Shifting Gears, Part 2

by David Wolpe on October 3, 2014

Intelligence may be defined as the ability to mesh incongruous interlocking parts. Or: the ability to manipulate  sub-elements. Or the ability to perceive and manipulate parts as a whole. One of its antonyms is ‘effort,’ in the sense of effort to manipulate those sub-elements. It may require effort to get to that place, but once there, the intelligent agent, or intelligent actor (and as every intelligent actor knows, the agent takes 10%) does not have to think about those sub-elements. They occur naturally, and only if required does the agent refer to those details. Larry Bird was once asked, just after a game,  how he made an incredible no-look pass on a fast break ,and he didn’t recall making it.

This has been documented in various studies including one which showed that babies have the ability to perceive objects as objects, rather than as assemblages of parts. When you catch a tennis ball, you don’t catch the seams and the yellowness and the fuzz. You catch the ball, which is made up of these things.

A rider who never has to think about gear direction is a more intelligent rider than I.  There seem to be two ways to attain that intelligence: memorization, and understanding the what and why and wherefore. The end result is similar: the objectification, the cohesion, the understanding, the representation in the mind, of a complex object or series of steps or reasons, as a single recognizable entity. ‘The front gears are your stride. The bigger the ring, the longer your stride, the more distance you’re covering’. In this case there is no understanding of underlying mechanics. You just memorize this, and it’s something you can use to develop the habit of shifting the right way. Or, without needing any intermediary analogy, you just do it again and again until it becomes a habit.

And that, after all, is the point: to develop a habit, something that is done automatically and repeatedly.

So what is the opposite of this ability to see a thing as a whole? It can certainly be said that the inability to conceive of, or understand something, has a certain feeling to it. The feeling of getting stuck, of your mind locking up, stopped short,  not getting it.

Getting Stuck

As in gears which are jammed and cannot propel us forward.  Let’s give it a name: cognitive lock.   This is a phenomenon which can be recognized in multiple domains and multiple contexts.

If the nature of understanding and intelligence has to do with repetition and abstraction, then that which is not understood is, by definition, not that. But why? Let’s return to our bicycle.


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