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The Old Mind and the New

The Old Mind and the New

The idea that man is a fundamentally rational being goes back a long way. Descartes believed that our capacity for reason would allow us to discover absolute truths. Kant’s famous motto for the Enlightenment era, sapere aude (‘dare to be wise’), assumes that men have an inherent capacity for reason, and that they need only have the courage to unleash it in order to become mature and enlightened men.


Over the last fifty years, an ever-increasing volume of scientific literature has started revealing a number of intrinsic cognitive weaknesses in the human mind, thereby drawing a much more nuanced picture of human faculties.


This very weakness is one of the central themes of Joseph Heath’s latest book, Enlightenment 2.0, which analyzes the increasingly extreme and manipulative nature of North American politics. While the book encompasses many subjects, I will here summarize and extend on one particular aspect of Heath’s work, namely how to deal with our limited rationality.


The first part of this essay deals with examples of specific cognitive limitations which bound our rationality. The second deals with the “fixes” we use to deal with them. The third, fourth, and fifth parts reflect on the implications of Heath’s analysis for organizational design.



Having to handle a lot of different tasks easily creates an optimization problem. How much time should be allocated to each task? In what order should the tasks be performed? Unfortunately, the way our brains try to solve this problem is far from ideal.


Multitasking – the ability to run several processes simultaneously – is actually an illusion. We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. People who consider themselves good at multitasking think that they are performing multiple tasks simultaneously, but in reality they are not. They are simply shifting their attention from one thing to another.


As Heath notes, there is some evidence that what they actually are is bad at concentrating, and that they multitask only because they are easily distracted, as a result of which they tend to perform worse on all tasks when compared to those who have a more “plodding” style.


Psychologists generally agree that attention is allocated through a system of competition between different stimuli. Psychologist Timothy Wilson estimates that at any given time, our brains are receiving 11 million discrete bits of information per second, of which no more than 40 can be consciously processed. Thus our brain has no choice but to filter and focus on an extremely limited set of data.


Similarly, a computer is doing only one thing at a time; it just alternates very quickly between them, using a scheduler to allocate CPU time between different tasks. Unlike the computer’s CPU, however, our mind has two important handicaps: first, it has only limited powers of pre-emption, and second, it is not good at reassigning priorities to tasks.


Suppose that you are quietly sitting and reading a book. Suddenly you feel an itch and find yourself scratching and shifting around. Then you start feeling drowsy. These are all manifestations of low-priority tasks breaking through consciousness and capturing attention.


Surprisingly, no task has the capacity to automatically override others. Intense pain, for example, competes on an equal level with other types of stimuli. Soldiers who suffer serious injuries in combat will not necessarily notice the pain until things have calmed down. It is quite amazing what people will overlook if their attention is drawn to something else.


Yet once we do notice pain, it is quite difficult to ignore. This is because we do not have the capacity to reassign priority to cognitive tasks which have captured our attention. We are prone to a weakness that psychiatrists call unwanted ideation.


We are often unable to stop thinking about a particular idea, whether it is an irritating comment made by a colleague, an anxiety related to someone we care about, or a sexual image or fantasy. Straightforward inhibition of such thought processes is quite difficult.


Despite these limitations, our capacity for conscious rational thought is real. We just first have to make sure we can properly exploit this capacity to its fullest extent. I discuss how this is achieved in my second article.


Read more by Ludvig Bellehumeur.




Photo: Jan Fabre at Daniel Templon, Paris. 

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