cognition, b first disabling speech activity, especially interior speech?

Words are necessary if we are going to learn much from someone else, or describe what we know to someone else. But learning from someone else is not cognition. "Explicit learning" is not cognition. In the end, you always have to say: "I learned this from someone else."

Someone else can help you identify knowledge which is already in your mind. But the cognition involved already happened. Cognition is always "implicit".

Cognition happens without our conscious involvement. We can only seek to know its import after it happens, when we try "absent-mindedly," with more or less success, to figure out what it is we have learned. (As you put it, “my thoughts--when I return to thinking about something rather than nothing--are fresher and more surprising”.) This is what most people call "thinking".

The "cognitive center" can also reprocess something we have learned from someone else, if we let it--and work it into our "tacit knowledge". This too will enable thoughts which are fresher and more surprising. Actually, it is probable that this is how the "cognitive center" is mostly built up, and how one can become an "expert" in any area of knowledge.

A good way to experience "implicit learning" is by reading:

Normally when we read, we approach each word by immediately “pronouncing” it in our mind. To learn “implicitly” from a word or phrase we have only---just for an instant--to allow ourselves to see it without pronouncing the word(s) either vocally or interiorly. (The same applies to learning from the spoken word,and from music (with musical sounds rather than words). It is clear that in the moment of “implicit learning” some physical change occurs somewhere in the brain.

By my hypothesis, what a scientist would have to do in order to study this physical change, the physical correlate of cognition, is disable the subject’s speech systems by--for example--having him read while blowing out softly through his mouth, letting his mind alight on whatever word or phrase it itself (!) decides to, and above all not making any effort to grasp or remember anything about it. This is what in your article you call "complete immersion in what is in front of us." It might seem to the subject that he is "looking at the word without seeing it," but actually the "cognitive center" is "seeing" and processing it.

(An unavoidable characteristic of "complete immersion" is (at least temporarily) not being able to tell anyone later about what we have learned or even verbalize it to ourselves. This demonstrates that at the moment of complete immersion we are cut off from language.

But the knowledge itself is inside us, and is ready to give us "fresh and surprising" thoughts at a later time.

This is exactly what Arthur Reber does with his own machine ("tachistoscope"): the subject’s cognitive center is allowed to process the word though the subject is not aware of it (looking but not seeing”).

By the way, one thing that becomes absolutely clear from the experience of "implicit learning" is that whatever happens during cognition is always instantaneous. Cognition can quickly process hundreds of disparate things in quick succession, but each is processed instantaneously. What surprises me about your article is your claim that it would be "gratifying" to look at a flower for 45 minutes! Actually, everything the cognitive center could grasp about that flower at that particular time would be grasped in the first fraction of an instant!

Bill Cushman