Saturday, 12 November 2011

Complexity of thought


When I was working in the area of Niiklas Luhmann's systems theory+, I devised a handy way of conceptualizing the complexity of a system - which was as the ratio of internal communications within a system, divided by the amount of communication between a system and its environment.  

This can be applied to thinking:

the complexity of cognition would then be a ratio of an organism's internal cognitive activity over the amount of communication between the organism and its environment (including other organisms).


If cognition is measured using time, then this roughly translates to:

Time thinking/ Time communicating


Time spent thinking is mostly solitary.

Time spent in communicating includes conversation and other social interactions, the media and news, and also the learning of new information etc (including learning of all types including scholarship, including writing) and the expounding of information (including teaching).


This means that an increase in time spent in social interaction, in contact with the media and in learning new stuff (time in-putting data) will tend to simplify thought unless the amount of (mostly solitary) thinking time is proportionately increased.


This explains why the European Middle Ages attained the highest complexity of coherent abstract thought (Thomas Aquinas and the environment in which he operated) - since there were few books, no mass media, 'monastic' seclusion - and in general a great deal of time spent thinking relative to the amount of stuff flowing into and out-of the mind.


This explains why the internet has not led to any advances in genuine understanding, since the millions-fold expansion in the amount of data (plus increased social interaction via electronic media, plus increased volume and usage of the mass media) have led to an equally vast simplification of cognition.

The average modern human mind is now more like a relay station than a brain - performing just a few quick and simple processes on a truly massive flow-through of data.

This applies equally, or especially, to intellectuals who are plugged-into oceans of data in a way never before possible.

When all (almost all) intellectual output is simply a summary of un-assimilated input, as we see all around; then we can perceive that intellectual processing has become grossly simplified.

The 'sound bite' is simply a literal transcription of the (largest) unit of modern thinking.


This explains (in general terms) the importance of sleep - when the mind becomes more-or-less cut off from the environments and cognitive processing is almost-wholly internal.


To improve the complexity of cognitive processing is, however, a simple matter: more time alone and thinking, less time socializing and in-putting.


+Note: For some theory, see the Appendix to my 2003 book:
I should point out that I now regard the basic argument of this book as wrong - however, the description of systems theory seems correct. 



Jonathan said...

For what it's worth, I would never have encountered folks like you, Vox, Kreeft, Bonald, Fr. Seraphim etc. without the internet, and I would surely still be a devout atheist.

But as someone who also writes research papers, I have to agree that the internet has reduced the amount of time I spend thinking, and probably the depth of thought I've engaged in lately.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - and of course the same applies to me.

YET 15 years ago everybody was saying that this would change the direction of human thought and accelerate progress in science and scholarship generally - spreading enlightenment, massively boost economic growth, undermine the dishonesty of the mass media and politicians...

And here we are.

Valkea said...

Exactly, and I expand, this is aggravated in addition to the amount of data by it's fragmentary, unconnected, microscopic and incoherent nature, and attitude of overreliance on data instead of thinking (exacerbating the often hard to avoid consequences of the excesses of information flow; i.e. the relay station, data obsessed scientists don't try to think much, they think flimsy gathering of fairly formless blobs of data is normal and the way it should be). The result can be seen e.g. in psychology in what I would call skeleton lists, where simplistic, stripped-down item lists are usual, and the writers don't understand why, what and where, and the huge nuanced stories connected to each item. Even if the skeleton list covers most or all of the items connected to the topic, it is sorely lacking. The level difference between what could be and what generally is, is the difference e.g. between the level of Sam Vaknin's (sociopath) Malignant Self-Love, large introspective research about himself connected to research about sociopaths and psychopaths, compared to the products of average relay station scientists.

ajb said...

Any thoughts on the open science movement?

For a quick presentation, here

or see

for a summary of a book by the same person.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I'm afraid it sounds like a pitch to venture capitalists - I never heard a real scientist speak that way.

This was among my last 'optimistic' pieces about science (i.e. a shred of optimism):

Daniel said...

I humbly submit:

Anonymous said...

One could argue, however, that the thinking of the Middle Ages was reserved to the very few that could afford it. Today's Internet enables a far larger number of people and wider slice of society to be exposed to a far wider sampling of thoughts, and therefore provide a much wider basis from which new thoughts can develop.

Bruce Charlton said...

@complexity - it would be reasonable to think that something that this would happen.

But has it happened?

If it had happened, surely it would be difficult to miss, given the scale of change.

Cantillonblog said...


Is the natural answer not more diversity and the re-emergence of new hierarchical structures?

I mean diversity in terms of modes of consciousness, functions, matters attended to. Unfortunately the pace of the modern world seems unlikely imminently to slow. So we are still going to need a layer of people functioning in relay-station mode just to manage the bursts of data generated as a consequence of Metcalf's Law.

If we are going to continue to have people performing the function of reflective, profound thinkers then we need to have a splitting of function and role between these neo-monks and the twitter-addled masses.

So we have a) reactive hum from social media; b) true long-term reflective thinkers; c) intellectuals who fall somewhere in between and who integrate and apply the insights from both a and b. One needs to decide what one's role will be, and then stick to that. In the extreme those in role b should try to avoid the web completely; and those in role a should avoid pretending to have any clue whatsoever about the future (or at least people listening to them should realize they do not have a clue).

c0mplexity said...

"Today's Internet enables a far larger number of people and wider slice of society to be exposed to a far wider sampling of thoughts, and therefore provide a much wider basis from which new thoughts can develop."

The classical response to increasing scale would be specialization and the division of labour...

"bgc said...
it would be reasonable to think that something that this would happen.

But has it happened?

If it had happened, surely it would be difficult to miss, given the scale of change".

BGC are you not yourself succumbing to the impatience of our age? It has only been a decade since people have had broadband at home. Consider how long it took us to fully adapt to the spread of railways! One lesson I took away from Sheldrake is that we do learn from our mistakes, but the process is not always very appetizing to watch and does take time.