Generating thoughts

by James Somers, March 1, 2009

The anthropologist Edward Sapir and linguist Benjamin Whorf hypothesized that a person’s native language has some systematic influence upon the way she thinks. It seems like a reasonable idea given that (a) a lot of human thought manifests as “inner speech” in one’s mother tongue and (b) every natural language has its own vocabulary and grammatical rules.

With that in mind, it’s worth asking if we can use this connection to think better.

One obvious avenue for improvement would be to simply learn more words; that should enable more nuanced reasoning, and — perhaps more importantly — provide more ammunition for analogies.

But I’ve recently become interested in another sort of trick, whereby one uses a phrase to “generate thoughts.” Of course something like this happens (literally) every time one “thinks” in the inner-speech sense; but the question here is whether there are general-purpose utility phrases that anyone can use, anytime, to generate useful thoughts.

Here’s one example: as part of a great hourlong video interview called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” Richard Feynman describes the way his father taught him — always using concrete images that young Richard could wrap his head around (@3:48):

We had the Encyclopedia Britannica at home, and even when I was a small boy, he used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Encyclopedia Britannica. And we would read, say, about dinosaurs. And maybe it would be talking about the brontosaurus or something [. . .] or the tyrannosaurus rex. And he would say something like “this thing is twenty-five feet high, and the head is six feet across”

So he’d stop always, and say, “Now let’s see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard, he would be high enough to put his head through the window… But not quite, because the head is a little bit too wide — it would break the window as it came by.”

Everything we’d read would be translated (as best we could) into some reality… And I learned to do that — everything I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it’s really saying.

I hope it goes without saying that Feynman isn’t just being rhetorical here. It would seem that the greater part of his ability in physics, and in everything else, is in being obsessed with the gritty details; he seems to be always operating at the lowest level of abstraction. Nearly every account of his work or life — the lectures, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, his testimony regarding the Challenger disaster, etc. — attests to that fact.

But I wonder if you caught the thought-generating phrase in the little snippet. It might be worth looking at (or better, watching) again.

It’s one that I’ve since picked up and find myself using all the time. When reading I will pause quite frequently, and try to generate — conjure up — vivid examples. To do so I use that Feynman family phrase: “That would mean…”

* * *

Another phrase I can think of using regularly, and intentionally, is “What’s more likely?…”

The idea is to drive myself to a kind of Bayesian standoff, where I pit two hypotheses against each other in light of new evidence. Such an explicit maneuver is often necessary when one hypothesis is particularly compelling — say, the idea that a burglar might be in my apartment when I hear a creak. The “what’s more likely?” phrase tends to activate Occam’s razor, and lend support to the more likely (and often more reasonable) possibility.

* * *

If one is convinced that mind is a computer program, or at least if one thinks of that as a fruitful metaphor, it may be helpful to think about these “thought-generating phrases” as function calls. They are like little labels that execute a useful module, or packaged set of computational instructions.

And the point is, just having a label makes it easier to find the code, and therefore more likely that you’ll execute it. Which is exactly what you want if the code is worth calling.