At the always excellent Eide Neurolearning Blog Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide had an interesting post on the MRI imaging of brains engaged in complex reasoning. Complexity in thinking is, strictly speaking, different from the type of reasoning derived from having a high level of expertise in a given field, often referred to as vertical thinking. The Eides describe complexity in thinking as follows:
"Many people think that complex thinkers at the peak of their field become that way after years of accrued mastery or development of expertise, but complex thinkers, or thinkers who may succeed in complex reasoning tasks and environments are often very different from experts who have mastered (whether through skill, or knowledge, or both) finite intellectual or artistic domains.
Complex thinkers tend to be transdisciplinary - and may be so from the get-go (i.e. childhood). The reason for this may be that their thinking is more pattern-related and iterative rather than logically related in a casual chain....It's these folks you turn to when big decisions need to be made under complex and uncertain conditions."
The Drs. Eide had a very significant observation in the second paragraph. One with political, strategic and economic implications.
As Network Theory and Complex systems are becoming better understood by physicists the implications stretch far beyond the lab because much of the world is organized into systems of increasing complexity that demonstrate certain principles such as resilience and emergence that one sees in scale free networks. This includes social networks to which people belong for economic, political or other reasons. As this phenomena becomes more widely recognized and deliberately exploited to secure advantages - al Qaida's decentralized organizational structure to cite one example - a premium will be placed upon those people who are able to quickly and accurately assess emerging patterns in a sea of informational " noise".
Furthermore, complex thinkers are also well placed to propose solutions or plans of action in a chaotic environment as their "transdiciplinary" perspective is essentially a bias toward horizontal thinking, looking across multiple domains to see the interconnections, parallels, analogies and symmetries. Organizations that emphasize promoting individuals of this type will be likely to be more resilient and creative in adapting to change.
At the other end of the spectrum, thinkers who are adept at simplification will also prove highly useful. I queried the Eides for a neuroscientific follow-up along these lines and they obliged:
"Functional MRI is still fairly limited in terms of what questions it can examine, but in response to mark's question below, we think that while it might be that successful problem solvers in complex scenarios start off in story and context mode - relying on similarities in experiences and situations to help make decisions about unknowns- this usually changes with time - so that experiences become grouped and linked into patterns and rules. Ultimately this results in simplification, but requires different processes of selection and comparison, so we expect to see a shift to more conventionally analytical areas.
In the grammar learning paradigm below, the figure shows how brain activation patterns change when test subjects develop new rules about how words should be organized. It's not a perfect analogy, but it's probably a start for sorting out how real life problem solving is done. There is a lot of interest in this more inductive pattern of learning from artificial intelligence people and engineers, but it often can't be taught well in conventional schools because it either takes too long (it's much easier to just tell students what to think) or kids just don't seem to get it. It helps to have a tweaker personality to work with - because tweakers are tenacious about problems that don't completely make sense. "
Simplification will remain a vital tool in a society that is likely to become increasingly organized around the paradigm of the world as a complex system of systems. Simplification takes a vast number of variables and reduces them to their primary operating principles, something that most people who are non-experts will find conceptually efficient in terms of comprehension. In other words, a model.
As we know from such disciplines as economics and physics, even exceptionally well-constructed and elegant models have their limitations in terms of accurately representing a real event. However, the objective here in social or political terms is not to school everyone to become universal experts but to allow them to make reasonable choices under the conditions of a fast-changing environment that produces a great deal of situational uncertainty. That means on the " simple" end we want people who can spot premises and extrapolate to the logical conclusions and on the "complex" end we want people who can estimate how an array of patterns will fit together into a systemic whole.
A new world requires new tools of cognition.