The Mechanism of Mind, by Edward de Bono
“Freddie was designed as a space age pet for modern living. He is a small black sphere which is completely smooth on the outside. When Freddie is kicked he starts to roll about. To stop him you kick him again. Whenever he comes up against an obstacle he just backs away, moves along it or just changes direction as he feels inclined. The purpose of Freddie is to provide intelligent animation without the owner having to feed him, look after him or take him round the lampposts every evening.”
Freddie’s image is so intriguing that we find ourselves smiling, but not at the implication that our lives might well be similar to his own. When it comes to our mind, to our way of thinking, we resent being told that our mental processes are mechanical, and that there is no separate self or agent initiating or directing our thoughts.
Though Dr. de Bono is a physician and is currently working in the Department of Investigative Medicine at Cambridge University, England, he uses no monkeys, rabbits, rats or electronic brain probes to make his case. He seeks to convince us with models made from pins, lights, switches, blocks, jelly, water and other equally familiar materials.
Put some table jelly in a shallow dish; now spoon some hot water onto the jelly and then pour the water off: as the water melts the jelly, it creates channels. As more water is spooned onto the jelly, the patterns become more diverse and intricate. But soon, no matter where you pour it, most of the water will flow through the channels already created, thereby making these channels deeper and ensuring that any additional water will flow through them. Think of the jelly as the memory surface of the brain, and the channels as memories or associations. The flow of water through these channels is the “interpretation and recording of incoming information. . . the main point is that there is flow, and that the flow is dictated by the contours of the surface.”
In other words, the past shapes the present. But what about new ideas and perceptions? Can we receive them without their being processed by the various patterns which have accumulated through suggestion and repetition, or are we doomed to a constant repetition of past thoughts and perceptions (as the jelly model indicates)? The answer seems to demand a more precise study of the mechanics of the human mind, of the way it is “kicked” in and out of action by influences from outside as well as from within.
Dr. de Bono distinguishes between several different kinds of thought, all of which are equally mechanical, but which nevertheless differ in the results they bring. The most “primitive” form of thought is “natural thinking.” This is the passive associative flow along the contours of the memory surface. It is totally dependent on whatever happens to be accumulated at the moment. There is a momentum from cliché to cliché. “Natural thinking makes use of absolutes and extremes since these patterns become more easily established than intermediate ones.” In de Bono’s words:
“The lack of proportion in natural thinking in some ways resembles the contents of newspapers. The odd, the unusual, the emotional, all get as much emphasis as ordinary events, or more, even though the latter are much more important in real-life terms. Labels and categories are much used in natural thinking since they provide quick interpretation and firm direction of flow. There is little vagueness or indecision in natural thinking since even a slight degree of dominance in one area is sufficient to attract the flow.”
“Logical thinking” differs from natural thinking only as a result of the experience of “non-identity,” or “no.” No conveys an awareness of more than one alternative; it implies a “mismatch,” a conflict between patterns. As a result of no, one pattern or pathway is selected and another is blocked from our attention. “The effect of logical thinking is like that obtained by a farmer who directs the water to his fields by careful blocking of some irrigation channels in order to get the water to flow through the others.” The difficulty is that what may have been useful in the past may be the exact opposite of what is necessary now. Once no has blocked a particular pathway it is likely to continue doing so even when the conditions have changed. “The more emotion that was infused into the no label by upbringing, the more powerful would be its use and its effect.”
With “mathematical thinking” we come to what is supposedly the least subjective form of sequential thought. This kind of thinking, for de Bono, is based on the use of “ready-made recipes,” or “algorithms.” “An algorithm is any fixed pattern which is not derived from presented information but serves to control and sort out that information. Algorithms may be mathematical techniques but they may also be word patterns or any other type of preset pattern.” Instead of the incoming information finding its own path along the contours of the surface, specific channels are pre-cut and the information flows through them. If the “preset pattern” actually represents the given situation then mathematical thinking can avoid many of the errors of natural and logical thinking. Unfortunately, in most cases, neither the algorithm nor the choice of what it processes is itself the result of mathematical thinking.
Dr. de Bono makes it clear that none of these forms of thought can get beyond the limitations imposed by the nature of the memory surface. He therefore offers a fourth classification which he calls “lateral thinking.” This type of thinking is based on the disruption of the sequential flow of our ordinary thought:
“Lateral thinking has nothing to do with chaos for the sake of chaos. Disruption of a pattern in lateral thinking is only in order to let a better pattern form. Later the process can be repeated again. For this reason those chemical methods of disruption which work by upsetting the smooth co-ordination of the mind are useless since the smooth co-ordination of the mind is required to snap the new patterns into coherence. The art of lateral thinking is to bring about the disruption while still retaining the ability to benefit from it in terms of coherent ideas.”
How does one achieve this kind of thinking? Dr. de Bono offers a number of different methods, all of which are dependent on the ability to allow one’s thought to organize itself in a “new” way. But whether this new organization be the result of shocks coming from without, the intentional effort of turning an idea upside down, or the effort of a slight shift in attention, it is always necessary to confront what de Bono calls the “main information sin”–arrogance. “Arrogance appears in many forms. Just as one particular fixed way of looking at things leads to the arrogance of pride so another fixed way of looking at things leads to the arrogance of despair.”
How can we escape this “sin”? Dr. de Bono tells us that one way is through a “realization of the arbitrary nature and historical development. . .” of our attitudes:
“It is not suggested that the realization of the arbitrariness of patterns should lead to a loss of drive and direction. On the contrary, one realizes that patterns are useful no matter how arbitrary, and so one uses them. But uses them without arrogance, with an inquiry about better patterns, and with the willingness to change to better patterns if they should seem more useful.”
But is the interest in “better patterns” sufficient motivation to see and accept the mechanicality of one’s mind? If arrogance is not simply an information sin, if its effects are scattered through our entire being, then perhaps we do need to experience a “loss of drive and direction.” Perhaps freed for a moment from our cerebral manipulations, we will feel the need for a totally new quality of thought–one which could bring us to a wider, more fundamental sense of our existence.
This review first appeared in the journal Material for Thought, Spring 1971 (issue #3), published by Far West Editions. Far West Editions “was begun in 1968 by John Pentland, a direct pupil of G. I. Gurdjieff and president of the Gurdjieff Foundations of New York and California until his death in 1984. Its original purpose was to discover if a more impartial quality of spiritual thought can emerge when a small group of people work at writing while at the same time trying to see themselves as they are.” Though I am “the author” of this review, it was working in these special conditions that made it possible. You can click on the above link to see what issues of Material for Thought are currently available.