When Is a Thought Completed?

October 26, 2009

You may have heard about Google Wave, the Next Big Thing in online collaborative tools, if the Internet giant has anything to say about it.  It’s an ambitious and somewhat complicated way to coordinate and record multimedia collaborations.  When Slate columnist and author Farhad Manjoo took Wave for a test drive, he was put off by the fact that others could see his individual keystrokes as he typed in it.  Unlike other text-based applications (like instant messaging), which don’t send anything until you hit Enter.

Few of us type perfect and final sentences every time.  Sometimes we hit the wrong key; sometimes we back up and change words.  If you’re IM-ing and type, “That guy is a nut case unusual,” your recipient will see only the post-editing version, but if you’re typing in Google Wave, other participants will see the whole thing as you type.

Manjoo felt like the application was allowing others to look into his head while he thought.  We picture ourselves having little editor-censors that allow us to think whatever we want, but get to approve the final, expressed version.  In fact, our processing of information is continuous and reiterative, such that the pronouncement of the contents of an information stream at any point as “final” is arbitrary and misleading.  The figure below plots different kinds of cognitive output by the amount of processing that typically goes into each.

Proc_continuumThe process (or more properly, one cycle of it) begins in thought, where we assemble fragments of ideas into a coherent expression.  Once we’ve chosen the initial words, our fingers start to type, although we’re still building the expression and could change our minds, which is what makes watching a Google Wave comment under construction feel like peering into the skull.  Speech is only a little less granular: e.g., there are nine letters in the word “objective” but only three phonemes.  Multiply the cognitive processing we put into an instant message several-fold and you have the editorial control we typically exercise over blog posts, which are longer and have more elements to coordinate.  As with IM, we don’t hit Enter and publish them until we’re satisfied with the whole thing.

The two rightmost examples go extra-cranial and pool our processing power with others’.  An email thread between a pair of correspondents trying to figure something out has the benefit of both repeated iterations and two different perspectives to refine its conclusion.  An even greater number of authors, and more deliberation and verification, are often (but not always) involved with the creation of a Wikipedia article

The output of cognitive processing is typically a representation of objective reality; a truth claim about that reality.  That’s mostly what we think, talk and write about.  On the surface, it might seem that the more time and effort we put into building that representation, and the more heads we can combine to gain the benefit of additional brainpower, the more likely we are to “get it right” – to end up with an expression that faithfully mirrors the objective fact it represents.

But it often doesn’t work out that way.  Additional processing might allow us to crunch more data and catch and correct some cognitive errors and biases, but it can reinforce and magnify others.  If we’re communicating with other people, our goal may not be to collectively discover what’s objectively true, but to manipulate belief.

Even when a thinker with a particularly keen intellect labors over and eventually wins acclaim for solving a problem, the last word may have yet to be writ.  Einstein, Freud and Wittgenstein all repudiated significant portions of their earlier work later in life. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t right the first time.

Our beliefs and communications hover around the objective truth, but there’s no necessary relationship between how much cognitive work we put into them and how veridical they are.  Additional processing may bring us closer to that truth, cause us to overshoot it, or allow us to steer around it.

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