© Charles Chandler
The previous section established how physical needs give rise to imaginings of scenarios in which those needs do not exist. Such imaginings provide the immediate benefit of a sense of well being, since they trick the rest of the brain into believing that the problem has already been solved. In spite of such instant gratification, if the problem persists long enough, imagining satiation becomes the anchor for goal-oriented behaviors. That section concluded with a description of a natural problem solving process that appears to be consistent with both neuroscientific and behavioral principles. This section elaborates on that process, and considers the practical value of organizing everyday problem solving with a framework based on these principles.
The essential premise is that we, as biological organisms, receive information from the external world, process it, and then issue actions back into that world, which alter the conditions affecting us. Thus the general form is that of a continuous loop. The five steps identified in the previous section have been expanded to ten distinct stages of processing (shown at right), on the basis of differences in kind between preceding and succeeding stages, suggesting semi-discrete processes. It starts at the bottom, with Matter being the prime mover, and with the feed-forward direction being clockwise.
Each of the stages in this process can be seen as just a refinement of the previous stage, while there is also something distinctive about each stage. Understanding the unique type of processing done at each stage is important in getting the most out of the endeavor.
Now we must acknowledge that we cannot stop the world so that we can isolate the activity within each of these stages. Rather, while we're still alive in the material world, all of these stages are active at all times. The difference is simply an issue of focus. We are always sensing the world, and engaged in some sort of activity. So all parts of the system are always on. But we might shift the focus to highlight the strategy, or the resources, or whatever we're doing with our hands.
Next we can easily see that we don't always explicitly go through each step — some cycles are short-circuited. A knee-jerk reflex goes straight from sensation to action, and it's such a short loop that it doesn't even involve the brain — the "processing" occurs entirely within the spinal cord. Other loops involve some of the brain, but as soon as we realize that a well-known desire has emerged, we go immediately into the well-known action that satisfies the desire, without consciously studying each aspect of the process. All of the problem-solving regions are still there, making their contributions, but without requiring focus to do so. Hence if we stop typing to scratch an itch, the "procedure" for this doesn't require conscious attention, and the only resource to be expended is a couple seconds of time — this gets immediately "scheduled", and the "resolution" is to stop typing and scratch the itch, so we can get back to typing. Other problems require a great deal of attention to each stage in the process, and the key to solving the problem might be anywhere — it could just require more resolve, or it might take re-thinking the strategy. Perhaps we have to go over the whole process many times before finally arriving at the best solution. Fully understanding the distinctive nature of each stage can help, by reminding us that there are 10 different ways of looking at every problem.
Here is an example of a simple problem solving process, which many people would be able to accomplish pretty much without thinking about it, but which serves to show which types of information go in which stages of the process.
These stages of processing appear to correspond loosely to specific areas of the cerebral cortex, and their order in the process corresponds loosely to the sequence in which areas of the brain get activated when confronted with new problems, though the brain is so fully non-linear that it would be a mistake to think that any process, or part thereof, is fully containerized in any specific region. So the point here is merely that this process matches up roughly with neuroanatomy. The significance is that as we learn more about neuroanatomy, it might continue to inform and inspire our macroscopic understanding of the process.
Next we should acknowledge that in addition to the simple feed-forward pathways, there are also feed-back tracts, which enable one part of the brain to modulate another that occurs earlier in the processing direction. And there are short-circuit pathways, which skip one or more steps in the full loop. Shown at right, and described below, are just a representative sampling of the possibilities.
We spend most of our time carrying out well-known procedures. When we do, one of the "actions" that we take is to direct the sensory organs (e.g., eyes) toward what we are doing with our hands and/or feet, to gather information that can be used to modulate our actions. All of the other areas of the brain are dormant during such activities.
In this context, it's easy to understand how sometimes, in the process of carrying out procedures, we forget to accomplish the objective, and sometimes consume more resources than the objective was worth in the first place — those parts of the brain are not active.
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