Irreducible Cognitive Phenomenology: Does thinking feel like something?

 

by John Dorsch

Introduction

 

When we usually think of thinking, we do not think thinking feels like something. Quite on the contrary, we separate thinking from feeling: thoughts are rational, feelings irrational; thoughts are cognitive, feelings sensorial. But what if I told you thinking feels like something? And what if I told you that these thinking-feelings are more common than you think? In this essay, I will  discuss recent research in neuroscience and phenomenology and discuss how this research supports the claim that thinking feels like something. My hope is to convince you that thinking and feeling are not so different, that thinking possesses its own distinct feeling. First, I will clarify what I mean by feeling. Second, I will clarify what I mean by thinking and defend the claim that thinking possesses its own distinct feeling. Third, I will argue that this distinct thinking-feeling, called the ‘Aha!’ moment, is more than just a sensory-feeling but a genuine thinking-feeling. Fourth, I will support my argument with empirical evidence from recent findings in neuroscience. Finally, I will discuss what the idea of a distinct thinking-feeling, properly called irreducible cognitive phenomenology, may mean for future scientific research.

 

  1. What I mean by feeling

 

Imagine biting into a fresh strawberry. Concentrate on the sweet juicy experience. Now answer this question: What is it like for you to taste the strawberry? Focus on your imagined sensation. Can you describe it? Surely there are words to express this experience, but consider for a moment how words fail to capture exactly what the experience is like for you. These kinds of experiences, such as the taste of a fresh strawberry, are what I have in mind when I talk about feelings.

Consider that many of your everyday experiences consist of these kinds of feelings: tasting fruit, smelling roses, touching sandpaper, listening to music, seeing the sunset. What would life be like without these experiences? Understanding the nature of these experiences and how they might integrate into the functionality of consciousness is the chief task of the branch of philosophy called phenomenology. Also, when these experiences are discussed, philosophers refer to the experiences themselves as phenomenology. So I might ask you, “What is the phenomenology of tasting a fresh strawberry?” To which you might reply, “It’s like having a small fruity bomb detonate in your mouth.”

Some philosophers believe these kinds of feelings are only sensorial. Besides those that emerge from the traditional five senses, such as tasting and smelling, and the less familiar senses, such as thermoception and proprioception, some philosophers believe no other kinds of phenomenology exist. For my part, I do not share in this belief. I believe cognition too possesses phenomenology. What’s more, I believe the phenomenology of cognition cannot be fully explained by appealing to the senses, which is another way of saying that the phenomenology of cognition cannot be fully reduced to the senses. This means, I believe thinking feels like something and this feeling is more than any sensorial feeling, which is another way of saying I believe in irreducible cognitive phenomenology.   

 

  1. What I mean by thinking

 

Consider the following word problem. I will give you three words and ask you to find a fourth that builds a compound-noun phrase with each. Here is an example to get you started: crab / tree / pie. Say the words out loud. Can you find a fourth word that builds a compound-noun phrase with each? Take a moment to find the solution. Have you found it? If not, here it is: the solution is apple, so crab apple, apple tree, apple pie. Here are some more examples. Try to solve one:  cottage / swiss / cake || cream / skate / water || aid / rubber / wagon || hound / pressure / shot || stick / maker / point.

Now ask yourself this question: What was it like for you to discover the fourth word? Did it feel like anything? Solvers of these word problems, which are properly called compound remote associate problems, often report having discovered the fourth word suddenly. Solvers also report that this sudden insight into the solution possesses distinct feelings. They report that the solution feels correct and they report feeling deeply confident in the correctness of the solution, even though the solution has not been analyzed or verified. The sudden realization of the solution to a compound remote associate problem is called an ‘Aha!’ moment. ‘Aha!’ moments are  characterized by the sudden feeling of veracity and the sudden feeling of certainty.

Think about which cognitive processes might be at the heart of finding a solution to a compound remote associate problem. The words of these problems are often only distantly related. What do crabs, trees, and pies have in common? In order to find the fourth word, you need to draw an inference from the varied and often uncommon uses of each of these words. This process of drawing inferences cannot be fully explained by the senses. Surely you see the words and hear the words, either out loud or in your own internal monologue, but finding the solution to these problems requires conceptual processes; and these conceptual processes are what I have in mind when I talk about thinking.

 

  1. ‘Aha!’ moments are distinct thinking-feelings

 

I would like to dismiss two misconceptions. Both amount to counter-arguing that the experiences characterizing the ‘Aha!’ moment are not cognitive. One misconception is the belief that the phenomenology of the ‘Aha!’ moment can be explained by appeal to emotion. In other words, you might want to say that what you felt when you found the solution is nothing more than a happy emotion. I do not this is correct. In addition to the feeling of veracity and the feeling of certainty, solvers report initially feeling joy. As solvers continue to solve problems, the feeling of joy dissipates, while the feeling of veracity and the feeling of certainty remain. Moreover, I understand the feeling of veracity and the feeling of certainty to be essential to thinking you have found the solution to the problem, but the feeling of joy is unnecessary. If you think you have found the solution to the problem, you feel that the solution is correct and you feel certain about your solution. That is why you call it the solution. If you do not feel that your solution is correct and you do not feel certain about your solution, you would not think you have found the solution. The feeling of joy, however, is not necessary to thinking you have found the solution: finding the solution can give you a happy emotion, or no emotion at all.

The second misconception is the belief that cognitive phenomenology can be explained by appeal to the senses. In other words, you might want to claim that what you felt when you found the solution to the compound remote associate problem can be explained by the traditional senses. I do not think this is correct. Although I agree that the feeling of veracity and the feeling of certainty are in some way dependent on the traditional senses – if you do not see the words, hear the words, or feel the words (braille), you can not solve the problem  – but I do not believe that these feelings can be fully explained by appeal to the traditional senses.

In order to find the solution to a compound remote associate problem, you need to draw inferences based on linguistic meaning. I am convinced that linguistic meaning is too complex to be explained by appeal to sensory information. To understand why I believe this, consider how you know the meaning of the word ‘drawer’ in this sentence: ‘the letter is in the drawer’. If I think about the meaning of ‘drawer’ in that sentence, I imagine a wooden desk with a series of drawers; and in one of these drawers is a letter, perhaps in a sealed envelope. But why a desk? Why not a cabinet? Perhaps I imagined a desk because of its association with letter writing. This means I inferred the meaning of drawer from the associations implied by the sentence. Now consider whether the understanding of the meaning of drawer in the sentence can be explained by having looked at the word drawer, having looked at the sentence, or by having heard the word/sentence either aloud or in an internal monologue. Surely linguistic meaning is not merely in the head: it refers to objects in the world. But linguistic meaning is not merely in our senses. Linguistic meaning is cognitive; and due to the inferences that must be drawn in order to understand linguistic meaning, such as those inferences that must to be drawn in order to find the solution to a compound remote associate problem, the feeling of veracity and the feeling of certainty that arise from having drawn inferences cannot be fully explained by appeal to the traditional senses.  

 

  1. Empirical evidence for distinct thinking-feelings

 

Before I asked you to solve a compound remote associate problem and I discussed what solvers of these problems often report experiencing when solving them. These findings come from two experiments conducted by Bowden and Jung-Beeman. The first experiment measures the brain activity of solvers via fMRI. The second experiment measures the frequency characteristics of solvers’ brain activity via EEG. Both of these experiments enable researchers to see what is going on in the brain of those solving compound remote associate problems. The first experiment, fMRI, is slower than the EEG, but has the advantage of taking a higher quality image; this is important for knowing the location of the brain being used to solve the problem. The second experiment, EEG, can only detect the frequency, which means the ‘image’ is weak, but the advantage is that the timing of events is more accurate.

Solvers of compound remote associate problems report either solving the problem suddenly, which results in their experiencing an ‘Aha!’ moment, or solving the problem slowly through analysis, which does not result in experiencing an ‘Aha!’ moment. In contrast to solving problems with analysis, problems that are solved with an accompanying ‘Aha!’ moment reveal characteristics of a unique cognitive mechanism.

For our present discussion, one finding of these experiments stands out in support of the claim that there is a distinct feeling to cognition, which cannot be reduced to sensorial feelings. Shortly before solvers report experiencing an ‘Aha!’ moment, alpha bursts are detected over the parietal-occipital cortex. Bowden and Jung-Beeman conclude that this means the visual cortex is inhibited of idled (Bowden & Jung-Beeman, 2004).

In other words, before solvers discover a solution to a compound remote associate problem, their visual cortex is either inhibited or idled, and the visual information flowing into the perceptual system is gated (Bowden & Jung-Beeman, 2004). From this, Bowden and Jung-Beeman conclude, “…allowing one process to proceed relatively independently requires active attenuation of this interaction” (Bowden & Jung-Beeman, 2004: p.507, emphasis added). This relatively independent process represents the underlying mechanism of solving a problem with insight, whose upshot is the ‘Aha!’ moment. In other words, it is plausible to think that the ‘Aha!’ moment is the result of a process that is relatively independent of the visual information flowing into the perceptual system.

If you make the assumption that there is a correlation between the unique mechanism underlying the ‘Aha!’ moment and the feeling of veracity and the feeling of certainty, which are necessary for finding the solution to a compound remote associate problem with insight, then it is plausible to think that this correlation indicates that the cognitive phenomenology of the ‘Aha!’ moment is decoupled from sensory phenomenology. This correlation provides further evidence for irreducible cognitive phenomenology.

 

Afterword

 

I would like to share what irreducible cognitive phenomenology may mean for scientific research. If there is a distinct thinking-feeling, then this means that understanding how we think is more complex than once believed. It is commonly thought that thinking is a form of calculation, that to understand thought is to understand the rules that govern it. But perhaps there is something over and above the calculation. Perhaps there is a feeling to thinking. This idea has implications for artificial intelligence. If irreducible cognitive phenomenology exists, then replicating human intelligence may require broadening our idea of cognition to include what it is like to make or undergo experiences. This means, the development of complex, human-like artificial intelligence may depend on a more comprehensive approach of integrating the mechanics of the brain with the experiential feelings of the mind.

 

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