Cognition, Part I


June 2017
Ivan Obolensky

Critical thinking is the ability to distinguish between effective and ineffective methods of inference in making a logical argument.1 By inference is meant arriving at a conclusion that is based on evidence, reasoning, and logic rather than speculation, opinion, or emotional preference.2

By critical is meant the ability to judge.3

Why might this be important?

Suppose you have a job as a PR and sales consultant for an aircraft company that makes small corporate jets. You are about to land an order for three of them to a large international corporation, but just before the deal closes, there is a crash which threatens to scuttle the sale completely. What do you do? Obviously the corporation that is about to buy these jets has questions, and perhaps you do too. Maybe the aircraft has a design flaw in spite of the rigorous testing and certification process that was done before it was allowed to become commercially available? Should you be selling these jets in the first place? You need to know whether this is the case. How do you find out, and based upon what you discover, how do you decide whether the jets are safe? Are they still a good fit for your customer? Would you fly in one now? To complicate matters, the potential buyer has called a meeting to discuss the pending sale. It is highly likely that how you answer their concerns will determine whether the company goes through with the purchase. How do you convince them while maintaining your integrity?

Another instance might be as simple as purchasing a new TV. Do the functions justify the cost? Suppose you discover that the picture is the best available, but the quality of the electronics is such that it’s not as reliable as other models, or that it routinely reports back to the manufacturer every few minutes what you are watching with your TV. Do you go ahead and get it anyway, or do you go for something else?

Another decision might involve your boyfriend or girlfriend. You may really want to marry him or her but should you marry him or her? How is that to be decided exactly? You’re in love, but he or she has issues. Do you ignore them? Handle them? How do you pull the plug? Should you? Do you just continue in the relationship but don’t get married? What if you’re already married? Now what?

These are matters that require critical thinking because you are making judgements and then committing time, resources, and possibly funds to back what you decide. You have a stake in the outcome which will dictate your future. What type of future do you want? The choices that you make will determine what that future will be. How you think, why you think that way, and what is the best way to do so, is therefore, of interest.

One point to make clear from the outset: even being skilled at critical thinking will not guarantee all will turn out well. Firstly, not all problems we experience resolve with logic. You may be missing information. In the jet sale example, the accident report might take many months to complete. You will need to decide what to do and respond without it. The issue with the crash may also be probabilistic in nature. For instance, a critical piece might have failed. This particular piece of equipment looks like it was a factor in the crash. It should have lasted ten thousand hours but no longer functioned after five hundred. How do you assess that as a factor in your presentation?

Lastly, there is the matter of luck. A poor decision that was flawed to begin with can turn out to be absolutely brilliant, while the opposite decision, carefully thought out, fails. It happens. There are also external factors. A major earthquake right before the meeting throws whatever we decided out the window.

Based on the above, now might be a good time to scrap the whole idea.

You can be a genius and still screw up, but when we add up the number of decisions we make in any given day, and the number of those that are important, would you rather guess, or would you rather think it through? More significantly, it is not necessarily the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ you decide that may prove to be decisive, but the number of options available to choose from.

What if you base the decision on how you feel about the matter? That’s an option. Suppose you learned to think critically as well. You have another option. Which you choose is up to you, but when you have only one choice, then that is the one you will take because that is all you have. The more options, the more paths open up, and the more likely you will discover one that you can agree with and decide on to get you where you want to go. You can of course do nothing, and that’s a choice as well. Eventually, that will solidify into a path that is taken by default. To determine the wisdom of that choice means you will need to assess its merits. In other words, you will have to judge it, and that takes thinking critically.

Perhaps we’re already pretty good at thinking. We do it all the time. Then again, maybe we’re not.

To determine which is the case requires that we know how we think—then one needs to know if that thinking is correct. By correct is meant that it is objective and as reasoned as possible.

Again, not all our decisions based on critical thinking will lead to fantastic outcomes, but one factor may be significant: if they turn out to be pretty good, we will know how we decided, and having done so, we will be able to repeat the process.

So, how do we think?

Cognition is the term used for thinking, experiencing, learning, and comprehension.4 Cognitive neuroscience studies the biological and other processes that determine cognition with emphasis on the neural connections that connect our brains with the body.5

We will explore this area but the short answer is we think because we have a brain.

In fact, we have many brains. Not all of them are in our heads. There is a heart brain, a gut brain, an eye brain. There are also numerous nodal points in the body that process information. We also have brains within our brains. All of these parts are connected and determine how we sense the world, and each plays a role in what we decide, how we decide, and when.

Not all of this is well understood. On a theoretical level, artificial intelligence has made progress, but is still in its infancy because of the degree of complexity involved in observing, concluding, acting, and then learning from the results. To survive, an organism must have an innate flexibility and that is not easy to develop.

One solution is to make a decision tree made up of many if A, then B steps. This is quite workable until the organism encounters something different from A. Or, maybe similar to A, but not really.

Suppose a police robot encounters someone stealing food from a vendor’s stall. If stealing is a crime, then it must arrest the thief, only the thief is a horse, or it’s a monkey. What does the robot decide to do now?

Decision trees have limits because the action to take, the output, is predetermined by the type of input encountered. This is programming. It is useful but restrictive even when very complex. The advantage is that one can determine what went wrong because the steps the computer took to determine the output are there to be discovered in the programming. The disadvantage is that one must know all the possible inputs beforehand and have predetermined outputs assigned to them.

At one time, the cognitive sciences considered cognition as representational structures that received inputs, processed them using logic steps, such as those in the example above, and then generated outputs. The brain was thought of as a large processor similar to the CPU (Central Processing Unit) in your computer or iPad. This conception concentrated on how knowledge of the world was acquired and processed. Results using this model have been sketchy. Certain inputs were found to create certain outputs, but not consistently.

Many of the stimulus response experiments of the ‘60s and ‘70s were based upon this model.

With the availability of fMRIs and CAT-scan techniques came the ability to see what was happening in the brain based upon observed electrical activity. Using imaging technology, it became possible to map the brain according to function and results seem to support a multi-modular picture. This idea has not been fully accepted because general thinking occurs in many places in the brain and the boundaries that define each postulated module’s location are hard to determine with precision.6 In either case, the modules are still thought of as processing units.

One of the more recent formulations is the Brains Within a Brain Model. It is interesting and explains more about our thinking than the process model did. The brains within a brain model focuses more on adaptive behavior.

From an evolutionary perspective, our brains could be thought of as a brain stem or lizard brain, within a mammal brain, within a primate brain, within a human brain, which together form an interconnected hierarchy.7

The lizard brain or brain stem could be considered a housekeeping brain. From an evolutionary perspective, if we look at the nervous system of earthworms, there is a spinal cord that has clusters of neurons called ganglia in each segment. These take care of the basic functions such as peristalsis that allows the worm to eat its way through the ground using rhythmic contractions. Higher level worms have larger ganglia in their heads.

The reptile brain is similar but larger, and it contains many more neurons. This much larger ganglia, or brain, monitors and controls functions such as fight or flight, freezing in place, finding food, and determining if it is edible, poisonous, or ripe. Reproduction, basic survival functions, and metabolism are carried out here. Like other less sophisticated creatures, humans have other brains in the form of ganglia that are connected to most of our separate organs.8 The heart has its own brain, which can sense, learn, feel and remember.9 What these do exactly and how they function in relation to the whole is not known. Each of these ganglia, of which there are many, function separately and together in a complex way.

Surrounding the reptile brain is the mammal brain. Birds and mammals have brains that are ten times the size of reptile brains. What caused this increase, according to the fossil record, was a corresponding ability to detect smells and odors with a high degree of resolution and precision.10 It is also called the limbic brain. It can record memories as well as distinguish agreeable and disagreeable experiences. It generates feelings. The difference between emotions and feelings is a matter of degrees. If you don’t think animals have emotions, try talking to an angry dog, or better still, an angry lion. Inferred from this is that mammals compute their behavior using emotions. We can observe this behavior in dogs, horses, cats, and other mammals as we interact with them daily. War horses during medieval times were bred for aggression and their tendency to become enraged. Mammals feel and use emotions to make decisions. In humans, value judgements seem to reside in this area of the brain. It has been thought that animals are not sentient. This seems to be in error. Mammals feel. They do so because it has allowed mammals to survive well over the long term.

Decisions using emotions are quick, and that can make all the difference as to an animal’s survival, whether they are predator or prey.

Emotions could be considered a shortcut to conclusions that circumvent the need to reason, which is slower. Being willing to forego a short-term reward in favor of a more substantial long-term gain is a reasoned conclusion. An emotional conclusion would be: “I like it. I want it now. Where do I sign?”

The primate brain emphasizes social behavior and has an enhanced ability to handle diversity. It is pre-adaptable in the sense that the primate can abstract and generalize one particular instance or thing to many things in different circumstances.11

This advance was a big step forward in cognition.

Imagine a brain that is hardwired like the police robot. Where performance breaks down for process-oriented programs is when they are confronted with new situations. Imagine the robot has an additional layer of computation that is pre-adaptable or plastic, in the sense that inputs can be non-specific. In neural network computing this is called a reservoir network. Without getting too technical, a reservoir configuration is more interconnected, allowing inputs to create more varied and non-linear responses than traditional neural networks. This allows the network as a whole to react to more nuanced situations.12 In the police robot example, the robot would be able to differentiate between a human thief and an animal thief. Provided it went through a learning cycle, it could then react differently to each. It would now be able to assess differences. Exactly how it would react to a monkey as opposed to a human would require another whole network to determine its response. The key fact is that using this type of network, the robot could be more flexible and make further adjustments for differences in its environment than before.

With the above in mind, primate brains are thus more open to new situations, including that of rudimentary language and communication. Primates are also more sophisticated socially and cooperate more with each other than lower-order mammals because the primate brain is more plastic and adaptable.

On top of the primate brain is the human brain. It is able to respond to even more nuanced social situations, develop and use language as we know it, and has an “executive” function that emphasizes long- term planning and inhibition. Overall, our human brains desire control and meaning.

With so many brains, an executive function would seem to make sense, but its ability to fully take charge takes education and experience.

The executive function can control the lower brains, but it has its hands full. The amount of information we receive in any second is too much for this portion to handle. According to brain scans, most of our cognition takes place at lower levels, and not in the executive portions as previously thought. In addition, each brain layer thinks independently. The result is a non-centralized command structure that is marked by conflicts and tensions from different parts performing separate functions and operating at different hierarchal levels. This picture is far from the ideal we have conceived of ourselves as self-aware conscious individuals, who control who we are and what we think, while knowingly exerting free will and self-determinism. That concept is illusory.

This becomes more obvious by asking a simple question. What thoughts are actually thoughts from your higher human brain? Can you tell the difference?

Considering what has been sketched out above, very few. They are your thoughts of course, but what you think you think and decide to do may not be what you would do at your very best. Have you ever found yourself doing things you normally wouldn’t? Where do those thoughts and actions that ‘aren’t really you’ come from?

They come from your many different brains clamoring for your attention and wanting to be heard. This is why critical thinking is much more difficult to do than one might at first suspect. It is also why it is so hard to quiet the mind. The fact is we’re not alone in our heads and never have been. How we handle this dilemma is what growing up and living our lives to the highest of our capabilities is all about, and it is worth exploring.

Another observation based on the above is that cognitive dissonance is much more the norm than the exception.

When our different layers and brains conflict, the result is cognitive dissonance. We do not like internal conflicts and seek to resolve them.

Suppose you really like chocolate. The reptile part could agree with that and probably thought of it first. The emotional part says “I want it”. The primate part says “maybe”. The executive part says “I’m already late for work”. It can override the other parts and exert downward control and resolve the conflict by constraining the requests. Conflict resolved and we get a tiny amount of dopamine released. We feel good.

Another solution is to compartmentalize, which avoids the conflict. We can separate the conflicting thoughts into their own spaces and hold them. Although this does not resolve the conflict, it solves it to some degree. We can also align our conflicting desires by creating exceptions. “I know I shouldn’t, but…” Or “I’m not like everyone else and therefore it is okay that I do what I’m doing.” The executive part has an inhibitory function, but also has a high-level capability to rationalize and justify.13 It is one of our greatest skills but can trump our higher judgement, which is where we do our critical thinking.

With all the above in mind, is it any wonder that thinking critically is difficult and simply living is complex? The good news is that critical thinking can be learned, but it is a skill like any other. It takes awareness, work, persistence, and requires practice. Doing it well takes time and requires we endure some pain in order to remodel how we choose to think, and this takes effort.

Having summarized how we think, the next article will cover what is considered correct thinking and why.



  1. Colchester, J. (2016), Critical Thinking Framework, in Complexity Labs. Retrieved June 8, 2017 from
  2. Inference (N.D.). Retrieved June 8, 2017 from
  3. Critical (N.D.), Collins English Dictionary Online. Retrieved June 8, 2017 from
  4. Colchester, J. (2016), Critical Thinking: An Introduction, Critical Thinking eBook retrieved from
  5. Cognitive Neuroscience (N.D.). Retrieved June 8, 2017 from
  6. Okasha, S. (2002), Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  7. Colchester, cit.
  8. Phelps, J. R. (2014), “3-Brains-in-One” Brain, org. Retrieved June 8, 2017 from
  9. Rozman, D. (2013), Let Your Heart Talk to Your Brain. Huffpost. Retrieved June 8, 2017 from
  10. Xie, Y. (2011), Sense of Smell Drove Mammal Brain’s Growth. Wired. Retrieved June 8, 2017 from
  11. A. (2016), The Primate Brain is “Pre-adapted” to Face Potentially Any Situation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 8, 2017 from
  12. Gibbons, T. E. (N.D.), Reservoir Computing: A Rich Area for Undergraduate Research. Retrieved June 8, 2017 from
  13. Colchester, cit.


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© 2017 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.


    Thank you Ivan.

    I liked the definitions of critical and inference, made it simple to understand the concept.

    Re the neurons I had an uncle, who was an old school doctor, that advised elderly people to engage in puzzles, crosswords or any other activity that would require the mind to keep active; in other words, keep the neurons active so your mental activity would not decay.

    Another experience I had years ago was when the system crashed and in the office I needed to do additions and subtractions by hand. I noticed I was very slow as I had been doing so in the computer. Since then I keep doing mentally, computer or no computer and indeed the mind keeps active.

    Thus, there is a valid factor in using the neurons.

    • Ivan

      They are like muscles. You either use them or lose them.

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