Higher thinking and lower thinking

In many respects, Daniel Goleman initiated this writing by providing a single source for the implications of the recent research on neurology with his book Social Intelligence.  Social Intelligence extends another, very popular book he wrote a decade ago: Emotion Intelligence.  In Emotional Intelligence he told much of the world how important emotions and imagination are to the thinking process.  Social Intelligence extends these ideas by introducing the new neurological research especially about mirror and spindle cells.


Another key thesis of Goleman's in Social Intelligence is his idea of higher and lower thinking modes, or higher and lower thought paths.  He provides a simple way to describe how the mind works: a way that is easily understandable and can easily be extended to include more detail and complication.  Goleman calls these paths the high road and the low road.  "In the low road we can freely feel with someone else; the high road can think about what we feel." (Goleman, 16)

Paul Harris (possibly a colleague of Goleman, as he and Goleman went to Harvard, as did Joan Borysenko) helps describe the higher and lower roads concept in a review of the Social Intelligence.



Goleman gives detail: "Many paths of the low road run through mirror neurons.  The neurons activate in a person based on something that is experienced by another person in the same way is experienced by the person himself.  Whether pain (or pleasure) is anticipated or seen in another, the same neuron is activated." (Goleman, 41)  When the "eyes of a woman," he says, "that a man finds attractive look directly at him, his brain secretes the pleasure-inducing chemical dopamine."   (Goleman, 9)  We are able to make "snap decisions" that we will later regret, points out Goleman.  In the face of bad results from emotional reactions, he says, we need to justify our actions. "

Man is not a rational animal, but a rationalizing one."  (Heinlein, from Goleman, 16)


In the discussion of empathy in relation to nature, the idea of morality is in constant play, but not in Goleman's high road / low road model.  When morality is applied to this model, lust, for instance, would definitely travel the low road.  But affection, or social affection as Darwin called empathy, would travel the high road in the evolutionary approach to morality, as it has more angelic qualities than lust.  But in Goleman's model, affection rides the low road, as would social affection --empathy.  The high road, to him, is purely analytic.  While I think Goleman's model is useful, there is the obvious conflict between his emotional vs. justification idea and the moral / immoral understanding of the high road / low road model.  When discussing empathy as a biological function, morality and affection are closely connected within the evolutionary argument.  But, when applied to society, Goleman's high road / low road model transforms into a metaphor.  His approach suddenly becomes valuable as a tool for the critical inquiry of society and politics when we look at the quote he provides for us from Robert Heinlein.  In society, greed is clearly like lust; both are motivated by the lowest and most gratuitous of emotions.  When the greedy and lustful are forced to appear in court for, say, embezzlement or prostitution, it is the justifying lawyers who pave the high road, seeking liberalization and empathy for their very possibly guilty clients. 




When Goleman says in Social Intelligence that "repeated experiences sculpt the shape, size, and number of neurons and their synaptic connections," he is describing the learning process.  (Goleman, p 11)  All the experiences we have form memories, but when knowledge is needed in the venue of life, not just as contained knowledge, the brain forms pathways to make access to the knowledge easier, and to allow the brain to integrate the knowledge into the actions that the brain coordinates.  Recently absorbed knowledge is different from long held memories, events as they happen are introduced to the consciousness with the help of mirror cells who function in an empathic and understanding way; they expose the consciousness to reality.  Within the pathways of the consciousness, virtually any emotion can influence you; joy coming from someone who likes you will make you feel good; anger coming from someone who despises your presence will make you agitated and upset.  A conflict with someone who has targeted you for abuse will very likely leave you in the condition the person who has targeted you had been feeling; they attack you through your mirror cells; they effectively dump their anger into your mind.  Mirror cells, for better or worse, cause a reflection of the frame of mind of whomever you have encountered. 

Thoughts follow pathways of synaptic connections to different parts of the brain, and those different paths of the brain have abilities to process thoughts in different ways.  These connections --the map work of thought processing in the mind-- to a large degree define our mind.  Just as people can fill your mind with various flavors of emotions, longer term relationships can influence the mapping of how thoughts travel through the mind, that is, precisely how thoughts are processed.  The formation of thought paths defines much of learning.  When we build new thought paths, we are learning how to process things, when we learn facts, or absorbing information, we push newly acquired knowledge along these neural pathways, not so much to store it for later recall though that is important, but to work with the new knowledge, to compare and consider new learning to compare it with past learnings.  This processing creates context to help develop understanding from new the information as we receive it in relation to what is already understood.  New knowledge is situated into the modeled perception of reality brought to life by conceptualization in our imaginations.  To establish new knowledge, we construct a foundation for it in our consciousness using the neural pathways.

The field of study of knowledge construction, which is called constructivism, includes a discussion of the ideal person, in particular the ideal person for today's Information Society.  Key among the qualities this person would have is the ability to learn.  He has to be open minded with respect to the surrounding environment, to be able to consider newly acquired information, and most important, to be able to see how all this information interrelates with previous experiences.  Children naturally are ideal in this way; we can see this in their ability to quickly master both reactive and communicative skills.   Their talent for adaptability to the complex is evident; they are masters of both language and computer games.  The goal to attain for being ideal then is keeping this childlike open mindedness alive. 

While conservative educators give praise to students who can store rote information during class time and then recall it during tests, modern educators want students to develop their neural pathways to the extreme.  Modern educators want students to be able to field new information as expertly as a ball player fields a ball in play, and to be able to formulate useful knowledge from the new information, integrating that knowledge into real life just as a good player quickly calculates game strategy as a ball game progresses.  Unlike the ball player, the ideal learner can play any game, can field any type information, consider its value and meaning, and from it construct useful knowledge to contribute to fellow learners, the community, and now, through the Information Society, the world.

Maintaining these vital pathways, keeping them open and effective, is a personal responsibility.  It is continual learning with an open minded approach, and it is made much easier when it is supported by fellow learners.  The learning-sharing process, the construction of knowledge, is vastly more effective when information is processed by a group.  The best example I can think of is the recalling of a particular song by a group of musicians, which may not have performed this song for decades.  Working solo, it may take hours to for each musician individually to recall the song to completion from memory.  But as a group, each musician will rediscover different parts of the song and contribute small pieces of it to the group, while the group reconstructs the song in real time.  Through the information sharing, each new part of the song accelerates each individual’s recalling process by providing more bits of knowledge with which to use as reference.  By sharing their information, and thereby creating a community of knowledge of the song by humming, singing, or beating the rhythm, the song gets recreated to perfection within minutes.  Within the framework of a genuine community of knowledge, harmonious thinking has exponential thinking power.

Constant reconsideration of all the information we have is what we might thing of as critical thinking --or more politically, learning to learn.  The modeling of information, the creation of valid hypothesis, could be considered an extension of critical thinking-- modeling requires imagination.  Thus imagination becomes a key component of scientific thinking; it helps us migrate observed phenomena to the hypothetical stage; it lets us create models of systems we are studying-- the first step to creating theory and ultimately natural law.  For all these reasons, imagination is important to empathy; it allows us to extend empathy past the limits of our empathic facilities, the mirror cells working with the senses. 

We can extend empathy geographically by imagining what it would be like to work walk in someone's shoes rather than actually trying to overcome the limitations imposed by geographical distances.  Azar Nafisi, the Iranian activist who sees empathy through the process of imagination, or modeling, as a kind of magic carpet when she says


"mysterious connections link individuals to each other despite vast differences"   (Nafisi)


This extension of empathy geographically so perfectly lifts the Information Society by giving us information we can use to empathically relate to far away people whom we admire and respect, or at least feel compassion for.  Before the Internet we had books, and books are amazingly effective at recreating for the senses the types of feelings that we use to be effectively empathic.  We can even feel empathy for people who have not lived for ages; we can even feel anger or sadness because of our empathy.  Our ability to model reality, even to the point of a form of super reality, is helped by our imaginations.   Keeping the pathways open and well exercised to carry out beneficial emotional reactions and well constructed knowledge is our best ability for  transforming the world to being a better place.   The modern Information Society, the open Internet, can only help this process.

Goleman doesn't believe that the Internet has much merit, especially in the area of empathy; he totally ignores the idea that spatial separation can be conquered.  Instead he quotes Norman Nie, director of the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society when she says
-- "you can't get a hug over the Internet."  (Goleman, p 9)   This statement is absolutely false, the "emoticons" used in Internet messages and emails are very expressive and can be emotionally helpful.  If fact, you can usually get a hug over the Internet if you need one at almost anytime, if not always.  But, you do have to keep in constant contact with your Internet friends for these emoticons to have meaning; and, of course, social visits can easily result in close familial connections.  If you are feeling sad in your real life, as one in five people do, then a hug from the Internet can help tide you through sad moments.