Cross-Reading 1: Taking the Empty Hearse to Better Thinking

The resumption of the BBC series Sherlock was the perfect reason to discuss thinking. Or thinking about thinking, as it were.

BBC Sherlock Season 3 The Empty HearseIn my parallel reading, I’ve recently, fittingly, perused Nicholas Carr‘s “The Shallows“, Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think“, and – most fitting of all – Maria Konnikova‘s “Mastermind. How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

The cross-reading of books, related and unrelated, complementary or contradictory as they can be – just like the reality of this world and our lives in it – opens ideas, and I want to start presenting such. This is, therefore, not going to be so much of a review of books as it is thoughts they gave rise to, in reading them concurrently.

The Shallows and, to a lesser extent, Mastermind, are both fundamentally based on the somewhat recent scientific realization that we don’t just develop the connections in our brains, and thus our thinking and knowledge, when we are children. There are some things which can only be learned during critical periods in child development (native accent language speaking being the primary example), but in general, our minds are plastic. We can always develop new neural pathways and thus create new memories and even learn new ways of thinking. In fact, we always and constantly do.

There is a great difference in focus between these two books, though:

Carr is looking at the influence that our use of technological tools has.

We like to think that we are who we are, and we are in control. Even if there should be stereotypes and the like, they are still within us, part of who we are, and we can realize their existence and learn, if so inclined. But it’s us in control.

Except that, as Carr argues, we think with our tools and thus find them changing us, inadvertently. Different language systems use and therefore strengthen different neural pathways, and so do such tools as maps and clocks shape different perceptions of the world and time, and change the very ways we think. The development of writing and reading, and the switch from oral to literal cultures, changed not just the ways we store and transmit information ‘outside,’ it changed the ways we think.

Now, we are seeing the internet having become our dominant tool for information, and its properties are again changing the very neural pathways that constitute how we think.

Where an oral culture requires rhyme in order to remember and sees a direct interaction between the teller and the listener, the literary culture requires readers who ignore their outside environments and follow the line of the story or argument.

Where the book – rather like a video game?!? – provides and needs an immersive experience in which only the stimuli pertinent to the story matter, what we see online tends to be a jumble of stimuli. There are not only different media to tell one story or make one argument (or even several), but there are also all the links to further stories, advertisements, and all manner of other items of potential interest but extraneous to the actual text we are ostensibly looking at. Thus, the technology rewards quick skimming and a hunter-gatherer-like awareness of the ‘prey’ (minus the patience to await it, plus a certain franticness in its pursuit). Thus, we train ourselves to jump from item to item and see that lack of attention as normal, if not come to consider it necessary.

Training is the very theme of Maria Konnikova’s “Mastermind. How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” as well. However, it’s the opposite, active and (self-) conscious training of our unruly monkey minds to become scientifically thinking minds.

Where internet browsing trains our minds, unwittingly, to be fast and unfocused, and we have a tendency to think simply and efficiently by jumping to conclusions (in more professional terms: using mental heuristics), anyways, Konnikova’s argument is that we can also learn to observe more, both in our surroundings and of our mental machinations. Thereby, we can train ourselves to think better, more scientifically, less driven by our desire to just be consistent and not be wrong and to therefore jump to conclusions immediately after seeing a selection of inputs.

Konnikova very much strengthens Carr’s argument about thinking requiring a foundation in knowledge, and not knowledge of where to find information, but “the essential groundwork,” “the elemental knowledge at [one’s] disposal,… built up over the years.” Without an understanding of how something is and works, there is no foundation with which to work, and thus none of the proverbial “shoulders of giants” on which to stand and look farther.

Clive Thompson has  a point, which he makes all through “Smarter Than You Think” (the perfect complement to cross-read with Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”), when he argues that new ways of knowing and thinking (can) also arise out of the combination of new technological tools and our own minds, and not for the worse.

A chimera-like combination of software, good at ‘seeing’ trends in big data and useful in its visualization as it is, communications technology (not least, for several human minds to collaborate in thinking through a problem, but also for retrieving quick exact points of data), and human minds, good at creatively cross-thinking, opens new possibilities and doesn’t just change (let alone close) old ones.

However, all three authors seem to be in agreement that learning (and) better thinking doesn’t just magically arise out of the questionable knowledge (what’s questionable being to what extent that should even be considered knowledge) of how to google for an answer, but through an active engagement with the technology of thought. Not just the one that is the book or the online (hyper)text, but also our own techniques of thinking.

Just jumping heedlessly and passively into the world we’re getting created for us, and for the purposes of driving a consumerist-industrial system, drives not knowledge and creativity, let alone skill and wisdom, but passive and distracted consumption and thinking. We are seeing problems with that (and I found myself thinking of those and the ease with which they can be fallen into all through the examples of good combinations “Smarter Than You Think” presents. Sorry, Clive.).

It is all the worse a problem as we have a tendency to only see selectively and think quickly, jumping to conclusions based on initial impressions and near-instantaneous judgments, anyways – the “System Watson” discussed all through “Mastermind” (and, as it were, Daniel Kahneman’s “Fast system or System 1” of our “Thinking, Fast and Slow“).

We have also, however, hardly begun to scratch the surface of skillful learning and learning skills that a more actively decisive use of technologies and techniques of thinking (and doing) could give us.

Even in just practicing thinking, where Konnikova suggests that practice and/as habit could turn the thinking of “System 2” into the effortless thinking we just do when we look and think, we haven’t got far yet. Especially with the continuing rise of big data and automation, often said to threaten taking away most jobs, there is actually an ever-rising need for more human and better thinking, though…

We’ll return to this potential for learning (to learn and think – or actually, to see and know? – better), with other cross-readings, at least one of them involving “Mastermind” again…

Books mentioned:



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