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"The Art of Thinking"

Brandon Riederer got his MA in English from National University in 2016, and writes about linguistics, narratology, and cognitive poetics.

Early in chapter one of Ruggerio's The Art of Thinking (2012), the author focuses on a very important topic: thinking. He defines 'thinking' as "any mental activity that helps formulate or solve a problem, make a decision, or fulfill a desire to understand... searching for answers, or reaching for meaning" (Ruggerio, 2012). This is a sufficiently narrow definition to work upon and develop an understanding and distinction between critical and creative thinking. To my understanding, the entire content of the course must eventually come back to and revolve around this concept of thinking, which means this definition is of the utmost importance to remember

Ruggerio's interpretation of thinking concentrates on the idea of conscious competency. Essentially, this means thinking involves both internal and external awareness because if these two severed then an individual's "mental motor [would be] racing, but [his or her] transmission is in neutral" (Ruggerio, 2012). For this reason, Ruggerio stresses the idea of control in relation to thinking: to think must mean an individual is in the driveseat of their thoughts hence conscious competency. Furthermore, an individual must also have "familiarity with the historical context of [a] problem or issue and an understanding of relevant principles and concepts" (Ruggerio, 2012). This latter concept stresses competency, or a outside knowledge or ethos on a particular issue, in relation to thinking.

The value of Ruggerio's definition of thinking is that is promotes self-regulation of one's thoughts and continual refinement. In order to be a good thinker, one must habitually be conscious of their inner-voice and gather new and relevant information whenever he or she encounters problems. This kind of self-awareness is much needed today amidst the many distractions of modern living. The ability to focus on a problem and work through it with efficiency is a highly touted skill in all areas of life from raising a child to running a company. The flexibility of practical applications Ruggerio's definition offers is appealing.

Even so, Ruggiero may be holding back something by limiting good thinking to conscious competency; this is solving problems by knowing what to do and how to do it, and thinking it step by step as you go. This can be very productive but also somewhat systematic or mechanical. Can this model really yield creative and critical thinking? According to former NAVY Seal Commander Mark Divine (2014), the ultimate state of mind is unconscious competence. This is solving problems by knowing what to do and how do it, but executing it without consciously thinking. This type of mental processing is important when working under the stress of time and space. As a former NAVY Seal, Divine must have known that thinking 'without thinking' was not only effective in the chaos of combat for giving lifesaving directions but it also was effective at maintaining concentration at peak performance: if we let our inner-voice interrupt ourselves too often, it may throw off our focus and we may slow down or slip.

So, if we know what to do and how to do it, should we let our muscle/neuron memories let it rip or should we walk ourselves through issues step by step at a steady pace? Both have their pros and cons. Unconscious competence can help us make fast decisions under pressure but it would require a tremendous amount of mental dexterity and precision to avoid mistakes. Conscious competence, on the other hand, can help us explore the many avenues towards a solution to a problem and work with out the kinks with planning at the expense of speed.

This concept of thinking could also extend to other areas of modern living to careers in law enforcement and public safety (State Police, Fire Rescue, EMTs, for instance). Furthermore, even your everyday Samaritans must 'think on their feet' at times (acting as a first responder or even intervening moments before a potentially hazardous situation occurs such as stopping a child from chasing a ball into a busy street. In these life scenarios people must react unconsciously and with accuracy; there is no time to think things through if your job is to run into a burning building and save several people and a pet: you simply trust your training and do it.

Now, in the business and academic worlds, this does have some merit too-- granted these people are not involved in life or death scenarios, but time deadlines and restricted resources are a reality that forces individuals to think "without thinking." In both spheres of society-- business and academia-- we are taught the ropes of our trade before we plunge into production quotas and expectations. In either case, an individual's productivity is limited by time and space just as the those that work in the military, law enforcements, or public emergency response teams. There are times in business and academia in which an individual simply does not have the time to consciously think things through step by step. Instead, they too-- like those that work in high risk situations-- must trust their training and let 'muscle/neuron memory' take over.

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Certainly these situations outlined above are not the most pleasant nor ideal places to be caught up in. However, they accurately reflect real problems in society in which conscious competency just won't cut it or provide practical results. On the flip side, however, thinking too fast or thinking 'without thinking or knowing' can definitely yield potentially inaccurate results because an individual is working at speeds he or she is uncomfortable with-- or they simply do not know enough about their task to perform at a high level. This state of mind is called unconscious incompetence, which is the worst state of mind according to Mark Divine (Divine, 2012). Essentially, this is doing things wrong without knowing it is wrong; it is an ignorance of self-awareness, self-confidence, and knowledge.

The order we must achieve mastery in thinking according to Divine (and Sporague and Stuart's model of learning) is as follows:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: Not thinking and doing things wrong. (Complete ignorance)
  2. Conscious incompetence: Thinking things through but still doing things wrong. (Learning curve)
  3. Conscious competence: Knowing what to do and how to do it but limited to conscious step-by-step thinking. (Proficiency.. but it takes effort)
  4. Unconscious competence: Knowing what to do and how to do it 'without thinking'. (Mastery. Tasks are second nature.)

During my early years in college I worked as a personal fitness trainer at a local gym and t concept of muscle memory was central for teaching proper technique for lifting weights safety and efficiently. The word 'memory' might be misleading because our muscles don't literally store information like our brain. Rather it is more of a aphorism for the human body's ability to make neurological adaptations within our muscles-- by creating new nuclei-- in order to adapt to the stresses place upon them. The new nuclei that is created, according to many exercise/psychological scientists, never show signs of significant atrophy. In other words and in relation to strength training, if a person hypothetically took 6 months off from the gym, then they would return with roughly 2% less absolute strength than they had when they left off. This is a very minor decrease. The lungs, however, are not so forgiving. The nuclei involved with aerobic exercise atrophies within 10-14 days after a halt in exercise (this is why whenever we try running for the first time in a couple [weeks, months, years] we tend to huff and puff like crazy; but after a couple runs, we feel back to normal again because the nuclei can rebuild much faster than those for the other areas of our body).

Now muscle memory is very important for completing tasks at a high level of efficiency. Essentially, the concept is: if our neurological connections fire faster and with more accuracy, then we can increase performance. How can we improve our neurological adaptations? Practice, practice, practice! Or rather, in the words of Micheal Gelb, "perfect practice makes perfect" (Gelb, 1998). I'll even demonstrate why.

Do you know why an old dog can't learn new tricks? It's the same reason why correcting the deadlifting form of a seasoned weight lifter is nearly a fruitless pursuit. According to my training with NESTA (2011), it only takes a total of 100 repetitions of any task in order to create new nuclei in a muscle (establishing muscle memory). Well, what happens if those 100 repetitions where completed with incorrect form? According to NESTA, it takes 1,000 additional repetitions of perfect form in order to rewire our nuclei (muscle memory) to fire properly. This is why it is more difficult to learn new complex activities as we age; on the flip side though, it also explains why my grandpa can still throw a perfect curveball at age 80 (he played for the Boston Braves way back in the day).

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