Hearts & Minds

Since Plato, scholars have drawn a clear distinction between thinking and feeling. Now science suggests that our emotions are what make thought possible.

"Just over 50 years ago, a group of brash young scholars at an MIT symposium introduced a series of ideas that would forever alter the way we think about how we think.

In three groundbreaking papers, including one on grammar by a 27-year-old linguist named Noam Chomsky, the scholars ignited what is now known as the cognitive revolution, which was built on the radical notion that it is possible to study, with scientific precision, the actual processes of thought. The movement eventually freed psychology from the grip of behaviorism, a scientific movement popular in America that studied behavior as a proxy for understanding the mind.


'Because we subscribed to this false ideal of rational, logical thought, we diminished the importance of everything else,' said Marvin Minsky, a professor at MIT and pioneer of artificial intelligence. 'Seeing our emotions as distinct from thinking was really quite disastrous.'


From its inception, the cognitive revolution was guided by a metaphor: the mind is like a computer. We are a set of software programs running on 3 pounds of neural hardware. And cognitive psychologists were interested in the software. The computer metaphor helped stimulate some crucial scientific breakthroughs. It led to the birth of artificial intelligence and helped make our inner life a subject suitable for science.

For the first time, cognitive psychologists were able to simulate aspects of human thought. At the seminal MIT symposium, held on Sept. 11, 1956, Herbert Simon and Allen Newell announced that they had invented a 'thinking machine' -- basically a room full of vacuum tubes -- capable of solving difficult logical problems. (In one instance, the machine even improved on the work of Bertrand Russell.)

But the computer metaphor was misleading, at least in one crucial respect. Computers don't have feelings. Feelings didn't fit into the preferred language of thought. Because our emotions weren't reducible to bits of information or logical structures, cognitive psychologists diminished their importance.


This new science of emotion has brought a new conception of what it means to think, and, in some sense, a rediscovery of the unconscious.


The lasting influence of the cognitive revolution is apparent in the language used by neuroscientists when describing the mind. For example, the unconscious is often described as a massive computer, processing millions of bits of information per second. Emotions emerge from this activity."

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