Thoughts on Thinking

Most of our thinking consists of a set of responses that I call subroutines. We’ve learned those by education or experience and we can now call them up from memory in response to whichever task we need to accomplish.
Consider the routine of an ordinary day. We get up, brush our teeth, shower, get dressed, have breakfast, start the car and drive to work. During all of this there is no need for any original thinking. It’s all programmed, including driving to work. You can carry out all of these while using your conscious mind for other purposes. Thinking about plans for the evening, or carrying on a conversation, or for some even making a phone call or texting or putting on makeup or eating breakfast on the way.
And during the course of a week, you’ll face nothing at all that hasn’t got at least a partial subroutine in memory. New customer? Routine operations to deal with that. Complaining customer? You’ve seen it before.
Short of suddenly facing a man with a gun or similar unknown event, you’re not faced with a necessity to really think. And when you ARE faced with an emergency (choking victim, drowning person, rescuing someone from a car crash, whatever), most have no subroutine that fits the situation and so they freeze, unable to decide on a course of action. Famously, advice says to do something, even if it’s wrong,because doing nothing is guaranteed to be wrong. But even taking that decision is difficult, because there are inhibitions about making wrong decisions.
For each selected subroutine, there is an expected outcome. It’s a part of a series of probabilities that range from desired outcomes to undesired outcomes. We can modify those subroutines to an extent and even learn new ones that diverge from what we already have in memory. At the same time, there are inhibitions that in themselves are subroutines. Those inhibiting subroutines can vary from mild to absolute prohibitions based on what we’ve acquired as we go through life.
Consider an example: if you’ve been to a public pool recently, you’ve probably observed a child climb up on the diving board. The child ascended the board because he/she wanted the thrill, but then froze when they realized that the water was quite some distance below. Intellectually, they’ve seen others jump or dive, and they want to do that; but fear inhibits that first attempt. Jump? Or face ridicule if they choose to climb back down the steps? They may wait for some time, frozen and unable to make a choice…but then for those who DO jump or dive, they realize that the fear is unfounded. And then they climb back up the ladder. This time, there’s a subroutine to use that tells them they can jump safely and not suffer hurt. They never freeze in place again. There may be a subroutine that urges caution, but absolute prohibition won’t be there.
It’s the same with any fearful thing. Do it just once, and you’ve learned how to deal with the fear. Training and practice can provide that first partial subroutine, and after someone has once added it to their own store in memory, it’s always there. And small steps may be better because they fall within the ‘comfort zone’ of that learned subroutine.
It doesn’t have to be fear that’s the inhibitor. In some cases, it’s simple confidence. Watch a young boy deciding whether to remain with his male friends or go ask a girl to dance (inhibitor here is fear of ridicule or rejection), and then look at older boys who’ve already gone through this and learned how to deal with the question. They’re confident…and it shows.
I’ve concluded that much of success is based on a suite of learned subroutines that we can call on at need; and failure is attributable to the lack of those.
Chemistry also plays a part, particularly the balance of hormones that circulate in our blood as we grow and develop.
Can knowledge of this system of subroutines be used, or even taught?
Yes. It’s the basis for such programs as Outward Bound. Students are exposed to frequent challenges and as they overcome those they gain subroutines that can be used in future to address any similar challenge. Simply undergoing challenges that require courage weakens any subroutine that might prohibit future responses to challenges. Military training addresses this through ‘confidence courses’ and challenging courses for Rangers, Seals, Special Forces, and Pararescue operators.
And knowing what you’re doing can help an individual direct his own development and acquire the confidence that will turn losers into winners in life.
A lot of people are investigating what I cannot, chemistry of thought and how hormonal levels can affect that. So instead I concentrate on a sort of users manual. I know chemistry makes a difference; a friend recently described what happens when he takes his periodic shot to adjust his testosterone levels. He said that for a few hours he simply avoided people because the shot increased his aggression levels. He’s quite an easygoing man, but according to what he reported, he has to control the urge to punch someone. So he avoids people lest he lose his temper.
As I was developing the model I’ve described, it occurred to me that criminals and other anti-social people lack the inhibitors that ‘normal’ people do. Without inhibitors they indulge whatever impulse occurs to them, whether it be aggression or robbery or rape or murder. I also considered whether ‘mental illness’ or conditions such as autism might reflect the inability to form archived memories or those subroutines. And for a few, the archived memories may be formed and not modified when we encounter new conditions. For most of us, forming a new memory or modifying an existing one means that earlier forms are deleted. But for those with eidetic memory, perhaps they’ve bypassed that destruct function? No idea; and I’m exploring ideas that I can’t truly understand in the way that I’ve earlier described.


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