The cognitive iceberg

Every year the Edge website asks interesting people a provocative question. The Edge Question for 2011 was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Adam Alter, a psychologist and Assistant Professor at Stern School of Business, NYU, responded with a short discussion of the idea that our minds are like an iceberg, such that we’re ignorant of many of the processes that shape our mental lives. This notion may be familiar – I’ve discussed my own model of the cognitive iceberg in this blog.

Alter explains that ”while we’re focusing on the business of daily life, our brains are processing multitudes of information below the surface of conscious awareness”. This “peripheral information subtly shapes our thoughts, feelings and actions, and crafts some of our most critical life outcomes”.

He gives a few interesting examples, noting what a powerful impact the weather can have. No surprise perhaps that “rainy weather makes us more introspective and thoughtful”, but less obvious that it also improves our memory. Apparently the electrical state of the atmosphere also has an influence on accidents, suicide, depression and irritability.

Alter mentions the power of embodied metaphor, citing studies showing that “people find strangers more likable when they form their first impressions while holding a cup of warm coffee”. Lakoff and Johnson have discussed this at length, claiming that most of our reasoning relies on such embodied metaphors. The way we use the metaphor ‘more is up’ provides a simple example: Because in health we stand up, while sickness brings us down, we tend to think of ‘more’ as being ‘up’ (‘price rises’) and less as down (‘stocks plummeting’) (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

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