The Power of Mental Shortcuts

When we attempt to render human cognitive abilities special, or try to shed a light on what makes our mental capabilities different or ‘better’ than other cognitive capabilities around us (be it in other animals or in artificial machines), we can think of many elements: a higher level of consciousness, a developed memory, or advanced analytical and logical capabilities and with wide scope. Yet, it is the power of our mental shortcuts that is of crucial importance and is often omitted. These mental shortcuts have been given many names: intuition, heuristics, problem solving tools etc. In fact, what still makes humans capable of producing some things that artificial machines are not able to achieve today is not necessarily due to their ‘intelligence’ or their ‘memory’; it is rather due to their ability of approaching mental data efficiently through cognitive shortcuts, their ability to translate problems into equations quickly and efficiently (equations that machines are more capable of solving than us), and their ability to represent cognitively a wide variety of things they experience .

This does not mean that our mental shortcuts are always right (many shortcuts do lead to errors in judgment and behaviour in some situations). And the origins of these shortcuts are partly instinctual, partly developed with age, and largely altered by experience and by the environment. This makes of mental shortcuts a difficult subject of understanding and its scope a very wide one. Mental shortcuts are key constituents of what we call cognitive models, which much of our knowledge and conception of Reality and Existence depend upon.

Historically, Henri Bergson envisaged two types of intelligence: one analytical, which operates by reducing a problem into smaller pieces, analysing each piece, and going by conjunction, and another more intuitive intelligence, inscribed in duration (la durée réelle ou la durée créatrice), where everything is considered as a flow and not as a sum of parts as in the case of analytical intelligence. Curiously, Bergson saw analytical intelligence as a hallmark of the human intelligence (alongside intuitive intelligence that we share with animals) and made it the cause of many of our fallacies and weaknesses of understanding. In reality, our recent knowledge in the field of cognitive sciences actually points to the contrary: we have very powerful mental shortcuts, very powerful heuristics; we approach our experiences in a nimble and short-circuited manner more so than in an analytical one. In our mental shortcuts lies a good deal of our greatness but also our faults.

JHTF

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