Some (Rough) Thoughts on Thinking

I’ve had this vague notion for the past year or so about how people think, and that how people think has changed over the ages. Not just in general notions of “people think nicer things now” or something like that, but that people think in completely different ways today than in previous times.

When you read something written many years ago (say 50, 100, 500 years ago), it sounds quite different to you than something written today. Part of that is because things in people’s lives have changed (eg we have the internet today but they didn’t 100 years ago), and partly because language has changed (words have new meanings, there are new words, etc), but also partly because the sorts of things people think about have changed (eg there are different political or social events happening at different times).

But I think people aren’t just thinking about different things, I think they’re thinking about things differently, because part of how we think depends upon the things we think about. There are a few things floating around in my head that are giving me / supporting this notion (in no particular order):

  • the medium is the message (media change the way we think in order to use them; different media mean thinking different thoughts)
  • metaphors we live by (if metaphor is a fundamental part of our cognition, and if our metaphors change over time (along with language) (I’m not certain that they do but I suspect they do), then mustn’t our cognition change along with our metaphors?)
  • Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind (lays out a pretty good argument for modes of thinking across different cultures)
  • situated cognition (changes over time because the literal physical objects we think with, eg slide rules, change over time — we think with different physical things than we used to, that has to change how we think, doesn’t it?)

Note: I’m not saying that our different thinking is necessarily better thinking, only that it’s different. It might be better, but I’m not asserting that here.

I am, alas, under the influence of the technology of my era and I can’t help but think about the brain + mind as “hardware and software.” In this metaphor, the human brain hasn’t changed a lot recently, but the mind — the software — has changed a great deal, and changes quickly. This isn’t an OS that’s “loaded” but more like one that exists socially, ephemerally, distributed across all people we interact with / are influenced by. It’s a gooey mess of influence; maybe it’s a fog, maybe it’s an ocean with currents.


Speed of Light