Do Humans Think?

Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

December 15, 2013


"Our brains run mostly on autopilot" p.5. "When the brain finds a task it needs to solve, it rewires its own circuitry until it can accomplish the task with maximum efficiency. The task becomes burned into the machinery. This clever tactic accomplishes two things of chief importance for survival. The first is speed. Automatization permits fast decision making. … The second reason to burn tasks into the circuitry is energy efficiency." pp.71-2. David Eagleman


"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason so few engage in it." Henry Ford


"Many receive advice, but only the wise profit by it." Publilius Syrus


"Of what avail are forty freedoms, without a blank spot on the map?" Aldo Leopold


"For every living creature [including humans!], there are places where it does not belong." p.251 "I believe it is a public responsibility to safeguard what we can of wilderness before the great push of man's numbers; and to safeguard with it ... the shy wild ones that need man-less expanses in which to thrive." p.262. Paul L. Errington, Of Predation and Life


"I confess to further disquieting thoughts as to how much moral right man actually has to regard the Earth as his exclusive possession, to despoil or befoul as he will. Man has or should have some minimal responsibility toward the Earth he claims and toward the other forms of life that have been on the Earth as long as or longer than he has." Paul Errington, A Question of Values, p.153.


"If you want to be good to the environment, stay away from it." Edward L. Glaeser


"The biggest thing for habitat and grizzly bear conservation is managing human access. If you can keep people away, you can keep grizzlies safe. Over 90 per cent of grizzly mortalities in Alberta are caused by humans." Carl Morrison


"It is true to say that large tracts of Tropical Africa are still sealed off from settlement by man because they are occupied by the tsetse-fly" V. B. Wigglesworth, The Life of Insects, p.311.


"As humans we live with the constant presumption of dominion. We believe that we own the world, that it belongs to us, that we have it under our firm control. But the sailor knows all too well the fallacy of this view. The sailor sits by his tiller, waiting and watching. He knows he isn't sovereign of earth and sky, any more than the fish in the sea or the birds in the air." Richard Bode, First You Have to Row a Little Boat, p.3.


"There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story." Linda Hogan


"We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander." Henry David Thoreau


In one large sector of government we have a terrible set of politicians, because in our electorate we have a terrible sector of voters. Speaking of media’s laser targeting of political messaging, A.C. Grayling notes: “Hidden persuaders have their easiest time with ingenuous persuadees. . . . Bertrand Russell famously said, ‘Most people would rather die than think, and most people do’, and an anecdote about Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 election sums up the matter perfectly; told by an ardent supporter that he would definitely receive the vote of every thinking person in the United States, Stevenson replied: ‘I am glad to hear it; but I need a majority.’” (Democracy and Its Crisis)


“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” Sir Joshua Reynolds


“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Ralph Waldo Emerson


     It's obvious that humans can think, or we wouldn't have Einsteins and Shakespeares. It's also obvious that we sometimes don't think, or no one would smoke. What determines if and when we think?


     Wildlife provide a good example. What is the first thing we, as children, learn about animals? They run away, whenever we try to get close to them! And what do we think about that fact? Nothing! Perhaps because that fact is "inconvenient", we generally ignore it and never think about its obvious implication: if we are to preserve our wildlife, we need, as much as possible, to stay away from them! Even conservation biologists, who one would think would take that information to heart, mostly ignore it. Try to find books or even articles proposing setting aside habitat off-limits to humans. Try to find even the vocabulary to discuss it. You will fail. The concept is so foreign to us that no one has bothered to designate a subject category for such literature. The word that should perform that function, "wilderness", has evolved to the point that it now means the opposite: "human playground"!


     As a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, I used to bicycle to school every day. I noticed that whenever I took the same route, I would have the same thoughts. And whenever I varied my route, I would bump into something new, and have a new idea. From that I reasoned as follows: the brain consumes a lot of energy, although we aren't aware of it. So in order to conserve energy, it goes on "auto-pilot" whenever circumstances don't require it to think. That is what allows us to perform many activities without giving them much thought. I think it is also at least partly responsible for people holding on to outmoded ways of thinking, long after their sell-by date.


     How can we trigger the brain to apply itself? Personally, I like the "New Book" section of the library. Invariably, I find several new books attractive enough to check out. Or sometimes, I will simply scan all of the books on the shelves, looking for something new to read about. But what about the topics that no one, or almost no one, has written about? How can we, for example, take a walk through our parks open to whatever the wildlife can teach us?


     A good example is what happened to me once on a backpacking trip in the Boy Scouts. Our custom was to call for a five-minute break every hour or so during our long hikes. One time I happened to lie down on my back under a tree, with my head next to the trunk (I had probably never considered doing that before, because I didn't want to have insects crawling on me). While watching the top of the tree swaying in the wind, I suddenly felt that I knew what it was like to be a tree! It lived its entire life in one spot, and yet it was happy to do so, in contrast with us, who are continually searching for happiness by trekking all over the globe. I was so used to looking at trees from one single point of view that my brain had nothing novel to trigger it to think differently about trees (yesterday I heard of another such mind-changing technique: hiking barefoot).


     So how can we induce our brains to wake up and come up with the new ways of thinking that will undoubtedly be required by tomorrow's challenges? I suggest introducing occasional bits of randomness into our lives. And practicing trying on points of view that buck the tides and require the courage to stand up to the mass of humanity that are on auto-pilot.




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Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.


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