Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

Chapter Six:

The Process of Thinking

As I sit here at my computer, staring at the blank screen, I am doing something that is a special province of human beings -- thinking. (Many people confuse my thinking with vegetating, but I think best staring into nowhere or snoring quietly.) What I am thinking about is the subject of this chapter, the manipulation of symbols. How I'm thinking about the subject is by manipulating symbols. Input is stored in the brain, either directly or indirectly. Once there you convert the input to symbols for easy manipulation. Manipulation is the actual mechanism of thinking. Remember that there are two types of impressions, direct and indirect. In addition, two factors are involved: direct impressions cannot be manipulated; indirect impressions must be.

Manipulation of symbols is done both unconsciously and consciously. However, before any manipulation can be done, you have to remember them.


The first step in manipulating any symbol is to recall that symbol from storage. Recall is important to symbol manipulation, since if you can't remember ("What is the word I'm looking for?") then it's impossible to manipulate them.

There are two ways to recall, through triggers and stereotypes. Both of these can be considered reminders.


Triggers are the way you bring individual memories from storage to the conscious level of the mind. Once a memory is triggered it can be manipulated.

There are two types of triggers used by humans. The first is sensory cues: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. Each of these trigger direct impressions. For example, seeing the color red triggers a recall in the mind of the direct impression of red. A smell of onions triggers that direct impression, etc.

Since humans are symbol creating and using creatures, often sensory cues trigger a series of impressions, both direct and indirect. Thus symbolic storage of impressions, whether direct or indirect, can be consciously manipulated: seeing the color red triggers the direct impression of the color. In addition, it triggers the symbol "red", red being the symbol your mind has assigned to that particular color. The same for "blue", "ammonia", "pin prick", "chocolate ice cream", and "spinach". As you read each of these symbols, a different direct impression was triggered, recalling to your mind the impression made by each of these things as perceived by your brain through your senses and stored directly. For example, the smell of a rose triggers direct impressions of the smell, the color, the feel, and perhaps the taste (roses taste like sweet perfumed lettuce). However, the cues also trigger indirect impressions: the price, where you got it, who gave it to you or you gave it to, why you gave or received it, what response you expect from the recipient, etc. An entire scenario of past, present and future is brought out.

A smell reminding you of a person is a good example. Most people associate some smell, be it a perfume or cologne or body smell, with a specific person, and what that person means or meant to them. You associate, automatically, that smell with a certain person and who that person is or was to you, and think of that person in symbols. Such symbols include the name, address, phone number, thoughts about conversations, comments, jokes, arguments (all in words).

You will, of course, also recall direct impressions about that person: facial features, hair, body, voice, etc.

To think about that person, you recall from storage not only direct impressions, but recall various symbols (words) that relate to that person. For example, a fragrance reminds you of him-her-it. The face appears in your mind's eye. Then you apply symbols: "That's who that smell reminds me of -- George. I wonder what he's doing now? I haven't seen him in years . . . ", etc.

Direct impressions are not capable of manipulation: they exist on their own. Such direct impressions include aromas, colors, tactile sensations, tastes, sounds. For example, you can't eat chocolate ice cream and manipulate the taste consciously to perceive it as spinach. A pin prick is a pin prick, not a gentle caress. You can't change the smell of ammonia to essence of roses. Red does not turn to blue simply because you wish it to. Direct impressions are immune to conscious manipulation. Under some circumstances, such as hypnosis, it is possible to trick the conscious mind to accept the suggestion that what you smell or see is something else, but that is calling up from direct, subconscious, storage an impression you have already stored and making the conscious mind imagine that the stored impression is what it is experiencing. It is not possible to trick the mind into smelling or seeing something it has not already experienced, such as the feel of Martian soil or the smell of Jovian air. In addition, it is not something that the average, untrained person can accomplish on his or her own. Direct impressions can be triggered, but not manipulated. Ammonia has a definite odor, as do roses. No matter how long you sniff household cleaner, it still smells of ammonia. You may become inured to the smell, but it doesn't lose its meaning.

The second, perhaps most important trigger that humans have, that as far as we know or can prove no other creature on Earth has, is words. Remember that most of the symbols humans create are words. The words may stand for direct impressions, indirect impressions, series of impressions, impressions of impressions, symbols standing for other symbols, concepts, ideas, etc.

Words as triggers can come from two sources, somatic and extrasomatic. Extrasomatic triggers are such things as conversation, teachers, radio, television, etc. As words are spoken your mind automatically translates them into what the symbol means to you. That in turn triggers other words, which triggers other words, etc. What you say in return starts the same process in others, which feeds back to you in a continually renewed cycle. It is in this way that conversation proceeds and why topics continually change.

Another extrasomatic way for words to act as triggers is through the printed word such as books, magazines and newspapers. The marks on the page trigger a mental response much like that in conversation. First you translate them into words, then into what the words mean to you, then the collateral associations, again in symbols, called up by your meaning. For example, I was reading Isaac Asimov's THE SEARCH FOR THE ELEMENTS. At one point he was discussing the origin of the word "element" and hypothesized that it came from the Romans using an adage "as easy as L-M-N" the way we now say "as easy as A-B-C." Since I was at the time working on the chapter in this book on writing, that triggered in me the responses: 1) a good opening; and 2) the history of the alphabet is important to understand the process of writing. That led to another whole series discussed later.

The somatic source for words as triggers is thinking, often called "talking to yourself." Here you have a mental conversation with yourself, with all the features of conversing with others (with the possible exception of finding out anything you don't already know).

This process is continual. Your mind is always at work, accepting somatic and extrasomatic input, categorizing it, looking for collateral associations, jumping from one thing to another. Try it -- empty your mind of everything, think about nothing.

. . .

Can't be done, can it? The closest you probably came was to think about not thinking, to think about whether you were thinking about nothing. A trick often used is putting all your thoughts on a blackboard and then erase the blackboard. Whenever something appears on the board, erase it. However, to do that you must think about a blackboard, think about putting your thoughts on it, think about erasing, and check whether you are. That's a very complex thought process for not thinking.

Sensory deprivation experiments have shown that a human deprived of input will invent their own, sometimes creating, and believing totally in, events that never take place. The mind cannot be empty.

With words your mind tells you what you already know, and then mixes and matches. This is called synthesis, which I will discuss later.


Remember the section on using stereotypes for storing input. Once the input is stored as a stereotype, the information in the pigeonhole is recalled by the triggering effect of perceiving that stereotype. There are two triggers for each stereotype. The first is a direct impression. The second is a word or phrase. These are both labels on the pigeonhole.

Let me give you a brief description, and see what images and concepts the description calls up in your mind:

A woman, wearing a simple dress and carrying a purse, enters a small country store. She stops at a bushel basket of corn on the cob and starts looking for ones to buy. Up comes the grocer, a kindly, grey-haired man in a white apron, wearing wire-rimmed glasses. He identifies the woman by name and suggests that she buy a certain brand of canned corn since it is "just as good as fresh cooked corn." She smiles and agrees to buy the product.

What sort of things came into your mind? Later in this chapter we'll look at this description again and see how stereotyping influences people's perceptions and ideas.

Pigeonholing and stereotyping are intimately related. A stereotype is the label applied to a pigeonhole. The stereotype triggers a pigeonhole, releasing whatever information is in the pigeonhole. When you see a tree, no matter what kind, configuration, leaf shape, color or any other aspect, the stereotype "tree" tells you the word tree and anything else in the pigeonhole. If you deem the specie of tree important, a maple tree (any one of the millions in the world) will open the "maple tree" pigeonhole. The stereotype will not open the pigeonholes "pine tree" or "willow tree". If you do not deem the specie important then seeing any tree will only tell you that it is a tree.

The use of stereotypes to trigger pigeonholes full of information is important to the process of thinking. It saves much time that would otherwise have to be spent in explanations and/or exposition. For instance, the ad above doesn't need to explain why the woman is in the store; her mere presence and attire tell the audience instantly that she is shopping. Going to the corn immediately shows what she is shopping for. Because it is a woman, she is shopping for her family (this will be explained later).

Stereotypes also provide a shorthand for places, things and emotions. Showing a baby or the flag immediately evokes emotions, the Capitol dome or Mount Rushmore evoke places. This results in instant identification and a shorthand connotation trigger about people, places, things and emotions.


Let's take an example of a mental search. When you meet someone for the first time, your mind automatically searches for the appropriate pigeonhole to give you information about him/her. It uses the stereotypes to do this search.

The search is like using a book index. You find a keyword that gives you a page number to turn to get the information you need. Often in an index there are sublevels: for example, you may find "France" subdivided by "geography", "population", "imports", "exports", etc. A stereotype is like the keyword that leads you to the pigeonhole containing the information you need to think about something.

The mind does the search very quickly. Let's use some of the examples from Chapter 4. If you see a short fat black balding male, you may go through the stereotypes human, male, black, short, fat, and balding. Since these characteristics are there, the pigeonhole thus triggered will provide the rest of the information that he has a loud voice and a lisp. A tall, slender young female with long blond hair may trigger a pigeonhole labeled "California girl" and give you whatever other information is in it. The sight of a short, skinny, short-haired male with horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector may finally trigger "nerd". This is the infamous "first impression." What you think of anything the first time you encounter it has its basis in what is in the pigeonhole recalled to your mind as triggered by the stereotype.

I take advantage of this in my public speaking classes. On the first day of class I arrive wearing black boots, jeans, a black leather motorcycle jacket, leather cap, and black gloves, and sport long hair and a beard. The students' instant reaction is, "My God, we've got a Hell's Angel teaching this class!" That's the first impression. They become very confused later in the semester when I appear with short hair, clean shaven, wearing a $600 charcoal grey suit, and tie -- I become a banker. It is the most dramatic way I have of demonstrating how stereotypes operate and how appearance affects an audience's impression of a speaker.

Thus it is that stereotypes can recall a gestalt of impressions, both direct and indirect. However, stereotypes do not have to be triggered only by sensory input.

Words can and do trigger stereotypes. Since a word is a symbol for an input, the contents of a pigeonhole are as easily recalled with words as with sensory cues.


Much of the manipulation of the symbols you have in your mind you do unconsciously. For instance, when you are in a conversation, your choice of words to describe, discuss, amend, interrupt, etc., you don't do consciously; you wish to express an idea, and the symbols you know that apply start flowing (sometimes to the amusement, sometimes to the distress, and sometimes to the boredom of the others in the conversation).

Also note how the subject of the conversation jumps from topic to topic. As someone says something, it triggers different pigeonholes in everyone in the group. Anytime someone thinks that what their pigeonhole contains would be of interest to the rest of the group, they bring it up, often a propos of absolutely nothing. I have participated in conversations that have started with the best beer to order, and gone through such topics as cleaning beer lines, ordering beer, white water rafting, cross country skiing, sheetrocking, roofing, lead, aluminum, printing plates, printing processes, typesetting, computers, the flight characteristics of a Boeing 747 when the engines die (about that of a thrown brick). Believe it or not, that is the exact order in which the topics took place (I took notes). Granted the group I was in was a bit unusual: 3 construction workers (1 MA, 1 PhD, 1 DVM); one businessman printer cum computer programmer cum computer repairman; two lawyers; two real estate brokers; one beer distributer; two restaurant owners; one television producer; one news anchor; one academic dean; one academic vice-president; one magician; one detective; one entrepreneur; two bartenders; and me. Nonetheless, if you make a log of any extended conversation you are in with a group larger than one, you will see the same changes in topic (make note of the comments made that cause the change of topic and you will see how comments trigger pigeonholes).

In daily social functioning you also use symbols. They may be the perfunctory "Hello, how are you?" or handshakes or waving bye-bye. All these are social symbols, learned and used unconsciously.


There is also learned manipulation of symbols. When you learn to drive you also learn the applicable symbols, such as road signs (stop, yield, speed limit, curve) and signals. Then, when you see those material symbols, they trigger direct and indirect impressions and stereotypes to tell you what conditions are or what to do.

A major form of learned manipulation of symbols is reading and writing. You learn what the letters are and to recognize them in their many forms: cursive, bold, Gothic, san serif, Old English, etc. Then you learn how letters combine into words and what the words are symbols for.

You also learn other symbols to separate the words into connected symbols. These symbols include punctuation such as commas, periods, colons and semicolons, and question marks, and formats for paragraphs, sections, and chapters.

This book you're reading now is an example of learned manipulation of symbols. I've manipulated the symbols of letters into certain words and placed them in a certain order, separated by punctuation and formatted in such a way to allow you to read in a logical and connected fashion. By manipulating symbols in this way it is possible for me to communicate what is in my mind to yours.



Only humans, so far as we know, create and attach labels to a thing for which there is no concrete or abstract referent. To a dog, the smell of a specific person represents that specific person. It doesn't invent new smells to represent people it hasn't met and then decide how to react to these invented people; if the dog hasn't smelled it, it doesn't have a smell. The dog does not invent symbols for that which it has not experienced.

Humans are different. They can invent symbols for that which they haven't actually experienced through their senses, and thus are able to recall impressions of things that they have not or cannot experience directly or even that do not exist. They can then mix and match the concrete and the abstract and create whole new symbols.

This conscious manipulation of real and imaginary symbols is called synthesis, and is arguably the most important difference between the mental powers of humans and all other creatures. Synthesis is the conscious recall of input that is in storage and comparing, contrasting, and combining each of those direct and indirect impressions. A simple example: you can't find your keys. You look where they should be -- not there. You then pause and synthesize: You consciously recall where you were when you last saw them. You look there -- not there. Then you recall places where you use them -- in the car, in the door. There they are, hanging in the door lock. You then consciously synthesize a variety of things to call yourself for being stupid enough to leave them in the door (even if the mind is always working, it isn't always paying attention).

Through synthesis you not only learn, but learn how to learn, learn what you learn, how to create, and how you understand anything. This awareness of perceptions, input and manipulation allows humans to discover what they have not only not perceived, but cannot perceive. In order to write this book, I needed to be consciously aware of what I knew about many things. I also needed to be aware that there were many things I did not know but could find out.

For synthesis to work you must know two things: 1) what symbols are and represent; and 2) what symbols you know. Let's look at a credit card. It could simply be a thing, a set of direct impressions of sight and touch. It can also be a symbol of money, of purchasing power, of status, of control, of power, of depression (going over your limit can produce that effect). As you can see, a credit card is a symbol of many things. Which direct or indirect impression it means to you is what it is a symbol for to you. If you limit the possible impressions anything is a symbol for, you limit the possible ways it can be combined with other symbols.

In addition, if you don't know what symbols you know, you won't be able to tell if you're missing something and will once again limit your ability to synthesize.

Humans, converting virtually all impressions into words, think in words. In this way they can combine direct and indirect impressions in any way they wish. For example, an artist creates with direct impressions, the colors of paint and their shapes and positions. This is a major form of synthesis. However, a major part of that synthesis is done in words -- "Shall I use red or orange?" is a symbolic way of thinking about direct impressions.

Composers and writers synthesize with symbols. For a composer the symbols are words, notes, and other characters. For a writer the symbols are, of course, words. In both cases, their creations are brought about by recalling various inputs and combining them in new and interesting fashions.

Science fiction writing is a major example of synthesis. The writer gathers information about what the world or even universe is like. He or she then extrapolates what the future would be like in terms of society or technology growing out of that study of the past and present. From that extrapolation the writer then constructs a consistent world of the future and describes events occurring within it. These worlds may or may not exist, and may never exist. Nonetheless, through synthesis it is possible to create a world as "real" as the one we live in.

Flashes of genius can be understood in terms of synthesis. Einstein began his work on his Theory of Relativity when, riding through woods on a bicycle, he saw the sunlight streaming in beams through the trees. He began to wonder what it would be like to ride on one of those beams. He then began wondering what the properties of light were that it acted the way it did. Many years later he explained light (and many other aspects of the universe) in his theory.

Thought Models

What Einstein did was create a thought model of light and examine what light did and did not do under varying circumstances. For example, he considered that light seemed to arrive at the same moment no matter what direction it approached from. He knew that light traveled at 186,000 miles per seconds, and tried to describe what something would be like that traveled faster.

The construction of thought models is a common and efficient form of synthesis. Many things cannot be directly perceived and may not even exist. It is possible, however, to recall consciously various facets of similar things and add other facets to imagine that which may not exist.

Let us, for example, create a thought model of a dragon. Various perceptible facets of a dragon could be a lizard's body, eagle claws, bat wings, dinosaur's head. Some facets can be created: breathing fire, baleful stare. Combining these facets can create a thought model of a dragon: a bat-winged, eagle clawed giant lizard with huge sharp teeth, that can fly and breathe fire. Such a creature does not exist in nature and thus cannot be perceived by any other creature on Earth but humans. Dogs cannot smell them, hawks cannot see them, dolphins cannot hear them, nothing can taste or touch them. Nonetheless, humans can, through mixing and matching existing characteristics, easily create mental images. The dragon example has been done so often that it is part of folklore virtually everywhere, and believed a reality by millions of people.

Many times thought models have been used to discover reality. Based on nuclear physics and quantum mechanics, the evolution of a star from birth to death could be understood. Some physicists decided to take the process further and developed the idea of the black hole, a star that has, in death, collapsed in on itself so far that its gravity become so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape from it. A black hole is inherently undetectable. The thought model continued: if such an object as a black hole existed, what would its properties be? Using what is believed at present about physics and extrapolating them to such extreme conditions, some methods of how to detect a black hole were worked out. Astronomers started looking for the conditions dictated by the thought model, and discovered what they think is a black hole. Thus from a flight of imagination there came a greater understanding of what cannot be perceived.

Let me give you an example of synthesis as I did it for a part of this book. Part of the chapter on writing is the history of the alphabet. The initial idea was to include a history of the alphabet. This immediately led to my asking myself a series of questions:

1) what is an alphabet?
2) where did it arise?
3) from what did it arise?
4) what do I already know in answer to the first three questions?

It is the last question that I answered first. I could answer it by consciously recalling from memory certain facts and concepts that I was certain were in there. I knew that an alphabet is a series of symbols out of which words are built, like bricks in a wall.

Knowing a great deal of Mediterranean, and in particular Middle Eastern (Sumerian, Egyptian and Canaanite) history, I knew that the alphabet arose there before 500 BCE.

I knew about Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, and their relative time frames.

From this I could construct a thought model that would explain the evolution of the alphabet. First, I noted that cuneiform and hieroglyphics are pictographs that stood for words, not word parts, and that the Phoenician alphabet stood for word parts. I also noted that Phoenicia arose after Sumeria and Egypt, that Sumeria and Egypt were high civilizations strongly rooted in their land, while Phoenicia was a country of traders in a poor land. I knew that traders need a method of unambiguous record keeping, and that pictographs could be misinterpreted.

I then considered how pictographs are used and what could occur when they are, recalling examples that I had come across in various ways. I realized that I didn't know enough.

This is an example of holes that can appear in a thought model that need to be filled. However, it is also an example of how I could identify the holes, what was missing from the model. Thus I could go on to the next step.

What was missing from the model was the exact sequence of events leading to the alphabet, the years when major changes occurred, what the steps actually looked like, what purposes the steps served and did not serve well, and the effects the steps in the evolution had on society and technology. Identifying the specific things I needed to find out, I could begin the search (see Chapter 3, NONPERSONAL EXTRASOMATIC SENSES, for an explanation of how I proceeded with this step). I found the information to fill in the holes (and other holes that arose as my thought model became more complete), and, once I was fairly certain of how the alphabet came to be created, I could move on.

With my model in mind, I could decide how I would tell others what I had found. That is, I could put my thought model into symbols that others could accept as input, put in storage, and recall themselves to use in future thought models.

Stereotyping in Thought Models

Remember that stereotypes are an important way for humans to store and recall input. Thus it stands to reason that when thought modeling much of the information that you use comes from stereotypes you hold.

This can be a problem. Since a stereotype is recalled in toto and not as discrete bits of information, that gestalt of facts, concepts and conjectures is treated as a single piece of information. However, some of that gestalt can be misleading, inappropriate or even wrong.

For example, the ancient Greeks held the stereotype that the elements that make up all matter consisted of earth, air, fire and water. Thus when they constructed thought models of any certain piece of matter, say a piece of wood, the stereotype dictated that wood would be made up of various proportions of those four elements. All study would therefore be devoted to discovering what the proportions were. (Exactly this reasoning led to the search for the "Philosopher's Stone," the proportion of one of the elements that would transmute lead to gold. Both lead and gold were made of the four elements in different proportions, and thus changing the proportions would convert one to the other.) It wasn't until Robert Boyle (1627-1691), 2,000 years later, began doing experiments that didn't fit the stereotypes that the ancient stereotypes began to be questioned.

It may be thought that such an idea is ridiculous today, that, with our greater understanding, we would fall into the same trap. However, stereotypes filled with misinformation exist today. The European stereotype of American Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries said they were ignorant savages, and thus incapable of the monumental engineering feats of the Mississippian culture. They thus searched for evidence that Europeans arrived in the New World (also a stereotype, the Americas are no newer than Europe except to the Europeans) earlier than previously thought. It wasn't until about a hundred years ago that the abilities of Native Americans were appreciated and the stereotypes began to crumble (many people still hold that stereotype today, however).

Just think of the stereotypes held of women, of men, of blacks, of whites, of yuppies, of television, of advertising, of just about everything. How many of them are Greek elements or American Indians?

To counter the effect of false stereotypes requires three steps:

1) recognize that stereotypes can be false;
2) examine what stereotypes you hold to see what information is in them; and
3) alter the contents.


It is possible to alter stereotypes by replacing or adding to the information in pigeonholes. It is at the primary level that stereotypes are changed. Every time a new piece of information is placed in a pigeonhole, the label, although it stays the same, triggers a different set of thoughts and reactions based on the new information.

A major example is making friends or enemies. You base your first impression of anyone on stereotyped information. However, as you get to know someone you gather new information. As more information comes in, this person gets his or her own pigeonhole with its own label. Soon, any direct or indirect impression relating to that person will trigger his or her pigeonhole and he or she will be recalled and reacted to as an individual rather than a stereotype. In addition, anyone matching or approximating that pigeonhole will be reacted to as a friend or enemy.

Stereotypes are common in advertising and therefore a good place to find examples of stereotyping and how they work. (To many the stereotyping in advertising is a flaw. However, to advertisers they are a godsend, as I will show.)

There are some stereotypes that many people hold in common. A country's flag is such a stereotype, triggering a pigeonhole that contains patriotism, love of country, or whatever else is in the pigeonhole. A kindly father figure, a loving mother, a baby, a puppy or kitten, or a Rolls Royce are also stereotypes. Whenever a group of people reacts the same to the same stereotype, then they are useful to advertising.

The criticism arises when the stereotype triggers pigeonholes that contain different information or information ranked in a different way from that of the critics. Let's take another look at that description from above and see what the stereotypes may contain:

A woman, wearing a simple dress and carrying a purse, enters a small country store. She stops at a bushel basket of corn on the cob and starts looking for ones to buy. Up comes the grocer, a kindly, grey-haired man in a white apron, wearing wire-rimmed glasses. He identifies the woman by name and suggests that she buy a certain brand of canned corn since it is "just as good as fresh cooked corn." She smiles and agrees to buy the product.

Woman shopping
Small country store
Woman checks corn
Male grocer appears
Grocer suggests corn
Woman buys canned corn

Women are better shoppers than men
Friendly, neighborhood atmosphere
Women are selective
Men are friendly
Men are helpful
Women make good decisions

Women must do shopping
Supermarkets are impersonal
Women are indecisive
Only men are employed
Women need male help to make decisions
Women are easily led by men

As can be seen by the above example, the same commercial can be taken different ways according to the information in pigeonholes triggered by different stereotypes.

1. Women, who are better shoppers, go to friendly, neighborhood stores. They are very selective in their purchases of food for their families. The nice thing about these stores are the friendly people who work there: they know you and wish to help you in your purchases. Once the advantages of a product are known, women know to choose the best product.

2. Women, who have to do the shopping because nobody else will, avoid the savings possible at supermarkets and go to small, overpriced neighborhood stores because they don't want to go all the way to the supermarket. Here they must deal with men because only men can get jobs. Men feel that women need help to make even simple decisions and condescend to explain things to them in simple terms. Women are easily led by men and agree to do what men tell them.

(Advertisers count on the first set of stereotypes rather than the second. Criticisms arise when people perceive some or all the second.)

Let's look again at the steps to counter the effect of false stereotypes:
1) recognize that stereotypes can be false;
2) examine what stereotypes you hold to see what information is in them; and
3) alter the contents.

In the above there are obvious contradictions. Each image conjures up an opposite set of information. Thus one of three things is possible:
1) the negative stereotype is false;
2) the positive stereotype is false; or
3) neither stereotype is a reflection of how things really are.

(An experiment for you to try: remember the ancient Greek elements and apply the above reasoning to them. What answer do you arrive at? Now examine your answer to see if it is based on your own stereotypes. Do you arrive at the same answer? A different answer? Any answer? Isn't this fun?)

If you did the above experiment, then you've already done step two. Apply them to the commercial. Do you hold the negative stereotype? Then examine why you feel it is negative? Something you've experienced? Been told? By whom? Read about? Where? Do you feel it is positive? Ask the same questions. Do you feel it is not a reflection of reality? Why? Why not? Are you missing something that other people aren't, one way or the other?

This second step is a difficult one for many people. It requires asking questions about things that don't need to be asked about. However, it is generally a good idea that, whenever you feel good, bad, negative, positive, comfortable or uncomfortable about something that is not a physical sensation (such as a red hot iron or the smell of ammonia), you ask yourself why you feel the way you do. The odds are your feeling is based on a stereotype.

The final step is altering the stereotype. You do this by changing in some way the contents of the pigeonhole for which that stereotype is the label. Of course, that requires knowing what the contents are, but you did that in step two. Now you examine each piece of information and try to find other evidence that either does or doesn't support it.

This, of course, doesn't guarantee discovering the truth. According to the Greek stereotype of the elements, they had proof in support. The piece of wood did indeed contain various proportions of earth, air, fire and water. It is solid, and thus contains the solid element, earth. When heated it would burn and thus contained the element fire. When on fire it released vapor, a kind of air. And when cooled some of the "air" turned to drops of water, the water element. Obviously this proves that the four element stereotype is correct.

An examination of what happens in the human mind that allows mistakes to be made, and what to do about it, are discussed in the next section.


Synthesis and thought modeling are powerful tools for critical and creative thinking. However, since humans cannot perceive everything, any attempt to understand the real world through modeling and synthesis must be limited. In addition, most humans have limiting factors in the way they accept and symbolize input, and recall from memory the symbols necessary for manipulation. Some are built in to being human, some are learned, some are a result of not learning, but all have solutions.

The Problems

A Priori Assumptions

A priori assumptions, discussed in Chapter 2, are a major impediment to logical thought. Since they are axiomatic and, by definition, needing no proof, they are rarely if ever examined for their relationship to other assumptions, facts and what is generally accepted as the real world.

For example, during the European Middle Ages it was axiomatic that there was a Christian God. Two thousand years earlier it was just as axiomatic that there wasn't. Today there is a wide variety of a priori assumptions, from no God, to which God, to which gods, to who cares, to everyone should care. (Of course, the above should be taken as only an illustration. Any religion, since it is a system of beliefs, is by definition nonprovable, nonlogical (not illogical) and subjective.)

Selective Perception

Selective perception is a mental screening process, by which your mind automatically ignores or just doesn't see that which you don't want to or have no need to see. Many examples exist. Someone who is going to have a baby suddenly sees pregnant women everywhere, even though he or she hasn't noticed any before (they will often comment on how it seems that everyone is having a baby all of a sudden). You just buy a new car and suddenly everyone seems to have one like it, although nobody had one before.

An example of how selective perception played a part in this book is in my research on the alphabet. When I read the story of how the word element may have come from the Roman "as easy as L-M-N" it seemed to jump off the page and shout, "You can use this!" I would probably have simply stored it as an interesting idea and gone on had I not been working on this book.

Selective perception can be a very useful tool. It allows you scan a page of text and find the word you're looking for, to reduce the amount of messages around you (such as advertising) that is constantly clamoring for your attention to those that apply to you or that you are interested in, to find one item in a pile of others.

However, selective perception can also make you miss a great deal, ignore things that may be important, limit your options, or reduce your knowledge to that which interests you, or reduce the number of things that could. For example, most universities have a list of General University Requirements, a set of courses in a variety of fields that may or may not directly apply to a certain field of study. Selective perception would make the average student completely ignore these courses. This, in my opinion, severely limits a student in a variety of ways:
1) they might as well be in vocational school, not a university;
2) they lose the chance to expand the range of their knowledge over a variety of disciplines;
3) they may not discover until too late that what they are studying is not what they want to study; and
4) they miss a lot of neat facts and ways of viewing and manipulating the world.
Certainly I expect my students to have at least a cursory knowledge of history, social science, hard science, psychology, media, math, engineering, anthropology, other cultures than their own, foreign languages, and, of course, English. (Seem like a bit much? Anyone who reads a newspaper with any regularity, reads a book a month, and actively rather than passively watches television could meet the minimum.)

General University Requirements are designed to force undergraduate students to overcome their selective perception in choosing courses. The only problem is getting them to overcome their selective perception of when to go to class and what to study to learn something from them.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is belief vs. reality, the insistence upon a certain way of thinking or looking at information despite information to the contrary. It is more than a form of selective perception; it is perceiving and then rationalizing away anything contrary to what you believe.

This occurs often when a person has an emotional or financial stake in the outcome of the conflict. When video cassette recorders first came on the market, they were all Beta format. Soon the VHS format was introduced and the battle for consumers was on. The battle extended beyond the marketplace and into the consumers' homes. Those that bought Beta machines extolled the virtues of Beta, those that bought VHS extolled VHS. Beta owners said that Beta tapes were cheaper, smaller and easier to store, the machines produced superior sound and picture quality. VHS owners said that VHS machines were equal in quality, provided greater recording time, and it was easier to rent tapes of movies. On both sides cognitive dissonance was at work. Neither side would admit the truth of the arguments of the other. In fact, both were right (although Beta did indeed have an edge in picture and sound quality for a while, and VHS did have a longer recording time and more rental tapes on the market). Members of both sides argued as they did because they had a financial stake (the machines were and are expensive) and a personal stake in the outcome of the argument. Whichever format someone bought, their pride in having made the correct choice was involved. If they were proven to have made the wrong choice, as would be the case if they lost the argument, then they would have felt stupid for having spent so much money on the wrong thing. They thus reduced the dissonance between belief vs. reality by rationalizing away any argument against their choice.

(Of course, the dissonance could be removed entirely by doing as I did. I have two Beta and four VHS machines. Now I have to reduce the dissonance created by the financial and emotional stake I have in owning so many machines. I rationalize that it allows me to dub across formats, record many different channels since with cable there are so many, and that I need them in my work. These arguments are of course rationalizations in support of my ostentatious entertainment wall (which also contains a large stereo, four TV monitors, and a cupboard for the video cameras). I have indeed rarely used all six VCRs at the same time, and if I did I would never have time nor inclination to watch all the recordings.)

The same conflict has arisen over Edsels, creationism vs. evolution, sex education, divorce, abortion, commercial vs. non-commercial television, television vs. radio, colorization of black and white movies, early automobiles ("Get a horse!"), C/PM vs. MS-DOS vs. Apple computers, and even owning a computer (all computer owners don't know what they did without one, non-owners can't think why you would want to). No matter what the subject, if there is a possibility of there being two or more sides (and very few subjects don't) then there is the possibility of cognitive dissonance.

Lack of Facts

An impediment to thinking that is easily cured but often overlooked is a lack of facts. A lack of facts simply means you don't have the information needed to make a decision. In fact, it is often said that someone cannot "make an informed decision." It is also often called, "jumping to a conclusion." Many people decide what should be done, or what reality is, based on what facts they currently have. They seem to assume that they already know all that is necessary and anything else is useless. However, their opinion is often ignored or rejected because they either have no support for it, or it does not take into account new evidence. Such people are considered narrow or close-minded.

Lack of Vocabulary

This may seem like a small problem in thinking, but in fact it is a major one. Humans are symbol creating and using creatures. Thus much of their thinking is done in symbols. Since most of the symbols humans use in thinking are words, then their vocabularies influence what they are capable of thinking about. If you don't have a word for something, then you have difficulty thinking about that thing in relation to others.

You are given or create a word for everything you can conceptualize. Thus, if you don't have a conceptualization, then you probably don't have a word. On the other hand, if you don't have a word, you may have a conceptualization, but you can't think about it. Can you think about onomatopoeia? Sconces? Soffets? If I gave you the definitions (if you don't know them) of each of these words you would then be able to relate them to other words in your vocabulary and then think about their meanings, what they mean to you, and use them in synthesis. If I don't (and you don't know them), then you would have difficulty using the concepts they represent as a part of synthesis, reasoning, logic or decision making.

For example, the Inuit (don't recognize the word? Then how can you understand their world (formerly called Eskimo)?) have over two hundred words for snow. Their vocabulary allows them to think about snow and winter and wind and weather conditions that the average American cannot even conceive. That is the point: we cannot conceive of what they think because we don't have their vocabulary.

You must not assume that the vocabulary I refer to is the one you use in everyday conversation. On the contrary, everyday conversation in America uses a vocabulary of only about 3,000 words. In comparison, the Bible uses 2,500, Shakespeare uses 12,500, and the English language consists of some 750,000, adding about 400 per year. Nevertheless, the fewer words you know, the fewer topics you can think about and the less accurate will be any results.

Lack of Organization

Most people seem to think in a random fashion, jumping from topic to topic and fact to fact with no definite plan. There is nothing wrong with this: random thoughts are constantly arising and being suppressed (remember that your mind is never quiet). Synapses are constantly firing, triggered by sensory impressions or words, and memories come forward.

As I said, random thinking is no problem -- unless you are trying to synthesize or create a thought model. In those cases, random thinking can result in: 1) missing some information; 2) missing possible paths of investigation; and 3) wasting time. You mind is full of information. However, triggers bring that information forward for manipulation. Since in synthesis and thought modeling most of the triggers are words in your mind ("talking to yourself"), if you don't do an organized search for trigger words, you have to wait for them to arise at random.

Waiting for triggers to arise at random can also make you miss possible paths of investigation. Synthesis requires pulling together apparently or even certainly unrelated ideas. If you don't organize your thought plan to take into account deliberately looking for collateral ideas, then you might miss a path that might lead to a solution.

Finally, lack of organization results in wasting time. Random thought is often called daydreaming. There is nothing wrong in daydreaming -- it can be soothing, entertaining, and a way to avoid boredom. In fact, many great discoveries and ideas, such as Einstein's impetus to begin his theory of relativity, or Friedrich Kekule's discovery of the benzene ring (the bonding structure of six carbon atoms) while daydreaming and imagining six snakes biting each other's tails in a circle. However, had either depended on such random thoughts to explain why their theories worked, they would never have succeeded, nor been believed.

Lack of Analytical Skills

Analysis is reducing something to its component parts in order to examine the parts to understand the whole. You do this even for such small problems as 2 + 2 = ?. First you break the problem down to its components: a symbol for unity twice, a symbol for increasing the first symbol by the amount of the next symbol, the symbol for unity twice, a symbol for exactly alike in quantity, and a symbol of inquiry. This example may seem simplistic, but it is the process of analysis you learned in grade school for solving arithmetic problems.

The principle illustrated above is the same one you use to solve any problem. Since synthesis and building a thought model are problems, they should be tackled in the same way. However, analysis is not a skill called upon often in daily life, and few people get much practice. Thus, when analysis is demanded by a problem, it is not an automatic reaction to apply it. Usually people will use a memorized answer rather than examine relationships between concepts and facts, situations and response.

For example, a normal method of testing students in classes is to give them multiple-choice, fill-in or true-false questions. Such questions are easy to write and even easier to grade (that is quite important in large classes such as those found in undergraduate college). The other option is essay questions. They, however, are difficult to write in such a way to ensure minimal confusion from the students about what is being asked. Further, they are difficult and time-consuming to grade, since correct answers may fall outside the instructor's preconceived ideas of what the answer should be, are organized individually to the student, may introduce material the instructor did not expect, and may indeed show the instructor he or she was wrong and thus expected answers that most students will give are wrong. It therefore seems logical to test students with multiple-choice, fill-in and true-false questions. The drawback of such questions, however, is that they rarely require analytical skills. Unless the questions are specifically constructed to test analytical skills, most can be answered by repeating memorized information rather than through analysis and critical thinking. Thus, analysis is not a skill picked up during the course of most schooling.

[Side Note: It seems ironic that the skills most demanded of undergraduate seniors and graduate students, those of critical and analytical thinking, are those that are least likely to be used during their preparation for those years. However, since it is unlikely -- or at least expensive -- to reduce undergraduate classes to the size of graduate classes, there is little to be done about the problem.]


Xenophobia, the fear of the unknown, seems to be instinctive in humans. Perhaps it derives from a stranger being as likely to be an enemy as a friend, or a competitor for resources. Perhaps it derives from cognitive dissonance. Or perhaps we're all paranoid. Wherever it came from, humans are often afraid of new situations and new ideas to the point of refusing to look at evidence or even allow the possibility that an idea is worth considering.

Imagine, if you will, your first day of kindergarten. Your mother or father led you to the classroom, you stared in at the new room, with the new people. The new idea of being left with strange people in a strange place by your parents filled you with fear -- a fear of the unknown. Perhaps you cried. Perhaps you demanded to be taken home. But you were left there. By the end of the day you had made friends, learned games, and had fun. You no longer feared kindergarten.

Such is the case with much that people fear, whether it is new situations or ideas. Once they learn about what they fear, they no longer do. But for many the idea of learning about something is fearful. It may upset long-standing prejudices or a priori assumptions. It might require abandoning years of hard-learned ways of perceiving the world. Just such a case as the last occurred in the 19th century when Louis Pasteur elucidated his germ theory of disease. It ran counter to what physicians had been taught and doing for centuries. They thus refused even to consider his theory, and attempted to suppress it as dangerous. It took fifty years for it to be generally accepted.

Other examples include physicists' refusal to accept relativity and quantum mechanics for years; evolution; gun control; abortion; seat belts; motorcycle helmets; smoking; and drinking. In each of these cases, those on either side of the question refuse to listen to any evidence supporting the other, or even that the other side has a side.

As in cognitive dissonance, there is often pride and self-esteem involved in fear. However, the fear of new ideas or situations goes beyond dissonance. Under the impetus of cognitive dissonance people will rationalize away contradictory evidence. Fear leads people to shout down, try to suppress or even destroy conflicting evidence.

Solutions to the Problems with Thinking

A Priori Assumptions

The solution to the problem of a priori assumptions is twofold: first, recognize they exist, and second, examine what you think you know.

If you don't know that there are some things about the way you perceive the world that are based on unproven assumptions, then you will treat your a priori assumptions as facts. If those assumptions are not facts your perception of the world will not be provable. Thus, you must recognize that a priori assumptions exist.

Second, examine what you think you know. For example, you may know that humans have rights. However, have you examined that assumption, for an assumption it is? What do you mean by human rights? That they are an inborn attributes of being human? What is a right? Something that shouldn't be taken away from you? Do you have the right to life? Tell that to the ocean you're drowning in. The right to liberty? Then why are there prisons and jails and institutions? The right to free speech? Why are there gag orders, laws against shouting fire in a crowded theatre, libel and slander laws? It seems clear that a right is not an inborn attribute of being human. Then what is it? If you examine what is being discussed when rights are brought up, you see it is law, not human nature. Thus rights are granted by law, not by nature. This makes rights actually privileges granted by laws that are the statutes of the country that passes the law, and not binding on any country that has not agreed to abide by those laws. Thus, are American complaints about human rights violations in countries other than the United States really violations of rights, or simply American a priori assumptions that what goes in the US should apply everywhere? What has happened to the a priori assumption of human rights?

It is this type of examination of assumptions that should be made. And it is not only your own assumptions that you should examine. Everyone has them. Everyone uses them in their thinking. Thus when you deal with people you must deal with their assumptions as well. However, if you examine their assumptions, "where they're coming from" as the cliche goes, as well as your own, you can avoid misunderstandings, conflict, arguing in circles, and ulcers.

I remember I once had an argument with my brother about the Vietnam War. The argument lasted about an hour, with nothing accomplished, much shouting, and ill feelings between us for months. It wasn't until several years later that I realized the problem by examining both our a priori assumptions. We could never get past our assumptions. We talked about North and South Vietnam. I was assuming geography, that one part of the country was physically farther north than the other; he was assuming political ideologies represented by those words. We never got beyond that.

As you can see, a priori assumptions can be not only impediments to clear thinking, but harmful as well. "What do you think?" is not a pleasantry; it is safety device.

Selective Perception

As with a priori assumptions, the first step in dealing with selective perception as an impediment to thinking is to recognize that it exists.

It is, of course, impossible to avoid. If we had to pay attention to everything that happens around us, we would overload on information and burn out.

Nonetheless, if you don't know you are ignoring some things, then you can miss interesting information that could aid in critical thinking or modeling, or just some interesting trivia to amaze your friends and confound your enemies.

Thus, the second step is simply to pay closer attention to what is happening around you. For example, television is the form of entertainment in America (the average is over seven hours per day per person). Instead of being a "couch potato," someone who just sits and lets whatever is on the screen wash over without actively watching, pay attention. Every program, from NOVA to GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, has something of worth to discover (do a Marxist analysis of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND if you don't believe me; you'll be amazed at what you'll discover). Commercials, usually the main part of television that is ignored, are particularly fascinating in their use of words and images to work on the psychology of consumers (see Chapter Seven, THE POWER OF WORDS, for some interesting things to look for.) My advertising students' roommates often complain about having to watch commercials because my students have so much fun watching them, and insist on telling their roommates about what they see and hear.

Perhaps the greatest key to avoiding selective perception is contained in the above sentence: noticing things is fun. Granted, my idea of fun may be a bit strange, if I find Marxist theory elements in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, enjoy the references to '60s and '70s television shows in the final episode of ST. ELSEWHERE, and laugh at the semiological influences in FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART 6: JASON LIVES. Nonetheless, paying greater attention, actively looking for new things, is enjoyable. The example from above, of finding a possible source of the word element from "L-M-N" is an instance of selective perception. The Pasteur story above is something that I missed the details on the first time. However, since I do try to pay at least some attention to everything I perceive, I knew the story, understood its implications, and knew where I had seen the full information and thus knew where to find it again. With this information in storage I could use it as an example and not miss the details.

Seeing and appreciating, or criticizing (just as much fun), as much around you as possible you adds many new things, new connections and new concepts to storage. They are then available later for use.

Cognitive Dissonance

As with selective perception, the first step in combatting cognitive dissonance is to realize that it exists. Self-esteem and self-image are inherent parts of the human psyche, and are a reason humans have achieved what they have in the world. Those who have low self-esteem or a poor self-image achieve as little as they perceive they can.

Cognitive dissonance is a shield against lowering one's esteem and image by denying that the choices made are poor ones. Nonetheless, an honest appraisal of choices made, good or ill, will allow you to avoid making poor choices in the future by recognizing errors in the past. It also reduces sloppy thinking, rationalizing and pointless arguments.

I was a victim of cognitive dissonance. When I had a C/PM computer, my self-esteem (I thought) was on the line. I had spent over $2,000 and to admit that I might have made an error by spending so much on a machine that would not do what I wanted would be a blow to my pride. I would often rationalize my choice, searching for arguments that would prove to those that owned MS-DOS machines that they, not I, had made a mistake. Being skilled in the art of sophistry, I rarely lost those arguments. But neither did I convince my opponents.

Finally, I decided to make an honest appraisal of my position: what proofs was I using, what proofs did my opponents have, what further evidence could I gather, what did I truly rather than egotistically want from a computer. After doing as objective an examination as possible, and research on the relative characteristics of computers, I realized that I had been wrong. A C/PM computer could not do what I really wanted a computer to do, and I had been fooling myself. I therefore sold the C/PM, researched what computer would do what I wanted, and bought a new one. The hardest part was admitting that I had made a mistake, but I had a new sense of self-esteem: admitting errors may make you feel stupid for a moment, but the satisfaction in correcting a mistake and not have to rationalize anymore makes you feel better.

The above example taught me that cognitive dissonance is unavoidable but can be overcome. I still catch myself doing it, expressing an opinion and rationalizing why my opinion is correct. However, when it happens, although it may take me a few hours or days of examining the arguments, I try to realize my errors and admit my mistakes. I also try to recognize cognitive dissonance in others and take it into account when discussing things with them. In this way, it is possible to arrive at as objective a view of things as a subjective mind can achieve.

Lack of Facts

If we define facts as information gathered using methods that are as objective as possible and repeatable by even those people who disagree, then facts can be used as evidence in support of opinion.

Facts are the evidence used to support a view of anything. However, without facts there is no support, only a subjective opinion that may be satisfactory for the individual but of little or no value to others. With facts there is objective evidence supporting the opinion that even those that disagree would accept as a possibility.

The gathering of facts can occur without your conscious knowledge. Whatever your senses gather are stored in your mind as facts. However, there is always the danger of perceiving that which doesn't exist. Drugs, fatigue, disorientation, sensory overload can all fool the mind into perceiving as real that which doesn't exist.

Checking your perceptions against what others perceive is a way around the subjectivity of your own view. Personal and nonpersonal extrasomatic senses (see Chapters 2 and 3) are the best checks against illusions available. If more than one person sees something, it may be there. Eyewitness evidence is not the best, of course, since all witnesses are subject to illusion, selective perception and cognitive dissonance. Better is physical evidence, a tangible object that can be perceived by anyone after others have perceived it. It is for this reason that evolution is generally accepted and flying saucers are not; evolution has physical evidence, flying saucers are only supported by eyewitness testimony.

The more facts you have at your disposal, the more evidence you have to support what you think. Reading, watching television, listening to the radio, conversation, all add new information to the store you have available to manipulate. Chapters 2 and 3 are concerned with the gathering of facts and would be worthwhile to study.

Lack of Vocabulary

The solution to this problem is simple to state: increase your vocabulary. The implementation of that solution is more difficult to achieve.

Remember the statistics I mentioned above. That you should know every word in the English language is ridiculous; you would never use 90% of them if you did.

Nevertheless, a limited vocabulary means a limited set of symbols to manipulate. The greatest aid to increasing your vocabulary is to develop a passion for reading. Read anything and everything. Vary the types of things you read: non-fiction, mysteries, science fiction, thrillers, romances, comedies, tragedies, histories, plays, poetry, short stories, the back of your cereal box in the morning. If you come across a word you don't know, go to the dictionary. If you know what you want to say but don't have just the right word, use a thesaurus. These books were created for the purpose of providing the right word in the right circumstance. Take advantage of them. The more words you read and understand, the greater your working vocabulary.

One my favorite ways to increase vocabulary is doing crossword puzzles. They require that you not only know the word and its spelling, but its definition. Granted, the times you would need words like "esne" (an Anglo-Saxon serf) or "emmet" (an ant) are few and far between. Nonetheless, you can garner many words that are more specific to your intent through word puzzles than by conversation.

Lack of Organization

Mental organization is a matter of concentration. The easiest way to accomplish that is to take notes and develop outlines.

First, make a list of the things you want to concentration on. This list should be generated through brainstorming, letting the mind work at random. The list will be disorganized, but its purpose is to give you concentration points.

Now sit back and relax in whatever way works best for you; you may relax better with music on, or silence, or the TV in the background (pick a show that you've seen before -- it will be less distracting). Stare at the first item on the list: this will force your mind to recall from memory only those things that relate to that item. When something good in your opinion surfaces, write it down. Often collateral memories will surface -- write those down as well. However, keep going back to that first item. When you start thinking in circles, i.e., the same memories keep surfacing, go to the next item on your list.

Continue in this fashion until your list is exhausted. Now you can go to your notes. Look at the first set and see what else comes to mind. In this way you can fill in details, remember books or magazines or television shows or anyplace else you gathered the original information, and know where to look. Continue through your notes in this fashion.

Let me give you an example from my own work on this book. In the introduction I discussed the history of the perception of the universe. My list contained only the line, "how has the perception of the universe changed." This led to notes that included the major civilizations of the world, anthropology, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Greeks, Romans, Middle Ages, Chinese, theology, physics, geocentrism, heliocentrism, Shakespeare, crystal spheres, comets, etc. From there I made notes on what I could remember about each of the topics in my notes. They led me to a variety of books, from Burke's THE DAY THE UNIVERSE CHANGED to Asimov's GUIDE TO THE BIBLE, and articles in "Natural History," "Science Digest," and "Smithsonian," and other magazines and journals.

From this I was able to begin outlining the section in the introduction (seeing Outlining in Interlude III, COMMUNICATING).

As you can see, concentration is easily achieved through keeping your goal before you. It keeps your mind on track, and when you begin to wander or daydream, it brings you back. Through organized rather than random thinking, synthesis, thought modeling and analysis (see below) are achieved with a minimum of frustration, procrastination, and time wasting.

Lack of Analytical Skills

Developing analytical skills requires practice. Many of the problems we are presented with do not require them: we learned rote ways of answering problems in school. Think of arithmetic; we have in memory the answer to most addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems.

Remember the hours spent memorizing multiplication tables. Now try analyzing the problem of 17 X 34. Do you have that memorized? It's not one of the tables. Can you do it in your head? The answer for most people is no. Do you do a standard arithmetical problem on paper or pick up a calculator? That's the usual way.

Have you considered what multiplication is? A fast way of adding. Can you analyze 17 X 34 to make it an addition problem instead of multiplication? Yes. Since 10 times anything simply means adding a zero, the problem becomes: (10 x 34) + (7 X 30) + (7 X 4) (a memorized answer) or (10 X 4) - (3 X 4) = 28. 10 x 34 = 340
7 X 30 = 210
7 x 4 = 28 (or 10 X 4 = 40 - 3 X 4 = 12 = 28)
340 + 210 + 28 = 578
Notice that by analyzing the problem, reducing it to its components, it is possible to do it in your head.

Memorized answers work well in solving standardized problems. However, when you are presented with a nonstandard problem, memorized answers do not apply.

Examine relationships between concepts or facts. Things to look for include incongruities, incompatibilities, contradictions and cause and effect relationships.

Incongruity occurs when one thing is not consistent with another. For example, it is incongruous for a fireman to use a flame thrower instead of a water hose. However, do not simply assume that the fireman is doing something wrong. Try to determine why he is using a flame thrower: perhaps creating a firebreak, perhaps using up inflammable materials in a controlled fire before the uncontrolled fire can get to it. Whatever the reason for an incongruity, examine the circumstances in an attempt to clarify the situation.

Incompatibilities occur when two or more things cannot go together. For instance, C/PM programs are incompatible with MS-DOS computers, or smoking is incompatible with perfect health. In many cases, not noticing incompatibilities is the result of cognitive dissonance or selective perception. Again, examine the components of a situation to determine why things are incompatible. You may discover that the incompatibility can be overcome through understanding which specific components need to be rectified.

Contradictions appear when one thing is in opposition to another. Creationism and evolution, heliocentrism and geocentrism, atheism and deism are all contradictory. However, they are contradictory only when taken as a whole. An analysis of the components of each concept shows that they agree in many aspects. Creationism and evolution are both attempts to understand the formation of life on Earth. Both take as a starting point life as it is now. Both attempt to explain how life was before now. Both take into account fossils, geology, biology, and anthropology. Both use what evidence has been discovered thus far. Thus, the only real contradiction between Creationism and evolution is what started the process of life on Earth: Creationism says a supernatural power, evolution the natural operation of physical laws.

Heliocentrism and geocentrism are both attempts to explain the observable universe. Both take into account the movements of stars and planets across the night sky during the year, the movements of sun and Moon, what can be observed of the behavior of the Earth. Both account for observable facts: the sun rises and sets because the Earth rotates (heliocentrism) or the sun goes around the Earth (geocentrism); the Moon rises and sets; the stars describe a circle in the sky every night; the planets traverse the sky during the course of a year. In fact, there was no reason to favor one theory over the other until the 20th century and actual proof that the Earth goes around the sun. Prior to that the only reasons to favor one theory over the other was logic and that heliocentrism made astronomical calculations easier than geocentrism. Galileo's telescopic observations only disputed theology, not geocentrism.

Atheism and deism, belief that there is no god and belief that there is, also have components in common. Both are attempts to understand the world -- how it works, what causes everything from disease to thunderstorms, where humans fit in with nature and the universe. Once again, the contradiction is only in the starting point of the explanations: atheism denies that anything but nature is at work, deism insists that there is supernatural interference in everything that happens.

It should be clear that many things that, on the surface, seem to be total opposites in fact often have much in common. By finding those commonalities you can concentrate mental energy on resolving only those conflicts that do exist and understand all sides and perspectives on a problem.

Cause and effect is a form of analysis by which you can start with a concept or situation and trace it back to its beginning. It is also a form of analysis that can lead to difficulties.

Let's take an example of a cause and effect chain: the steam engine. It is common knowledge that James Watt invented the steam engine -- or did he? Take it back one more step and you find that Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine; Watts improved it. However, what induced Newcomen to invent the steam engine? Coal was increasingly important in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thus mines were dug in Wales to greater and greater depths, until they went below the water table and began to flood. Newcomen invented his engine to pump the water out of the mines.

What made coal so important? The English were running out of wood as their forests were cut down for fuel and to build ships (the average ship-of-the-line, a sailing warship, could use up an entire small forest in its building and fitting out).

Why were they using so much wood? Charcoal, which is created by heating wood without oxygen, burns hotter than just the wood. The hotter fires were necessary for the glass-making and iron smelting industries which were burgeoning.

Why were those industries burgeoning, thus using up all the wood, thus creating a demand for coal, resulting in flooded mines that need to be pumped out, thus creating a demand of steam engines to do the work so Watts could improve them? This is an exercise for the student. The point I am illustrating is that you need to look not just at an effect, but look for the causes leading to it. A memorized answer, Watts invented the steam engine, leaves out a whole strings of cause and effect relationships that enrich not only the history of the steam engine but the history of England, industry, technology, ecology, human effect on the environment, warfare, etc. From any particular effect, you can trace backwards to its causes, and forwards to see what that effect causes. For example, in the case of the Watts' steam engine, it was the cause for improvements in metallurgy, milling metals, weaponry, the Industrial Revolution, etc.

It is, of course, possible for an examination of cause and effect to result in error. Cause and effect can be influenced by stereotyping, preconception, faulty research, and even fairy tales (washing your car makes it rain). These would result in false cause and effect (for examples see False Cause and Effect in Chapter Eight, THE POWER OF WORDS). Thus it is necessary to check your facts, then check those facts against others. Do not rely on only one source for information (see Chapter 3, NONPERSONAL EXTRASOMATIC SENSES for a discussion of cross-checking information). The final step in analysis is to list as many possible answers as you can. Then compare each answer to see what effect it has on each other answer. Here is an example, using a question from my advertising class:

The most basic function of advertising is to:
A. stimulate the distribution of products
B. build brand preference and loyalty
C. induce customers to try new products and to suggest reuse
D. increase product usage
E. identify products and differentiate them from others

Each of these answers is, on the surface, correct. Simply looking at them it would be difficult to choose between them. However, by analyzing the effect of choosing one answer with choosing another it becomes possible to choose the most appropriate.

"Stimulate the distribution of products." This is a function of advertising, but to do it you must do B, C and E. Thus A cannot be the answer.

"B. Build brand preference and loyalty." Another function of advertising, but to do it, products must first be identified and differentiated from others. If there is no difference between one product and another, there is no need for brand preference and loyalty.

"C. Induce customers to try new products and to suggest reuse." To do this it is necessary to identify the product and differentiate it from others to either show it is a new product or to give a reason to buy it again. Thus answer E is more basic than answer C.

"D. Increase product usage." To increase the use of a product it is necessary first to identify the product and show why it should be purchased in preference to any others like it. Thus once again answer E is more basic.

Therefore, since all other answers rely on identifying and differentiating products, answer E must be the most basic, and is thus the correct answer to the question. It is not necessary to have any prior knowledge of advertising, beyond understanding the vocabulary (see above), to be able to do the above analysis and arrive at the answer. The result is a product of reducing everything to component parts and comparing and contrasting them.

Two forms of reasoning that are often used as analytical skills are deductive and inductive reasoning. Both have as their goal the understanding of something. However, they approach that goal from opposite directions.

Deductive reasoning starts with a conclusion and tries to prove or disprove it through the gathering of evidence. For example, Einstein developed his Theory of Relativity. From that general principle other scientists have tried to draw conclusions. Many experiments have been devised to disprove those conclusions in attempts to test the viability of the theory (so far, Einstein seems to be right). Some of the conclusions deduced from Relativity include quantum theory and atomic energy.

Inductive reasoning approaches evidence and conclusions from the other direction. There is no conclusion, only a collection of evidence that must be assembled into a conclusion. The classic example is a detective solving a murder. He doesn't know who did it (the conclusion). He gathers the evidence -- the fingerprints, murder weapon, whereabouts of suspects, etc., assembles that evidence, and induces who had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime. Sherlock Holmes, the great deductive detective, actually used inductive reasoning to solve all those crimes.

Analytical thinking is a powerful tool, and can be enjoyable as well. It simply requires an awareness of what it is and how to do it, and practice.


First, it must be realized that fear of the unknown is normal. The discomfort you feel is a natural reaction to the uncertainty of what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. When you go to your first formal dinner and are presented with three spoons and five forks, it is natural to feel a danger of embarrassment if you use the wrong tool. If you meet a stranger on a dark street, it is natural to be apprehensive and not greet this person as a long-lost friend.

However, when it comes to thinking, fear is something that should be overcome. A fear of a new idea that might upset what you currently think is right might leave you being wrong. Perhaps placing your pride in having an open mind rather than in dogmatically sticking to an unsupported (and perhaps insupportable in the face of new evidence) position would reduce that fear of new ideas.

It is difficult to abandon hard-won positions. However, they do not have to be totally abandoned. Using the techniques of analysis, synthesis and thought modeling, what you already believe can be modified to come into accord with new evidence, facts, concepts and ideas. For example, if your knowledge of physics and aerodynamics proves that bumblebees cannot fly, and one zips by your head, there is no need to abandon all that hard-learned knowledge. Simply understand that what you know does not explain everything and find what needs to be modified to account for facts.

There is an old cliche: "If the facts do not conform to the theory, throw out the facts." This is an example of fear of new ideas. Instead, work on throwing out the old theory and finding a new one that supports, rather than rejects the new facts. For 2,000 years Aristotle's theories about the natural world were clung to dogmatically. Anything that seemed to contradict Aristotle was rejected, suppressed, burned, outlawed. However, once it was realized that his theories had flaws, and minds opened enough to accept the idea, natural science burgeoned. All of Aristotle was not thrown out, only the flaws. Thus, in the last three hundred years we have learned more about the natural world than in all previous history.


Thinking is the ability to create and manipulate symbols that stand for concrete and abstract things and concepts. If you don't believe this, sit down and don't think of the word "rhinoceros" for the next five minutes. Now, watch what your mind is doing: it is switching back and forth between a mental picture of a rhinoceros and the symbol "rhinoceros". You are also probably getting a bit frustrated because you can't get rid of that direct impression, the image of the animal, and the symbolic impression, the word "rhinoceros". You are manipulating symbols, and no doubt creating new and original symbols for me, your tormentor, because you're stuck with the image of that large animal with a horn on its nose in your mind.

The ability to remember the past, compare it to current conditions, and project into the future, to extrapolate trends or concepts, is the greatest tool humans have. As far as we know, only humans are capable of doing it (some thought models are being tested to see if dolphins or killer whales can imagine). This results in the human ability to live in the past, present and future, to avoid mistakes of the past, to understand the here and now, and to foresee the consequences of actions. Those who practice thought modeling, analysis and synthesis are those that have a control over their lives and a greater understanding of and sympathy for the world around them.

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