We Are What We Think

WhatThink:rendiansyah-nugroho-454059

Oh East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. . . — Rudyard Kipling

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. — The Dhammapada

The world is orderly and simple.

The world changes constantly and is immensely complex.

These two ways of thinking have shaped human behavior and culture for millenia—and lately they have been tested in the laboratories of cultural psychology.

Richard Nisbett’s book, The Geography of Thought, builds the case that Westerners and Easterners differ in their fundamental beliefs about the world. As one of his graduate students from China said to him, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” Nisbett, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, was skeptical but intrigued. He’d always thought of himself as a universalist, someone who believed humans perceive and reason in the same way. While their cultural practices may vary widely, he thought, their ways of perceiving the world are generally similar.

He summarizes this tradition in four general principles. First, everyone has the same basic thinking processes when it comes to memory, categorization, inference, and causal analysis. Second, when people from different cultures have different beliefs it’s because they have been exposed to different aspects of the world, not because they actually think differently. Third, reasoning rests upon logic: a proposition can’t be both true and false. And fourth, our reasoning is separate from what we are reasoning about. You can think about a thing many different ways—and you can use your reasoning to come up with wildly different results. Such was the tradition that could be traced back through the Enlightenment to the Greeks. Surely everybody thought in the same way.

But that turns out not to be the case at all.

In test after test, Western subjects focused on the objects in the foreground of a video while Eastern subjects took in the whole background. That’s consistent with another finding that Westerners regard objects as most important and Easterners emphasize relationships. Following Greek thought, Westerners think of themselves above all as free agents, individuals who act upon the environment around them, changing their circumstances to match their ambitions. Easterners, following Confucian thought, see themselves as part of a harmonious whole, experiencing the links between people and their environment as continuous. One does not so much wrest control away from Nature as align oneself with it.

Independence, practically a virtue in Western societies, begins at an early age as we teach our children to “stand on their own two feet,” “think for themselves,” and “grow up.” Interdependence, the way of many in Eastern cultures, helps children to understand the reactions of others. One of Nisbett’s research partners, a 6 ft. 2 inch football-playing graduate student from Japan, was dismayed to discover, at his first American football game, that University of Michigan football fans thought nothing of blocking his view of the game by standing up in front of him. “We would never do anything to impair the enjoyment of others at a public function like that,” he said to Nisbett. It seems that compared to the Japanese wide-angle view Americans have tunnel vision.

Sensitivity to others’ emotions provides Easterners with a different set of assumptions about communication also. Whereas Westerners take responsibility for speaking directly and clearly, a “transmitter” orientation, Easterners adopt a “receiver” orientation in which it’s the hearer’s responsibility to make sure the message is understood. Nisbett notes that Americans sometimes find Asians hard to read because Asians make their points indirectly; Asians, on the other hand, may find Americans direct to the point of rudeness.

The differences extend to how we think about causality and how we deal with historical events. Japanese teachers, says historian Masako Watanabe, begin a history lecture by setting the context. They then proceed chronologically through the events, linking each one to the proceeding event. Students are encouraged to put themselves in the mental and emotional states of the historical figures being studied and to draw analogies to their own lives. Students are regarded as thinking historically when they are able to see the events from the point of view of the other, even Japan’s enemies. Questions of “how” are asked about twice as much as in American classrooms.

By contrast, American teachers usually begin with the outcomes and ask why this result was produced. The pedagogical process often has the effect of destroying historical continuity and reversing the flow to effect-cause. This reflects the Greek heritage of the West in which we have the liberty to find our goals and define the means to attain them.

“Easterners,” says Nisbett, “are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world. . . . But Aristotle has testable propositions about the world while the Chinese did not. . . . The Chinese may have understood the principle of action at a distance, but they had no means of proving it.”

No one is making value judgements about these varying perspectives. They are different ways of being in the world and viewing the world. But if this research is true or even close, we should pay attention to it for it could change how we communicate with millions and millions of people.

Occasionally in life we stumble across something that opens a window into our own interior castles. That is the experience I had reading The Geography of Thought. Time and again, as I followed the tests scattered throughout the book, I was taken aback at my unconscious affinity for Eastern thought. More often than not, when I was absolutely honest with myself, I realized how often they are my default positions.

That might explain why I found it so difficult to be the ‘answer man’ when working in faculty development at a research university. While some thought I should provide techniques that would work in every classroom—universals, in effect—my tendency was to see each teacher and each classroom as distinct. Instead of developing objectives for all to reach my thought was to develop each teacher’s own style to fit their context. Context and background instead of rules and foreground. At the time I lacked the analogies to talk about it, although pushing against that instinctual feeling made me feel off balance much of the time.

Thus we live and learn and discover coves and bays along our spiritual shoreline we did not know were there until we put out to sea.

Photo: Rendiahsyah Nugroho on Unsplash.com

Let Me Have Your Attention

“My mind to me a kingdom is,/Such present joys therein I find/That it excels all other bliss/That earth affords or grows by kind. . . .” Sir Edward Dyer (1550? – 1607).

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In April, 1931, George Orwell wrote a short piece entitled “The Spike” for a magazine called Adelphi. In it he describes time he spent as a tramp. He became a tramp, a homeless person, partly of necessity and partly because he wished to understand the particular forms of suffering that tramps go through. One virulent irritation was boredom. Orwell came to think that boredom was the worst of a tramp’s burdens, worse than hunger and worse than the feeling of social disgrace. “It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel,” he said. “Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.”

Today, Orwell would be accused of elitism and would be made to tweet an apology to all his followers. But Orwell was nothing if not honest, and having lived the life on the street could speak with authority. One need only pass through any metropolitan area to see the homeless on benches, median strips, near metro stations, or on corners, many of them slumped against a wall, sleeping huddled against the cold or in a quiet corner of a coffee shop. Their days unwind with agonizing slowness, each minute trudging after the next. In this essay, Orwell recounts how he was saved from the ten hours of daylight boredom in the spike (homeless shelter) by the blessed reprieve of working in the kitchen. Even so, one suspects that with his powers of observation and his interests in literature, politics, and history, Orwell would not likely suffocate in boredom.

There are two elements at work here: memory and attention. Memory, because we are hardly human without it, and attention because it is necessary to learning. William James devotes a chapter of his seminal work, Psychology, to attention, describing it of two kinds. There is the effortless, involuntary and passive kind, and there is the active and voluntary kind. Involuntary attention occurs when we follow a train of thought that is interesting as a means to an end or when the mere association with the thought burnishes us with a sense of satisfaction.

Active, voluntary attention is that which we make a determined effort to accomplish by bending our minds to it. James remarks that it is a feeling which everyone knows, but which is indescribable. We sense it when we try to discriminate between sensory experiences, or attend to one voice near us against a babble of other voices. It is an effort whose accomplishment slips through our fingers like water. James says, “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time (his emphasis).” James describes a process that sounds like the building, layer upon layer, of a pearl around a grain of sand. The mind, finding something interesting, comes back to it, turns it over and over until the novelty wears off, then drifts away, only to return for the feeling of both familiarity and the stimulation of finding something new. And here is the sentence that lit up for me like a Jumbotron: “No one can possibly attend continuously to an object that does not change.”

So, to focus the attention of students or audiences we must come back to an idea from as many angles as possible, first through a discussion, then perhaps a demonstration, now a clip from a film, and then the solving of a problem together with a partner. These are techniques intended to remedy our weaknesses, but what of the genius who can apparently sit alone for hours, deaf to the world and completely absorbed with the ideas streaming through her head? James says that its her genius that makes her attentive, not her attentiveness that makes her a genius. The difference between her and the rest of us is that she has a method of hooking one idea to another to make a train of thought, while we, poor inchoate butterflies that we are, simply flit about from one delightful flower to the next. The good news is, however, that “whether the attention come by grace of genius or by dint of will, the longer one does attend to a topic the more mastery of it one has.”

The practice of this in the classroom is simple and effective: find common ground between that which the student knows and the new concept, and ask the student to express his thoughts, first in written form and then verbally.

To put it in writing, creating a structure intended for clarity, is the first step. The student as a demanding reader of her own work consistently asks: is this word, this paragraph, this message, appropriate to my purpose? And the purpose, as Jacques Barzun says, “is always the same: it is to be understood aright.”*

The second step, presenting the written in verbal form, accomplishes two purposes. It first requires the student to recognize the difference between the written and the spoken word—reading an essay out loud is not at all the same as writing to be heard. And then the student will see that putting one’s ideas into another medium wondrously concentrates the attention.

This brings us back to Orwell and his terminally bored compatriots. An educated mind has something to play with: memories, images, associations, ideas not yet fully formed, questions, hopes. Waiting in a doctor’s office, loathe to thumb through a celebrity rag, we may yet travel through infinite and intimate spaces as we attend to our new and present sensations, relate them to the old and familiar, and say ‘What if?. . .’

Blake offered us “infinity in a grain of sand.” It’s there, if we but pay attention.

*Jacques Barzun (2001), Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers.

Photo: Redd Angelo, Unsplash.com