One of the most interesting aspects of humans is their ability to think, their cognitive processes that make problem solving and decision making possible. Cognitive processes that allow humans to be able to identify new stimuli without extensive thought or study. Cognitive processes that allow humans to manage their world in a fairly easy and very orderly manner.
Humans are also able to process information and manage it in a way that makes understanding the world a lot easier. Often without realizing it, humans work in a number of ways to process new information. One way to do that is through the use of concepts. Concepts are a means of categorizing information, such as calling all knives, knives even if they look different. In this way we can understand what a knife is for no matter where we find it. This is a means of categorizing information. Concepts allow us to understand the meaning or significance of something without having to actually go through the process of learning the information. For example, since I already know what a chair looks like when I come across a folding chair for the first time I can easily make the link to it also being a chair and serving the same function. Additionally, humans create relationships between objects in order to better understand them. For example, we associate something sharp with being dangerous, or more specifically being able to cut the skin. Thus, when we see something sharp we are able to avoid it and avoid injury. Without this sort of information organization, humans would be at a significantly higher risk for injury. It would almost be as though you were a child again, free to touch whatever with no inhibitions. However, as an adult with no one there to protect you, you’d probably experience a great deal of problems.
Lastly, humans create a hierarchical structure of organization in order to best understand their surroundings. This hierarchial structure lends itself toward basic, specific, or broad understanding of information purely based on things that are already known. The categories of this heirarchial structure are (from the top) superordinate, basic, and subordinate. It is this structure in which we would place silverware at the top, then knives, forks, spoons in the middle, and then the specific types of these things at the bottom (for example salad fork, etc…).
It is these three methods which allow humans to think and process information as quickly as we do. As soon as we are exposed to new stimuli our brains run a search of what we know about that stimuli in order to create an understanding of it. This search can take place in two different ways. The first way is called prototyping. Classification through prototyping consists of choosing the category that best represents the new stimuli. The second method is classification through features of the new stimuli versus features of already known stimuli. Feature classification requires that all the features be similar, while prototyping requires only that they resemble one another. The latter comes in handy when you come across something of questionable categorization such as a platypus. It swims like a fish, walks on land like a dog, yet has webbed feet and a bill like a duck. Seeing a platypus would certainly send the brain into a whirl, yet since we have a loose classification for animals, we’re able to make the distinction that the platypus is an animal. Additionally, we have the loose fit with a mammal, and a better fit with mammal than any other selection, so we can conclude that the platypus is a mammal. All this, and without any prior knowledge of the strange creature.
So, now that the information we take in is organized, how do humans use that information? How do we formulate responses to questions on tests or everyday decision making questions? Well, logic is one answer, and a very strong answer at that. However, while logic guides human thinking to practical means of finding a solution, and also guides us toward determining if our solution is correct or incorrect, it cannot solve all problems. It seems there is nothing logical about deciding where to eat on a Wednesday night. So, I’ll discuss both logical means of problem solving, as well as the more daily decision making processes.
As mentioned before, logic guides the thinking process. Logic helps us design solutions to our problems; it helps us formulate innovative means of dealing with issues, and helps us perform in our everyday lives. We can make inferences about situations, and logic gives us a basis whether through the premise or the conclusion. Additionally, we can form solutions through deductive reasoning, the process of concluding an argument true due to the fact that the premise is true.
Additionally, logic creates a set of problem solving set ups that we can follow. The first is commonly used in math problems and is called algorithms. As you probably remember from high school algebra and algorithm is a set of rules used to find a solution to a set problem. Algorithms guarantee an answer; however, they can take an excessive amount of time.
Algorithm’s counter is a concept called heuristics, general rules that we use to solve problems in our everyday lives. As I said, this is a contrast to algorithms, and the reason why is because heuristics are quick fixes, unlike algorithms. And, unlike algorithms, heuristics are not always correct. There are several forms of heuristics: subgoal analysis, means-end analysis, and backward search strategy. Each of these are methods that we commonly use, and that you’re probably very much aware of. Subgoal analysis deals with the breaking down of a big problem into smaller parts in order to make it more manageable. It’s hard for people to view and fix a huge problem, as one big entity it seems to overwhelming and confusing; but by breaking it down into smaller pieces, people are better able to cope with the problem. Means-end analysis deals with comparing current conditions with what is desired. You want a better relationship with your parents, you want to be able to talk to them more often and about meaningful topics, how do you get there? From that point you need only to connect the two pieces together with a little glue in the middle. Meaning you take the beginning and ending and add the middle to solve the problem. Backward search is the process of beginning at the ending. This is commonly used for puzzles in life, and not just the gaming variety. Often times people wonder why they act some way or why they turned out some way. Backward search is often a good way to figure out these deeper more meaningful questions as well.
There is no question about the fact that humans have a very complex way of thinking, but with this complexity also comes a great deal of organization. It seems that if our thinking were arranged in any other manner, learning as we know it would not be possible. Living life as we do today would not be probable. Our complex and organized cognitive processes allow us to reason and decide. They allow us logic and learning. Our cognitive processes allow us to better adapt to, and understand our environment with a minimal effort.
Romero, A. Ph.D., Kemp, M. Ph.D. (2007) Psychology Demystified. McGraw Hill. New York, New York.