Two ways of thinking

ScienceDaily has an item (here), a paper by Anthony Jack and others entitled fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains in NeuroImage.

The researchers found that two modes of thinking (analytical and social) are mutually exclusive. Our brains can figuratively change configuration between a logical and an empathetic way of thinking but cannot do both a once. Normally when not engaged in a task, the brain may cycle between the two modes of thought, but when faced with a particular task it would choose the more appropriate mode. An example is: “How could a CEO be so blind to the public relations fiasco his cost-cutting decision has made? When the analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed.” Is this why economists, used to numeric solutions, find utilitarian logic attractive for moral problems?

The origin of the idea is interesting.

Jack said that a philosophical question inspired the study design: “The most persistent question in the philosophy of mind is the problem of consciousness. Why can we describe the workings of a brain, but that doesn’t tell us what it’s like to be that person? The disconnect between experiential understanding and scientific understanding is known as the explanatory gap. In 2006, the philosopher Philip Robbins and I got together and we came up with a pretty crazy, bold hypothesis: that the explanatory gap is driven by our neural structure. I was genuinely surprised to see how powerfully these findings fit that theory.”…

“We see neural inhibition between the entire brain network we use to socially, emotionally and morally engage with others, and the entire network we use for scientific, mathematical and logical reasoning. … This shows scientific accounts really do leave something out — the human touch. A major challenge for the science of the mind is how we can better translate between the cold and distant mechanical descriptions that neuroscience produces, and the emotionally engaged intuitive understanding which allows us to relate to one another as people.”

Of course, as usual, I find just two configurations a little too pat. Let’s assume a more nuanced set of configurations but difficulty in using two or more at a time. Maybe two major types with variations or something like that will turn out to be a better model after more research.

Here is the abstract:

Two lines of evidence indicate that there exists a reciprocal inhibitory relationship between opposed brain networks. First, most attention-demanding cognitive tasks activate a stereotypical set of brain areas, known as the task-positive network and simultaneously deactivate a different set of brain regions, commonly referred to as the task negative or default mode network. Second, functional connectivity analyses show that these same opposed networks are anti-correlated in the resting state. We hypothesize that these reciprocally inhibitory effects reflect two incompatible cognitive modes, each of which is directed towards understanding the external world. Thus, engaging one mode activates one set of regions and suppresses activity in the other. We test this hypothesis by identifying two types of problem-solving task which, on the basis of prior work, have been consistently associated with the task positive and task negative regions: tasks requiring social cognition, i.e., reasoning about the mental states of other persons, and tasks requiring physical cognition, i.e., reasoning about the causal/mechanical properties of inanimate objects. Social and mechanical reasoning tasks were presented to neurologically normal participants during fMRI. Each task type was presented using both text and video clips. Regardless of presentation modality, we observed clear evidence of reciprocal suppression: social tasks deactivated regions associated with mechanical reasoning and mechanical tasks deactivated regions associated with social reasoning. These findings are not explained by self-referential processes, task engagement, mental simulation, mental time travel or external vs. internal attention, all factors previously hypothesized to explain default mode network activity. Analyses of resting state data revealed a close match between the regions our tasks identified as reciprocally inhibitory and regions of maximal anti-correlation in the resting state. These results indicate the reciprocal inhibition is not attributable to constraints inherent in the tasks, but is neural in origin. Hence, there is a physiological constraint on our ability to simultaneously engage two distinct cognitive modes. Further work is needed to more precisely characterize these opposing cognitive domains.

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