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Thursday, August 28, 2008

The difference between thinking and consciousness

The Mindful Hack has often featured stories about the difference between the brain as an organ and the mind as your immaterial self. But there is also a distinction worth making between thinking and consciousness.

A recent post "Neuroscience: Yes, we do think while we are asleep. And we solve problems too" indirectly helps us understand that distinction. Let's look at one of the experimenets again:
In a 2004 study Ullrich Wagner and others in Jan Born's laboratory at the University of L├╝beck in Germany elegantly demonstrated just how powerful sleep's processing of memories can be. They taught subjects how to solve a particular type of mathematical problem by using a long and tedious procedure and had them practice it about 100 times. The subjects were then sent away and told to come back 12 hours later, when they were instructed to try it another 200 times.

What the researchers had not told their subjects was that there is a much simpler way to solve these problems. The researchers could tell if and when subjects gained insight into this shortcut, because their speed would suddenly increase. Many of the subjects did, in fact, discover the trick during the second session. But when they got a night's worth of sleep between the two sessions, they were more than two and a half times more likely to figure it out-59 percent of the subjects who slept found the trick, compared with only 23 percent of those who stayed awake between the sessions. Somehow the sleeping brain was solving this problem, without even knowing that there was a problem to solve.
Notice that those people were thinking when they were not conscious. In fact, they couldn't solve the problem when they were conscious, but they solved it after they had become unconscious for a while.

Thinking is the use of mental patterns to assemble information and maybe solve problems. Clearly, we need not be conscious in order to think - although it is necessary to recognize a subject to think about, like the tedious math problem in the experiment.

Consciousness is our state of self-awareness. We may or may not be thinking when we are conscious, though we usually are. Many meditation traditions encourage the meditator to reduce thinking to a minimum in order to reach a profound meditative state.

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