Whither Critical Thinking?

Why do so few Americans seem capable of exercising the skill of critical thinking?

In the past decade, neuro-scientists have made immense strides in understanding how the various parts of the brain collaborate to create a personal identity and the ability to think and reason.

The process of “critical thinking” involves several steps.  First is deciding on premises and ruthlessly analyzing them to be as sure as possible that they are supported by factual and objective data and are as free of bias as we can make them.  The key here is understanding scientific skepticism – questioning what we think, how we think, and what we think we know.  We must always be prepared to correct or update our knowledge and thought processes as new data comes in or data that is better analyzed.  Critical thinking is a methodology – a process to increase understanding, a form of the scientific method.

Secondly, we reason from this foundation, constructing a chain of logic that will take us to a conclusion.  We must understand logical thinking and be aware of the array of formal and informal logical fallacies that can lead us to unwarranted conclusions and keep in mind the potential biases that may cause us to go astray in our desire to reach a comforting conclusion.

Finally, we arrive at a conclusion to the question we are dealing with.  If the premises are sound, the logic clean and free of fallacious reasoning, then there is a high likelihood that the conclusion we reach will be a valid one.

Critical thinking is not something that comes naturally to the human brain.  In fact, despite our grandiose self-designation as “homo sapiens sapiens,” the brain appears not to be specifically evolved for critical thought and rational inquiry. The ability to reason appears very recently in our evolution.  It not only takes considerable effort to learn the skills involved in critical thinking, it also takes constant practice.  Even then, the reasoning brain is usually subservient to the lower brain functions operating beneath the conscious level.  It takes considerable effort, in terms of nourishment to the brain to fuel critical thinking in the rational brain.  The lower levels essentially operate for free, so we usually offload decisions to the subjective lower functions, basically following the path of least resistance.  At that point, when the decision has been made by our subconscious, the only task left for the rational brain is to create a rationalization justifying the subconscious’s decision.

Yale neuroscientist Steven Novella, in his course, Your Deceptive Mind, gives a simple and clear example of how this works.  You open the refrigerator door late at night and notice one last piece of cheesecake sitting there on the plate.  Your reasoning conscious brain tells you that you shouldn’t eat it.  You’ve had enough to eat today, and adding this would not be healthy. Besides, you’ve had more than your spouse, so it is best to leave it for him or her.

Meanwhile, down in the emotional regions of the older, more primitive brain layers responsible for basic emotions like fear, anger, happiness, disgust, lust, and so on, that part of the mind is saying “Mmmmm.  Looks good. Tastes good.  I want to eat it.”

So, you have a debate raging between your subconscious emotional brain and your conscious rational brain.  Sometimes the rational brain wins the debate and you shut the fridge door and go to bed.  More often, taking the path of least resistance, your subconscious makes the decision to eat the cake, and all that’s left for your rational brain is to rationalize the subconscious decision; “Today was a tough day, I deserve a little treat.” “I’ll run an extra mile tomorrow.” “I won’t eat desserts for the rest of the week.”

Critical thinking is expensive to the brain in terms of nourishment used and the fact that it is hard work.  Nobody can reason every moment using the cerebral neo-cortex (the recently evolved “human brain” – there is also a “primate” brain which consists of a much less developed  neocortex).  So, for the most part, decision-making is relegated to subconscious functioning of the limbic(the much older “paleomammal brain”) that controls  feeding, parenting behavior, and reproductive behavior, and the limbic system (the vastly older “reptile brain” or “R-complex”) This is the area where the most primitive emotions arise, fear, anger and rage, thirst, hunger, aggression, submission, dominance, territoriality, and control of involuntary functions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.

Most people seem never or rarely, at any case, to do the hard work to exercise their neo-cortex, and are content to let the reptile brain control their behavior.

This explains a lot about why the so-called “Homo sapiens sapiens” seems usually so stupid and ignorant.

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