Critical Thinking’s Neuro-biological Root

PUBLISHED: Dec 3, 2019

In This Episode.

Though challenging to define in its full complexity, critical thinking nevertheless can be tracked back to a survival thought process.  That process not only exists in humans but in all animal organisms, including single-cell organisms like amoebas, and, for this episode’s sake, fictional organisms like that of the 1950’s classic, The Blob.

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Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: They’re here to do two things. Chew bubble gum and make you smarter, and they’re all out of bubble gum smarter with Dave and Steve.

Steve Pearlman: The cinematic basis for this episode about critical thinking is the movie The Blob. We ended last episode asking listeners to try to come up with their conceptions of critical thinking or to ask around to find if anyone else had a functional definition of critical thinking. And what we’re going to show you today is that critical thinking can actually be broken down into some very simple acts that are rooted in our evolutionary biology. And if you haven’t seen the movie The Blob, let us give you a quick background on what

Dave Carillo: Here’s the thing about the

Steve Pearlman: Blob. The Blob came from a meteor, and it’s basically some kind of aggressive space pudding.

Dave Carillo: I would call it more jelly like than putting like

Steve Pearlman: We really have to have this debate about whether it’s more gelatinous or more pudding based.

Dave Carillo: We do. And I think the reason is that if you go into this thinking that the blob is like a pudding, then you might find yourself somehow misinformed about how the Blob works in this particular episode. Here’s the thing about The Blob he shows up.

Steve Pearlman: I can’t believe you attributed a potential he or she to The Blob. I can only say it could, in fact, be a gendered mass of pudding.

Dave Carillo: Anyhow, the thing about the Blob is that it shows up on a meteorite, and it’s this tiny little mass of jelly, and it really doesn’t know anything about the Earth or anything about its environment. But very quickly it starts to perceive its environment and just eat any one that comes within sight of it. And really, it’s only until Steve McQueen picks up steam that the Blob runs into any kind of problem with taking care of business.

Steve Pearlman: And the way that this putting mass was about consuming people is it basically engulfs them and then sort of observes them. So it’s in effect like a space amoeba that’s able to exist outside and putting form and go forward and sort of engulf any kind of life form. And so it’s able to ooze through cracks and crevices until its entire form has entered a room. And then eventually it’s almost the size of a building and they’re trying to defeat this creature. We won’t tell you the way in which they ultimately defeat the creature, but nevertheless, here’s the full trailer for the movie The Blob, and we’re giving you the full trailer specifically because we think the whole thing is such a treasure, and we’ll give you a sense of what the movie does. And then we’re going to go back into explaining how it exemplifies the neurobiological process that we all evolve to use to solve problems in our lives. And how, by understanding that process, you’ll be able to go forward, make better decisions, think critically and achieve the things you want in your life as a result.

Dave Carillo: To be clear, we think that the movie blob can be applied to a lot of different situations in life. It maybe exemplifies a lot of things, but but Steve’s right, this is what we’re using it for today.

The Blob: Dave Doc Helen’s been killed. What happened? It’s over at his place. You’ve got to come now. Wait a minute, Steve. Tell us what happened. Well, I’m trying to tell you now this thing. It killed the doc. What was it with a kid? Well, it’s kind of like, it’s kind of like a mass that keeps getting bigger and bigger it.

The Blob: Every one of you watching this screen look out, because soon, very soon, the most horrifying monster menace ever conceived will be oozing into this theater. Two teenagers see it first, like a falling star from outer space. What else closed? Come on. I want to see if I can find an old man finds it, touches it. And this is the shocking result. From then on, there’s no stopping the Blob as it spreads from town to town. It’s indestructible, it’s indescribable. Nothing can stop it. This town is in danger. How can it be stopped? Mob hysteria sweeps one city before long the nation and then the world could fall before the blood curdling threat of. A bob starring Steve McQueen and the cast of exciting young people.

Steve Pearlman: That’s the 1958 version of Blob, which is the only one that’s worth watching, in my opinion,

Dave Carillo: I think so, although no offense to anybody who did the remake that came out in the last 10 years, didn’t they do a remake? I think they did anyhow in the fifty eight version. That’s a young Steve McQueen. But I didn’t remember that Steve McQueen’s character’s name in The Blob is Steve.

Steve Pearlman: Steve wasn’t a very bright man. And in order for most of his characters to work, he had to be called Steve because he couldn’t really understand that he would be taking on another persona from his role.

Dave Carillo: Very specific type of method acting. But our purpose here is to talk to you about critical thinking, not only because in our last episode, we discussed how critical thinking generally these days falls into the it’s too hard to define category or it’s really simple and just do these three vague general things, and then you’ll be a stronger, critical thinker category. Critical thinking can be defined. It’s a process that has built into our evolutionary brains, and it’s actually allowed us to survive for a very long time and become the species that we are today.

Steve Pearlman: And we really want to credit a guy named Stephen Hughes. Yes, who is not the only one to have done research on this at all, but he’s the one who has since sized, at least for us. The neurobiological foundation of critical thinking for all organisms and basically what it says. And this is why you’re going to see our metaphor of the Blob come to play here. All organisms from single celled organisms like amoebas all the way up through blobs and cats, dogs, insects,

Dave Carillo: Right, robusta, cats,

Steve Pearlman: Eventually, even human beings, most of them know all of them have the capacity to do these four things. And these are the route of higher order critical thinking skills. They happen as they would with a big pudding mass. That’s the blob in terms of sometimes what our subconscious actions and non self-aware actions, but all higher order critical thinking that humans are able to do ultimately roots in these for survival actions that are effectively thinking for lack of a better word. So what hubris reveals is that all organisms evolve to be able to do four things. One is perceive the environment. Two is since danger and reward three is make some kind of decision, and the fourth is take some kind of action. And so the point is that even amoebas or semi sentient space puddings can do those four things right.

Dave Carillo: And one of the examples that you use actually gives as evidence of this is this great little scene that plays out under a microscope where an amoeba has spotted a couple of Paramecium and senses that these two Paramecium are floating around in the same little petri dish. Moves on them, absorbs them, eats them up, becomes a stronger amoeba. And there’s a sad, entertaining little moment where because all three of these creatures are fairly transparent that you can see inside them, you see these two Paramecium racing around in the amoeba, kind of realizing that they’ve been out, sensed as it were, and are going to be eaten.

Steve Pearlman: The goal for the podcast, therefore, and why it’s so important for you to be listening is that we don’t want you to be Paramecium.

Dave Carillo: We don’t want you to be undertaken

Steve Pearlman: By enemy, but we want you to be the amoeba who is eating the Paramecium. That sounds awfully predatory.

Dave Carillo: No, don’t prey on anybody but understand that someone tells you that critical thinking is too hard for you to learn how to do. Or if someone is saying that know all you need to do is just vaguely take time. It’s neither of those things. It’s a specific set of moves that you can make and that you can become better at making. So that’s the neurobiological basis of critical thinking.

Steve Pearlman: And that’s more of an instinctive process that’s baked into what is roughly loosely called your lower brain, which is the brain that we had that is based in survival mechanisms, not the higher order brain that we also possess. That’s more about solving cognitive problems,

Dave Carillo: But in order to be able to resolve the kind of wicked problems that you might be encountering at work or even in your daily lives that aren’t just about finding food, those kinds of problems require more explicit framework.

Steve Pearlman: So how do we take that instinctive process and translate it? And that’s what Dave and I have done in our work in academia. We’ve taken what is an instinctive neurobiological process that we’ve converted an out of instinctive actions into self-aware cognitive actions that can apply not just to academic subject matter across any discipline and any subject matter, not just any business problem, but for any life problem. What we’re saying is this is a translation of our natural, instinctive process for survival as being brought forward into a higher order process for dealing with wicked problems in a wicked world.

Dave Carillo: Someone who uses that framework can develop a stronger awareness of their environment. Come to better decisions. Evaluate more evidence. And so on and so forth.

Steve Pearlman: The only caveat is there’s obviously more to all of this than this. This is an introduction to an idea. There are lots of facets we’re going to bring out as podcast moves forward through other episodes. So this is either the Perlman Carillo thinking method or the target thinking method, because the infographic we use for education sort of looks like a target.

Dave Carillo: Yeah, and you can take a look at that on our on our website.

Steve Pearlman: The Critical Thinking Initiative dot org. And for those of you who have listened to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, this is one of the few places where there’s going to be some direct overlap between the two podcasts. We’re going to try to keep them as separate as possible. So as we left off last episode asking you to come up with a definition of critical thinking and showing you the tension between the hyper complex ones or the hyper simplistic ones. Now we’re going to give you one that’s neurobiological and easy to get your head around. So as the Blob has four steps to its process save the environment, sense, danger, reward, make a decision, take action. Our process has five.

Dave Carillo: We want to give you an example of steps that you go through on a daily basis, even for the simplest of decisions. And we’re using a very simple decision because one of the main points we want to make here is that the more aware you are of the process, the better you get at it. And even if you think of the situation that we’re going to walk you through doesn’t require the kind of critical thinking that you would expect. If you want to come to stronger conclusions about the kind of wicked problems that you face every day, professionally, socially, emotionally than practicing, this process is going to pay off.

Steve Pearlman: So here’s the situation you have to decide what you’re going to wear for a job interview so you get up in the morning, you go into your closet and the first step is analyze. And what that means is that you’re assessing the factors that matter to you and would play a role in making the decision that you have to make. You’re not judging those factors. You’re just assessing what those factors are and you’re not starting to make the decision yet, which means you take stock of the situation. You remember that you have a job interview, you have to look at the weather, you have to think about what you know about the company. You have to think about what is available for you to wear should it be formal. Informal is your favorite outfit that normally you would wear for an interview available to you. Is it at the dry cleaner? All these things are breaking the situation down into its part into not just what’s happening, but how it’s happening, why it’s happening, what factors matter? That’s step one that everyone does. They analyze the situation and starting to make any decision that’s available to them.

Dave Carillo: And it’s important to remember you might not necessarily be aware that you are taking stock of the situation in that way, but you are. And the more awareness that you can cultivate, the better decision you’re going to be able to make.

Steve Pearlman: And the reason you might not be aware is that your brain is baked in to do those four things that we talked about at the neurobiological level. So you’re great at doing it subconsciously, but subconscious isn’t good enough when we need to make decisions about more complex problems.

Dave Carillo: Step two Question from your analysis of the situation what specific questions arise for you that need to be articulated and then resolved? The situation is that you have a job interview. You know which outfit feels good. You know which outfit looks most professional. You know, maybe what the weather’s going to be, or you have a sense of what the weather is going to be. And the question is this there’s an outfit that you have that makes you feel most comfortable and allows you to perform best in job interview situations, but it’s not as professional as maybe some of the suits that you own. And so the question you need to answer is, to what extent do I need to look more professional than I need to feel comfortable? And that’s a very specific question. What to wear for my job interview is the broader situation, but the specific question now is to what extent can I feel as comfortable as possible while also looking as professional as possible?

Steve Pearlman: And that moves us into the third step, which is to evaluate. Evaluating is a very particular intellectual skill and something everybody does all the time. It’s weighing certain information against other information. In order to make the determination, you always just essentially doing pros and cons about the different pieces of information you have relative to decision, and some of them are going to outweigh others. And that’s how we make every decision we’ve ever made in our entire lives. There’s a range of possibilities, and for some reason, one of those possibilities seem to have more weight than some of the others, or some of that information or evidence seems to have more weight than some of the other evidence or information. So you have this decision you have to make, and you’ve really distilled the question down to how formal you need to be relative to how comfortable you want to be in terms of what’s most important to you personally, you really want to feel more comfortable and that starts to tip the scale one way. But then you weigh in another factor, which is what you heard from a friend of yours who works at this potential new organization about how formal they are. And you hear that they really value very formal attire. They are very uptight kind of organization. And at that point, you determine that even though you think you’d much rather be more comfortable and you’d pull off a. Better interview, you decide that you’ve got to go with one of the more formal outfits so that information about the organization being very formal now weighs more than the information you have about how good you’re going to feel in your particular outfit.

Dave Carillo: Step four Complicate The idea of complicating is recognizing where you may be wrong, where you’re a little uncertain, or which factors you just can’t necessarily fully account for it. And that’s not necessarily because you want to second guess yourself, but quite the opposite, because the stronger conclusion is going to be the one that factors in the uncertainty in relation to what you want to resolve. Think of it another way if your decision had to be placed on a scale between absolutely unsure, which is zero percent and one hundred percent sure, where would it fall? Seventy five percent. Sixty five percent. 80 percent. And if we can identify the rest of that percentage that creates the uncertainty, then we can be smarter about why and how we’re moving forward. So, for example, in this particular situation, the uncertainty may be that you don’t necessarily know other than from your friend that it’s organization values professionalism in the form of fancy dress, and you might still move in the direction of the suit. But that uncertainty may allow you to go for your second most formal outfit. Still pretty formal, but you’re a little bit more comfortable.

Steve Pearlman: So step five Final step. Conclude, Ultimately, you have to make a decision, you have to wear something to the interview. And so you’ve looked at what you have, you’ve decided that it comes down to how formal you need to be. You’ve weighed out the fact that you’ve heard that this is a very formal organization, but you’re not 100 percent sure of the reliability of that information about how formal the organization is. You’ve never actually been there. Your friend might say some sketchy things in the past. So in concluding you decide that you can’t wear your most comfortable outfit where you feel most comfortable giving the interview, but at the same time, you feel like you’re going to pull back from wearing that most formal suit that you have in your closet, and instead you’re going to go a notch or two down to wear something that certainly would pass for formal business attire, but something that isn’t the most formal outfit that you have, and that’s ultimately the decision that you made. So as the process that everybody goes through and every decision they make all the time with a caveat, which is that because of things like biases and assumptions and emotional investment, we might skip or shortchange some of those steps, which are things we will talk about in the podcast moving forward.

Steve Pearlman: But ultimately, all decisions, whether it’s what you’re going to have for lunch, what you’re going to wear, or very complex decisions about whether or not you’re going to buy a particular house or how you’re going to parent or what to do when a loved one is passing. All involve all of these factors. You’re going to analyze the situation, determine the question that really needs to be asked, weigh out that information by evaluating it to determine which impacts the decision. Most recognize by complicating it where you don’t know certain things, where you wish you had better information and then finally draw some kind of conclusion. There is no other way that you can go about that process than what we described. That’s not to say everyone always executes that process as effectively or as efficiently as we could, and that’s why you have the podcast.

Dave Carillo: So look, if the amoeba is doing it, if the Blob is doing it up until it runs into Steve McQueen, then you can obviously do it. What we want to help you do is separate yourself from the amoeba and the blob and even Steve McQueen by being more aware of that process and allowing yourself the ability to practice it, get better at it, know what it takes to think critically about a situation, and come to the smartest conclusion that you can come to.

Steve Pearlman: So for this week, as you talk to other people and you see decisions that they are making or you hear about decisions they are making. Try to overlay that into this process. When are they analyzing? What question are they really bringing it down to? How are they evaluating the information that’s available to them? How are they recognizing the complications and complicating it? And how are they ultimately arriving at a conclusion? Part of that means that you will see these factors at work, but part of it also means that you will see them failing to maximize this process. You’ll see that they’re not executing this process to its maximum capability.

Dave Carillo: For instance, oftentimes the move to complicate is entirely skipped, right? You’ll hear people say, it’s definitely this. It’s all that this person is one hundred percent wrong. This person is 100 percent right. It’s never been this. It always be that. And that step, if you start to maximize the process, will help you surpass some of those individuals in terms of making smarter decisions, being able to communicate the value of your decision or your choice over others. Establish a corporate vision. Move your team forward in a particular project. Any number of things simply by being aware of that move to complicate?

Steve Pearlman: And that brings us to the second task this week, which is to go out there and also now become self-aware of how you do all these parts. And if you can take a decision or multiple decision that you make over the course of the next week, slow them down and try to think about what am I analyzing? What is it really coming down to in terms of the question? What’s weighing out for me is more or less important. Where is it complicated and ultimately to try to make the smarter conclusion as a result?

Dave Carillo: So that’s what we have for you today. Let us know what kind of questions you have and contact us at info at the critical thinking initiative. Please, like us. Please share us.

Steve Pearlman: Please recommend us to your friends and whatever you do, please whatever you do if you see a large mass of pudding coming at you or jelly runaway.


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