Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

Today’s cognitive science and philosophy can’t explain any of these mysteries.

The philosophy and science of mind has other striking blind spots, too. AI researchers have been working for years on common sense. Nonetheless, as Fodor writes in The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way, “the failure of artificial intelligence to produce successful simulations of routine commonsense cognitive competences is notorious, not to say scandalous.” But the scandal is wider than Fodor reports. AI has been working in recent years on emotion, too, but has yet to understand its integral role in thought.

In short, there are many mysteries to explain–and many “cognitive competences” to understand. AI–and software in general–can profit from progress on these problems even if it can’t build a conscious computer.

These observations lead me to believe that the “cognitive continuum” (or, equally, the consciousness continuum) is the most important and exciting research topic in cognitive science and philosophy today.

What is the “cognitive continuum”? And why care about it? Before I address these questions, let me note that the cognitive continuum is not even a scientific theory. It is a “prescientific theory”–like “the earth is round.”

Anyone might have surmised that the earth is round, on the basis of everyday observations–especially the way distant ships sink gradually below (or rise above) the horizon. No special tools or training were required. That the earth is round leaves many basic phenomena unexplained: the tides, the seasons, climate, and so on. But unless we know that the earth is round, it’s hard to progress on any of these problems.

The cognitive continuum is the same kind of theory. I don’t claim that it’s a millionth as important as the earth’s being round. But for me as a student of human thought, it’s at least as exciting.

What is this “continuum”? It’s a spectrum (the “cognitive spectrum”) with infinitely many intermediate points between two endpoints.

When you think, the mind assembles thought trains–sequences of distinct thoughts or memories. (Sometimes one blends into the next, and sometimes our minds go blank. But usually we can describe the train that has just passed.) Sometimes our thought trains are assembled–so it seems–under our conscious, deliberate control. Other times our thoughts wander, and the trains seem to assemble themselves. If we start with these observations and add a few simple facts about “cognitive behavior,” a comprehensive picture of thought emerges almost by itself.

Obviously, you must be alert to think analytically. To solve a set of mathematical equations or follow a proof, you need to focus your attention. Your concentration declines as you grow tired over the day.

And your mind is in a strange state just before you fall asleep: a free-associative state in which, rather than following from another logically, one thought “suggests” the next. In this state, you cannot focus: if you decide to think about one thing, you soon find yourself thinking about something else (which was “suggested” by thing one), and then something else, and so on. In fact, cognitive psychologists have discovered that we start to dream before we fall asleep. So the mental state right before sleep is the state of dreaming.

70 comments. Share your thoughts »

Credit: Eric Joyner

Tagged: Communications

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me