After reading this article you will learn about:- 1. Meaning of Thinking 2. Nature of Thinking 3. Process of Association.
Meaning of Thinking:
Normally, imagination occurs when we are relatively free and are not particularly directing our attention to any specific problem or issue. It is, in a way, a sort of idle activity. But when our psychological activity is directed towards a particular issue, object or person, the situation is different.
A school child sitting at his desk and planning his studies for the next day’s test or an army commander sitting in his barracks, looking at a field-map and working out strategies may look idle and as if he is not directing his attention to anything in particular. But, this is not true.
He is implicitly or inwardly actively planning or worrying, estimating or calculating. This type of inner or implicit psychological activity centering around a particular problem or issue or object or even a person is known as thinking.
In this process of thinking, both imagination and images are involved. But the process of thinking is purposeful, relates to a problem or issue on hand and is, therefore, more organised. It involves a variety of experiences, perceptions, feelings, etc. Such thinking activity can again vary in intensity and focus. For example, a school child’s thinking about a test is much more intense immediately before the test than a week earlier.
This difference in intensity of thinking is usually described as reflecting different degrees of concentration. The more concentrated the thinking, the more specific and clear is the object of thinking and the more selective it becomes. This also explains the concept of focus. It is this specificity of the object of thinking and its clear delineation which is known as focus. Thinking, therefore, involves a more active effort on the part of the individual.
It is an implicit and inner process and is part of a process of adaptation or adjustment. In other words, thinking occurs whenever an individual perceives a problem or issue, which is significant, whereas imagination occurs in the absence of such things. While the former is a necessary activity the latter is often not immediately useful. Thinking involves responding to and interpreting elements in the environment and therefore is a cognitive process.
Nature of Thinking:
Early philosophical psychologists tended to look upon thinking as a faculty or a primary mental ability. Subsequently the structuralistic school of psychology tended to look upon thinking as a combination of images. As psychology advanced as an experimental science, these views came to be questioned seriously.
John Watson, the leader of the school of behaviourism struck out on a totally different path. According to him thought or thinking was essentially motor in nature involving the movement of very fine muscles in the throat and laryngeal region.
Watson said that thinking is nothing but silent talking or implicit speech. Thus, he more or less equated thought and language. He conducted a series of experiments to show that thinking activity involved movements of the same muscles as those involved in speech or language.
However, these experiments were not conclusive and Watson’s attempt to explain thinking as implicit muscular activity failed as miserably as the attempt of structural psychologists to explain thought as a combination of images.
Subsequent researches and experiments in psychology have shown that the process of thinking while involving images and muscular activity, involves much more, especially the activity of the cerebral cortex and the association areas. We will examine some of these aspects of thinking in the following paragraphs.
Concrete and Abstract Thinking:
The thinking process is often classified into concrete and abstract. Now what is the difference between the two? Both thinking processes employ images. Concrete thinking generally involves the use of simple memory images and sensory images. Concrete thinking generally occurs in the presence of the agents or events, and subsequently this becomes a part of the store of memory images.
In general, concrete thinking refers to a recall of past experience and knowledge in the form of concrete symbols, or in case of events, people or objects, in their direct form as perceived. Children mostly make use of concrete thinking.
Adults on the other hand show a different mode of thinking. Their thinking often involves objects, people and images, which they have not interacted with and also, even where the process involves past experience, abstract thinking enables the individual to extend the boundary of the thinking process, beyond what has been experienced.
Again abstract thinking usually involves the use of verbal symbols and images, more than concrete memory images or sensory images. In fact abstract thinking involves much more of imagination than concrete thinking. Thus, it can be seen that language is a very essential tool in abstract thinking. Further, abstract thinking is a more active process, and refers to possibilities rather than actualities.
For example, a person who is involved in the process of bringing about changes in the work practices in an organisation, has to think what are the likely possibilities of his planning going wrong and the consequences thereof. While concrete thinking is controlled by a limited flow of the process of association, abstract thinking involves an unfettered flow of the process of association.
Creative scientists and artists make extensive use of abstract thinking and so also creative writers, and visionaries. In general one may say that as an individual grows, he or she becomes more capable of abstract thinking. Similarly, the greater the ‘verbal ability’ of an individual, the greater is the capacity for his or her abstract thinking. To a great extent, capacity for abstract thinking is also influenced by the level of intelligence of the person.
Abstract thinking is essential when the ‘thinking’ process is related to a specific problem solving. An individual who is faced with the need for solving a problem makes use of ‘abstract thinking’ wherein he is able to organise and reorganize the different elements involved in the situation, and see what will be the consequences, if he takes recourse to a particular course of action or adopts a particular solution.
Thus in a problem solving situation, abstract thinking involves what may be called “anticipatory and trial and error activity”. Abstract thinking thus enables us to avoid costly trial and error attempts. While it has been mentioned that both artists and scientists employ abstract thinking there is a difference.
The process of abstract thinking in the scientist is invariably directed towards finding an answer to one’s intellectual question or solution to a problem. Similarly administrators, managers and others in responsible positions make use of “abstract thinking” for solving their problems.
In the case of artists, however, there is a difference. Abstract thinking in the case of the artist is not usually ‘bounded’ or ‘restricted’ by the need to find solution to a problem or answer to a question. It is more free and often the driving force or motivation is to find a total expression of one’s feelings, ideas, needs, expectations, hopes, failures and so on.
The abstract thinking of the artist is more dependent on personal factors in the individual, unlike in the case of the scientist or planner or administrator. This does not mean that these two forms of abstract thinking are mutually exclusive. There have been instances where people have combined the two kinds of abstract thinking.
The most outstanding example is that of Leonardo Da Vinci who was a great artist and incidentally or accidentally also a scientist. Long before aeroplanes were thought of, he could visualize how they would be and presented pictures of the same.
In the course of this discussion on the concept of abstract thinking it was mentioned that children in general are more concrete in their thinking and adults make use of abstract thinking. While this may be a general observation, this need not be always so. The level of intelligence, education, language ability are all important factors. There have been child prodigies and artists who have shown a remarkable degree of capacity for abstract thinking compared to many adults.
A well-known psychiatrist and psychologist Kurt Goldstein who was involved in treating patients with serious mental disorders (known as schizophrenia), after a series of studies found that what differentiated them from normals was their much poorer ability for abstract thinking. The patients with schizophrenia were very concrete in their thinking. Further their thinking was also disorganized. Subsequently this has been confirmed by the observations of many others.
The reader may also see a similarity between concrete thinking and field dependent perception on the one hand and abstract thinking and field independent perception on the other hand. We may also hazard a statement that concrete thinking involves more of crystallized intelligence, and abstract thinking more of fluid intelligence, in the words of Cattell.
The reader by now must have come to realise the important role played by abstract thinking in human life. Scientific discoveries, artistic creations and planning would not have been possible but for the crucial contributions of abstract thinking.
In fact, one of the stated purposes of education is to cultivate the ability for abstract thinking. But how far our education has achieved this is anybody’s guess. Before we conclude, it must be pointed out that abstract thinking does not mean letting one’s thought processes run riot.
Abstract thinking is task or goal directed and is a controlled process while being free of the fetters affecting concrete thinking. It is very much influenced by a number of other factors including the richness and variety of one’s experience.
If one may go back to Spearman’s Neogenesis and his analysis of cognitive processes or intellectual process, abstract thinking strives towards education of relations and new relations and correlates as different from concrete thinking, which is concerned with apprehension of experience, and to some extent education of relations.
Process of Association in Thinking:
Thinking differs from simple imagination in that it involves the organisation and integration of different types of images. An important part of this process of integration and organisation involves the associative process. The process of association enables the organisation of the images into different categories and relating them to each other.
The study of association played a very crucial role in the development of psychology. The laws of association were formulated by Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Brown and others who enunciated the various principles by which ideas get related to each other in an individual’s consciousness. Some of the well-known laws are similarity, contrast, proximity and contiguity.
Through these processes of association a schema is formed. The associative processes involve an integration of memory and perceptual experience on the one hand and goal directed tendencies on the other. These integrative associative processes are very much dependent on the effective functioning of the association areas of the cerebral cortex.
Free association involves the association of ideas purely on the basis of perceptual characteristics or sensory characteristics like similarity, proximity, etc. This type of associative process is evident in simple imagination, where one finds images following each other purely on the basis of sensory characteristics.
Of course, Freudian psychoanalysis would dispute the existence of any type of association that is totally free and random. According to them, even such random chains of association are determined by certain unconscious motivation factors.
The other types of associative processes are known as controlled associations; these proceed in a specific direction. This direction is controlled by factors like goal expectations, mental set and other inner tendencies. The latter constitute the basic factors in the formation of the schema. Gestalt psychologists refer to these factors as determining tendencies which are responsible for giving a direction and pattern to thinking.
A good example of the operation of such schema can be seen in the delusions of psychotic or severely maladjusted individuals. Here, all the thought processes are governed by certain basic inner tendencies which determine the structure and direction of the thought processes.
The difference between normal thinking and delusive thinking is as follows: in the normal thinking process, the schema and perceptual realities interact actively and the schema retains its flexibility and undergoes changes when required by perceptual experiences. On the other hand, delusions show fixity of the basic schema and the distortion of perceptual reality. Also the associative processes are distorted and influenced by the schema.