Peripheral thinking

If you ask most people “Why is it hot in the summer and cold in the winter?” you get the same nonsensical response: “Because the sun is closer in the summer and further away in the winter.” I know this because I’ve tried asking the question of different people in various different contexts. Some people seem vaguely disturbed while they are answering, because they sort of remember that way back in high school they’d learned it was something else. But they usually can’t really remember what that other explanation was, except that maybe it involved math.

The reason the response is nonsensical (as opposed to simply wrong) is that these same people generally know that places in the southern hemisphere, like Brazil and Australia, have winter during our summer, and summer during our winter. So whatever the answer is, it can’t be about the distance from the earth to the sun. And yet, that’s the answer I hear most often.

What is going on here? I can’t help shaking a sneaking suspicion that something larger is at work. My theory is that we humans, even those highly rational ones who solve problems in their daily lives and are rightly considered highly capable, reserve true rational thought for only a narrow range of problems – a kind of intellectual foveal region. Outside of this narrow region, we resort to a much more primitive kind of peripheral thinking. I suspect that this sort of intellectual economizing probably helps us get through life without overtaxing our brains.

Unfortunately, it may be likely that we humans have a very poor ability to distinguish between these two types of thought. As an obvious example, I have yet to experience a conversation involving candidates for higher office in which somebody did not, at some point, flip over from measured analysis to the kinds of reflexive demonizing that seem to dominate presidential politics in this country. In my experience liberals and conservatives are equally prone to falling into this pattern.

I sometimes wonder where the trigger is that flips our minds from focused and rational engagement to fuzzy non-rational engagement and back again. My theory is that the answer lies in the ways we generally distinguish between ourselves as individuals versus ourselves as part of a large group. We find it easier to rise to the level of true thoughtful engagement when we are involved as individuals, and more difficult when we see ourselves as merely a member of a group.

For example, for most of us, if our child were in physical danger we’d probably find ourseves engaged in some very serious and down-to-earth problem solving to get that child out of harm’s way. Yet when it comes to questions in the general world around us that don’t engage us as an individual, we let things get all fuzzy, even when it comes to questions we think are important, and we resort to the repetition of simple explanations that we’ve heard somewhere.

This also seems to explain the phenomenon of scientific thought: A scientist is someone who has committed – as an individual – to rational engagement with the world. The scientist (when operating as a scientist) seeks rational answers as a matter of self-identity, and so is never speaking as an indistinguishable member of a group. And of course, as we’ve all seen, outside of their particular subject areas scientists can be as fuzzy minded as anybody else.

3 Responses to “Peripheral thinking”

  1. George Orwell wrote about something similar in the context of language: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit

    One of the main points of his brilliant and funny essay is that writers often resort to cliches in lieu of rational thought. He talks about “worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”. More pointedly, “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

    It sounds like the answers you’re getting regarding the seasons are “prefabricated”. It’s sort of like driving on “autopilot” – no conscious thought required.

  2. Actually, my grade 8 teacher was having a class discussion with us during school about this. She said that some scientists did some research about the human brain. Apparently, while we’re still children, every area of the brain grows and develops, so we’re interested in pretty much every subject. However, when we get to about my age, the brain begins to snip off the areas we don’t find interesting, so that it’s actually harder for us to learn and develop those things. It was really interesting.
    It wasn’t a very good class discussion though, because half of the class wasn’t interested.

  3. Lisa says:

    Of course, there’s also a good chance that a great many people never learned one way or the other why the seasons are what they are. I’m fairly certain that anything I know about astronomy and meteorology was learned as an adult through my own volition. I also don’t recall my daughter being taught much astronomy in the last 10 years or so short of some brief exposure to the planetary system when she was 8 or 9 years old.

    And even those who did learn something about it, perhaps assume (or where taught) that the tilt *does* make one part of the earth closer to the sun than the other?

Leave a Reply