Monday, December 12, 2005

My "blink" on Blink

1. What is "Blink" about?

It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good. from author Malcolm Gladwell's website

On the recommendation of a friend I'm going to read Blink, Malcolm Gladwell's latest book. I've ordered my copy, thus I haven't read it yet, but thought to do a little experiment on the theme. I've listened to a description and read the sales pitch from the author so I'm going to give my "blink" on Blink, a cursory, first impression, or, by its cover judgment of a book about such things. Those of you who watched the TV show Seinfeld might be "blinking" on Kramer's coffee table book about coffee tables that was itself a coffee table while those of you who are unfamiliar with Seinfeld might now be blinking that I'm a bit nuts, a thought that may or may not stick with you after reflection.

On one level I am struck by the enthusiasm Mr. Gladwell's prose seems to inspire in people in that I write on similar themes, without inspiring anything like the same enthusiasm. In reading his website I can see some of the reasons, aside from his greater skill as rhetor, for the different responses. One of the themes of my writing is "there's nothing new under the sun," by which I mean that the problems facing civilized man are roughly the same now as they were millennia ago. When Whitehead argued that all of western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato, he is suggesting, inter alia, that those who get their head around Plato will find that much of what we think is new, isn't.

Gladwell takes a different approach. As he argues on his site, the core of the book is research from a very new and quite extraordinary field in psychology that hasn't really been written about yet for a general audience. My "blink" on this statement was that it was wrong, along similar lines as an example in his book where certain people with expertise in Greek sculpture could tell at a glance whether a piece, which was assumed by a team of researchers to be real, was fake.

"Blink" seems to me to be about intuition, or perhaps better stated, prejudices. Mr. Gladwell, however, doesn't like "intuition", or as he puts it; You could also say that it's a book about intuition, except that I don't like that word. In fact it never appears in "Blink." Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings--thoughts and impressions that don't seem entirely rational.


Remember back before the Nasdaq bubble burst when the talking heads on CNBC all used to speak of the internet "space" or the B to B "space." These wise men, or so they were considered at the time, didn't want to use such a prosaic term as industry with it's historic connotations of cyclicality. No, these wise men wanted a new word with positive connotations. In the end analysis though, those who thought of the grouping of companies as an industry fared a bit better than those who thought of them as a "space." Sometimes those connotations, built up over time, convey useful information, although often not apparent on first glance but only after reflection.

It seems to me that Mr. Gladwell inspires enthusiasm, at least in part, by claiming that research on intuition or prejudice is a new, new thing.
Excitedly talking about the new, new thing sells, while a more matter of fact, you know, Plato was writing about this 2400 years ago, doesn't evoke the same response in most. Oh well, Mr. Gladwell can get rich while the Dude toils away in obscurity, such is life. When he argues, with agreement from me, that it is useful to pay attention to this process of reflexive association my mind blinks on one of my favorite quotes from William James, sometimes thought of as the father of modern Psychology,

Most people think they are thinking when really they are just rearranging their prejudices.

The quote above, which came from decades of psychology research by James, is more than a century old which pours a bit of cold water on the new, new thing approach. Going back a bit further, Plato's analogy of the cave, with its inhabitants responding to the shadows of things, instead of their true nature, also touches on that same theme: Much of what we consider "thinking" is really just intuition, the quick, or as James puts it in his Principles of Psychology, association by contiguity in the stream of consciousness, followed by justification of the intuition. In the chapter on reasoning linked above, James argues;

But as, according to our view, there are two stages in reasoned thought, one where similarity merely operates to call up cognate thoughts, and another farther stage, where the bond of identity between the cognate thoughts is noticed; so minds of genius may be divided into two main sorts, those who notice the bond and those who merely obey it. The first are the abstract reasoners, properly so called, the men of science, and philosophers -- the analysts, in a word; the latter are the poets, the critics -- the artists, in a word, the men of intuitions. These judge rightly, classify cases, characterize them by the most striking analogic epithets, but go no further. At first sight it might seem that the analytic mind represented simply a higher intellectual stage, and that the intuitive mind represented an arrested stage of intellectual development; but the difference is not so simple as this. Professor Bain has said that a man's advance to the scientific stage (the stage of noticing and abstracting the bond of similarity) may often be due to an absence of certain emotional sensibilities.

I include the selection as demonstration that people have been thinking about and researching this topic for a very long time and perhaps to jog other thoughts upon relection, if you are so inclined.

So, am I arguing, without reading the book, that it isn't worth reading? Not at all, as I stated at the open, I'm engaged in a little experiment, giving my "blink" on Blink. Some of those who have enjoyed the book might likely be thinking that I need to read the book, and if I did so I would come to different conclusions. How ironic that those who enjoyed Blink might argue that one should reflect before answering, the generation of which thought was one of my aims, reflect on this for a moment. Regardless, I'll let you know if my view changes after reading the book.

However, in a sense I was being a bit disingenuous when I suggested that I was giving a "blink" on Blink, because I have been pondering the various modes of cognition and the various integrations thereof for years. More to the point, I am not hamstrung by the unfounded intuition that this is cutting edge research, which affords me access to a great many works on the topic, from James to Pavlov to the Greeks. As long time readers from Chaos-onomics days might recall I often write of moments of revelation, like when one spouse who has suspected the other of cheating, finally becomes conscious of the affair, an analog of the opening in Blink where gamblers discover that a certain deck of cards pays much better then others in a game.

All of which is to argue that my "blink" on Blink is that the book itself, by virtue of the author's decision to recast old thoughts in new language, is but a surface scratch or "blink" of what has been a serious topic of research, i.e. in the patois of the author, blinking, for millennia now. In that regard it is a wonderful metaphor for our times. I've now come full circle with my earlier allusion to Kramer's coffee table book. Blink is itself a blink about blink, at least in the eyes of this dude who hasn't yet opened its cover.

OK, you're right, enough with the word play.

If you haven't given much thought to the thousands of intuitions which comprise each man's daily mental experience, and outside of nut cases like myself with lots of time for reflection on their hands, a background in Philosophy and a voracious appetite for reading, you likely haven't, I'll bet that Blink is a wonderful book. Expanding one's consciousness to include awareness of such mental behaviors can be very useful, it was in my case, particularly given my sense that, as has happened from time to time over the past millennia, a great many intuitions are leading to false signals. Why that might be is a topic for my next post, wherein I'll ponder Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, which is itself an cynical exploration of the same theme of surface scans, intuitions or blinks vs. reflection on the real.

In sum, Blink strikes me as an accessible examination of a vitally important phenomenon of which to be aware. Let me close with a Buddhist saying: There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting. Blink seems like a great way to start the journey into self-awareness........just remember to keep going.

2 comments:

Stranger said...

Mr. Dude,

Having watched your brain, back in the Chaos days, as well as this current incarnation, I thought it might be interesting to ask you a few questions.

What do you hope to gain from publishing your thoughts in this forum? Considering the opportunity costs, you must gain much by this exercise. Could you help us voyeurs understand your motivation(s)?

Also, could you tell us what you lost by studying philosophy?

Take care.

Dude said...

Stranger

I have two main aims in writing this blog; 1) to force me to cast my thoughts in a form legible by others 2) to communicate with like minded people.

The opportunity cost, at least as I see it, is small. My expertise, if that word applies, is in finance but I find the industry soul-less. I apply what I know to my own portfolio and that is enough.

What an interesting and most welcome question, what have I lost by studying philosophy? I think the great losses are innocence and faith in the achievement of an ideal. On the plus side of the trade, in my view, is the discovery of the soul, mine.

ciao for now