Schools, I’ve suggested, are designed on an outdated vision of human nature. We are, in fact, feelers more than we are thinkers — even the most unsentimental of us. This seems a crucial point for, frankly, everything that we want to do at this school of ours, so let me unpack this point, and sketch out the revolution in cognitive science that’s behind it.
Not too long ago, cognitive scientists treated reasoning as a conscious, logical thing. As Antonio Damasio writes in Descartes’ Error:
as the sciences of mind and brain flourished in the twentieth century, interests went elsewhere and the specialties which we loosely group today under neuroscience gave a resolute cold shoulder to emotion research. (page ix)
But, Damasio writes, this changed in the late 1990s — now, emotions are back with a vengeance! Damasio himself is leading this charge, arguing that
the reasoning system evolved as an extension of the automatic emotional system, with emotion playing diverse roles in the reasoning process.
Our rationality, that is, is an outgrowth of our emotions.
And, more practically: Our thinking is shot through with feeling.
One of the most exciting developments in cognitive psychology has been the “two system” model of reasoning. Daniel Kahneman’s excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow is the most complete book-length treatment of this idea.
Kahneman argues that our reasoning can be best thought of as composed of two quite separate systems: System 1, which is automatic and instinctive, and System 2, which is purposeful and deliberate.
Kahneman gives some examples of automatic activities that can be attributed to System 1 —
Detect hostility in a voice. Answer 2+2=? Find a strong move in chess (if you are a chess master) Understand simple sentences (p. 21)
He also gives examples of controlled, System 2 operations —
Focus attention. Search your memory. Fill out a tax form. Check the validity of a logical argument. (p. 22)
Both are necessary (for humans — not so much for tarantulas), but System 1 comes first.
Western (and sometimes Eastern) intellectual culture has tended to heap praise on System 2, sometimes identifying it as the essential trait of humanity. (We are Homo sapiens — the wise thinker.)
The trouble with this is that it puts the cart before the horse:
When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. (p. 21)
We are deliberative, that is, precisely because we are instinctive.
Or, to focus on one particular side of that: we are rational because we are emotional.
System 2 can only work with the inputs given to it by System 1. And when System 1 doesn’t like something, it’s very difficult for System 2 to override it.
Though Kahneman repeatedly mentions feelings and emotions, his central research has been the non-emotional aspects of intuition. (I imagine that this has been because of the previously-cited skepticism in the psychology community toward emotion, but this is just a conjecture.)
To get to the heart of emotion, I’d like to turn to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work. But I’ll save that for Friday.
For now, the question for us is: how can we build a school that takes full advantage of students’ instincts and intuitions? How can our school build thinkers out of perceivers and feelers?