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What have psychologists and neuro­scientists discovered about the thought process? Many relevant findings have been discussed in previous chapters. Let us review some of them.

First, the brain is modular, consisting of many specialized areas. In a sharp contrast to what scientists assumed as recently as the 1940s and 1950s, brain tissue is not general purpose computing machinery. Thinking involves coordinat­ing a variety of specialized areas.

Most brain areas have highly specific functions. In brain scanning research, a task will typically result in activation of many areas. The areas are not random, nor do they move around. They seem to be highly specific.

What have modern scientists learned about specialized areas of the brain?

Second, important executive processes are located in the frontal lobes. Effects of lobotomies showed that creativity and comprehensive planning, among other talents, are dependent on the areas behind the eyes: the prefrontal cortex.

If by thinking you mean sitting down and planning something in detail, coming up with a strategy then carrying it out, the frontal areas are key. Even dreaming and daydreaming seem to require the frontal lobes.

As we will see in the section on meta­cognition at the end of this chapter, training the executive processes can be fruitful. We can teach ourselves to slow down, analyze, double-check, and learn from research on thinking itself. This can improve school performance and scores on so-called intelligence tests.

Third, many other brain areas outside the frontal cortex play their own specialized roles in intelligent activity and thinking.

The cerebellum, for example, is a distinct structure at the back of the brain. It contains the fantastically complex Purkinje cells, diagrammed by Ramon y Cajal.

Doctors knew the cerebellum was involved in coordinating motor activity. This was apparent because damage to the cerebellum affected motor activities such as walking.

Brain scanning showed the cerebellum was also activated when people had to screen out or inhibit a thought or action. This was a previously unsuspected function.

Fourth, the brain is creative in more ways than we usually appreciate. Almost all cognitive processes involve productions that are instantaneous, novel, and adaptive.

Examples of cognitive productions are percepts, meanings expressed with language, and coordinated actions. In each case the adaptive response to a situation is somewhat unique (never before created in exactly that form).

In each case, the productions are assembled from pre-existing components in about a quarter of a second. In each case, the responses are adaptive, reflecting the unique and complex requirements of the moment.

Cognitive Confabulations

People routinely confabulate or make up explanations for unexpected brain activity or actions. They give the conscious self credit for skilled productions that originate elsewhere in the brain.

This was shown in split-brain patients, where the left hemisphere confabulated explanations of activity generated by the left hand. These rationalizations were instantaneous and fluent, suggesting a well-developed talent.

Why do the executive processes confab­ulate? Many vital cognitive processes are bottom-up in character. We have to accept and welcome these productions as our own even if we do not know the details about how they are assembled.

In truth, the origins of complex activity in the cognitive system may be obscure to the executive. The executive makes plans and issues requests, then work is carried out in widely distributed processes.

The "workers" in the cognitive system are located in out of the way places, often not directly known to the executive process. The conscious self may be completely blind to the effects of brain damage, until a missing skill is demonstrated by a clinical test.

Even then, brain-damaged patients may insist they are just fine. The executive processes depend upon lower-level workers, but those workers get no respect. The executive processes are not even aware when a specialized skill center goes missing.

Not that the executive process is unim­portant. Our talent in comprehensive long-term planning set us apart from competitors such as the Neanderthals. However, one thing the executive does not need (apparently) is accurate insights into the origins of cognitive activity.

Why is the executive process so important?

Neanderthals were very successful in some ways. They existed independently of the lineage that became modern humans for 300 to 600 million years. Modern humans, by contrast, have only been around for about 100,000 years.

During their entire existence, Neander­thals did not vary their basic toolkit. They knew how to build fires for cooking. They constructed hand axes and tips for thrusting spears.

But Neanderthals never domesticated dogs, built houses, or crossed bodies of water on boats, so far as we know. They were not terribly inventive.

Perhaps we can thank our frontal lobe development, and our complex cognitive system, for our inventiveness and creativity. That seems to be what allowed us to dominate the planet.

How might the executive be like an egotistical CEO of a corporation?

In some ways, the brain is like a community or corporation. Thought processes are its productive activity.

Marvin Minsky was one of the foremost theorists in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science. He called the cognitive system The Society of Mind in a book of the same name (Minsky, 1986).

Like a society, the cognitive system can give the appearance of a smooth and coordinated whole. However, the system depends upon countless neural circuits serving different purposes, doing dif­ferent tasks, coordinating and cooper­ating to make the whole thing work.

Cognitive Styles

Different people have different ways of organizing their mental activity. The concept of cognitive styles addresses this issue, defining different overall patterns of thinking or approaching problems.

One of the most important distinctions in the cognitive styles literature is between analytic and holistic styles. Analytic thinking involves understanding a system by thinking about its parts and how they work together to produce larger-scale effects.

Holistic thinking involves sensing large-scale patterns and reacting to them. In Chapter One, the discussion of "two powers of science" suggested that experimental and observational research amplify the powers of analytic and holistic thinking, respectively.

Experimental research is about teasing out cause-effect interactions of variables. Observational research detects correlations and allows predictions, but does not provide an explanation of observed relationships.

The two modes of thought repeatedly discovered by cognitive psychologists also line up with the two cognitive styles. Serial, conscious, controlled thoughts is like analysis, while parallel, uncon­scious, rapid thinking is like holism.

What is the difference between analytic and holistic thinking? What style of thinking is defined as "intelligence" by Whimbey?

Ponder this definition of intelligence from Whimbey (1975).

Intelligence is paying careful skilled attention to the analysis of relations. (p.119)

That sounds like a Bruner's definition of analytic thought from Chapter 3, or Gardner's definition of logical-mathe­matical intelligence in his list of multiple intelligences in Chapter 2.

Analytic knowledge is the main type of knowledge required for schoolwork. However, it is also required outside of school, any time a person must repair a physical or natural system.

For example, a car repair person must be able to analyze the difficulties of a car brought in for service. This requires explicit knowledge of how the compo­nents of the system function and work together. Experts in every field must use analytic intelligence like this.

A similar form of mental processing was described at the end of Chapter 6 (Memory) as a characteristic of people with exceptionally good memories. They pay close attention to the "inner details of a situation."

How might a car repair person show analytic thinking?

There is, however, another type of intelligence. Some people go for the overall idea or the "big picture" and seem less attentive to details. Holistic abilities are said to be used for art, music, religion, intuition, and a host of other good things.

The word holism comes from the Indo-European word kailo, which means whole, intact, or uninjured. A holistic person does not tear things apart mentally, to understand them. The holistic person tends to approach a subject by trying to understand its overall impact, gist or general meaning.

How does holistic thinking contrast with analytic thinking?

Holistic people often excel in social situations requiring sensitivity, intuition and tact. Their ability to get a general feeling about a situation may open their minds to subtle nuances of interaction.

If the two cognitive styles align with the two modes of thought, a holistic person might be a skilled parallel processor. A correct response evolves out of wide­spread simultaneous activity instead of resulting from a controlled, step by step process.

Why does analytic thinking predominate in schools?

Analytic thought predominates in schools because it must be taught. Intuition, by contrast, seems to come naturally. As a rule, if you want to get better at analytic thinking, you have to get an education of some sort. You have to serve as an apprentice to a master, read a lot, or attend a school.

Perhaps holistic thinking skills can be taught, also. Many popular psychology books claim to enhance creativity or intuition. However, nothing like intuition training has become standard in public schools. Researchers have not produced strong evidence that creativity or intuition can be improved by training.


Minsky, M. (1986) The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Whimbey, A. (1975) Intelligence Can be Taught. New York: Dutton.

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