Rejecting Other Ways of Thinking – Some Neural Network Theory

I have recently completed and passed (yay!) a PhD on discovery writing. When researching writing and thinking ‘processes’, I came across the sense that the human brain works as a neural network. Neural networks model thinking in terms of connections, and even as simultaneous activity – known as parallel processing. I know very little about network theory, but as a literary theorist I find it immediately familiar and attractive. I can appreciate that the internet is a network, for example, and that semiotic theory (something I know a little about) posits thinking as associative. From my own experience, such as experiencing a smell or scent taking me back (linking me back!) to another time, another experience, I appreciate that experiences can be very much associational. Associations are connections! And as a literary theorist, having come across a sense that we can think in terms of metaphor (one system representing another, or as a heuristic), I appreciate that we can think via models, and thus that we have complex sets of connections and models in our heads – models that perhaps compete with other models we have available to us.

Something I find particularly interesting is the question of how much each of us will, over our lifetimes, become wedded to particular ways of thinking. No doubt we start out in life, as babies, with a relatively unstructured set of connections in our minds, and then, as we learn, we gradually set down various structures that become more and more hardwired. As a 40 year old man, for example, who has spent many years thinking along arts/humanities lines (as a photographer, as a literature student), I find it very difficult to think along science lines. Even more interestingly, perhaps, I find that I don’t want to think along science lines. I suspect that the differences between the arts and the sciences can be so fundamental that each would implicate a different form of neural architecture. And that could mean that children could set out along different neural routes which, from an early stage, could make it difficult for them to turn back. And no doubt we realize, from an early age, that we’re good at some things and not so good at others. So in a society where there is a pretty extreme division of academic labour, it makes sense that many people, and especially academics, stick with what they are best at, thus reinforcing a particular set of connections. People specialise!

At this point, you might ask whether arts and sciences are so different. Can’t one person be an artist and a scientist? Perhaps they can, but when researching into writing theory I came across a lot of literature that would suggest there are pretty big differences between what kinds of things arts and science people value about writing – basic beliefs and attitudes. Chandler, for example, has approached characteristic differences between Classical and Romantic ways of thinking. Classical writers value planning, logic, order, structure, purpose, rigour, and objectivity. Romantic writers, by contrast, favour discovery, freedom, lack of structure, enjoyment, and emergent form. Classical relates to the sciences, Romantic relates to the arts. Similar characteristic differences can be found between positivism and interpretivism.

Having known many scientists and artists, I agree that there tend to be these characteristic differences. A scientist I know well was recently talking about someone who he disagreed with, and dismissively said ‘her degree wasn’t even a science degree!’ That infuriated me, but when I reflect on it, my prejudices are just as strong the other way. When studying an MSC in educational research, I came across a great example of characteristic differences. A science tutor was explaining to us that we could apply statistical theory to people’s actions; that we could count people ‘as if they were beans’. A beautiful creativity student with long curly ginger hair replied gently, ‘but people aren’t like beans though, are they?!’ The tutor replied ‘Ah, but let’s imagine that they are like beans!’ To which she replied, questioningly, ‘but they’re not’. Big fundamental difference there! Two ways of thinking that couldn’t easily absorb each other! As a literature student and a dramatist, her whole being was no doubt grounded in the fact that each person is a story, a narrative, grounded in contexts, beliefs, religions, their personality, etc etc. Treating someone as a ‘bean’ wasn’t going to be comprehended, wasn’t going to be done. Serious moral principles were no doubt at stake. She wasn’t going to do it! Wasn’t going to go there!

Just like the creativity student, I don’t like to think of people as beans that can be counted. What I find really interesting here, from a network point of view, is that my feelings, my emotional response of rejection (rejecting statistical thinking), represent something emotional. It’s almost like disgust. It’s visceral. It’s as if my mind is saying ‘we’re not going there!… we’re not going to make that leap!…  So, importantly, I perhaps choose to approach things in ways that accord with my basic thinking processes, my neural architecture, if you will. And this would be massively conservative, since I would almost instinctively reject modes of thinking that I have such a ‘disgust’ attitude towards. Cognitive theorists have theorised this cycle between beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and actions. The point, for cognitive behavioural therapy, is that people find it very very difficult to go back on their existing ways of thinking. It’s a matter of reprogramming, rewiring ourselves. And we only ‘need’ to change if the existing thinking is proving disastrous in some way.

So far I have tried to set out some kind of theoretical context. But I’ll create a strange ending here, because I started writing this post as a way to try to explain to myself experiences I had in my childhood. When I was a child, of about 7 or 8, I can remember finding maths and science stuff difficult. But not only was it difficult, I was somehow disgusted by it. I can remember sitting down to maths and science stuff, and not only feeling frustrated by it, but feeling angry and annoyed by it, as if it was some kind of evil presence. Perhaps it’s natural that we take offense to things that we are not good at, and enjoy the stuff that we are good at. But perhaps it’s also because we set up particular networks in our minds/brains, that we are then loathed to reject or re-route. And/or perhaps that’s much the same thing. I have found that as well as being extraordinarily bad at maths and science stuff, I can be pretty good at arts stuff. I am the Romantic in Chandler’s Romantic/Classic divide.

And so, one thing I take from my own experience is something perhaps controversial. And it’s that it might be counterproductive to teach maths and science to some children (like myself), just as some kids, who like maths and science, might find arts stuff anathema. If we set ourselves along an arts route, in our thinking, then to think as a scientist might simply be incompatible. Two different sets of wiring! Two alternative systems that cannot easily be reconciled!

Interestingly, arts and science people can both appreciate network theory. So arts and sciences aren’t totally irreconcilable all the time. There are some overlaps! But huge gulfs too!

I suspect that my early wiring, my very early brain architecture, set me up to be an arts/humanities person.


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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