Previous: The mind and the brainNext: The world of blocksContents

Society of Mind

1.3 The society of mind

You know that everything you think and do is thought and done by you. But what's a you? What kinds of smaller entities cooperate inside your mind to do your work? To start to see how minds are like societies, try this: pick up a cup of tea!

Your GRASPING agents want to keep hold of the cup. Your BALANCING agents want to keep the tea from spilling out. Your THIRST agents want you to drink the tea. Your MOVING agents want to get the cup to your lips.

Yet none of these consume your mind as you roam about the room talking to your friends. You scarcely think at all about Balance; Balance has no concern with Grasp; Grasp has no interest in Thirst; and Thirst is not involved with your social problems. Why not? Because they can depend on one another. If each does its own little job, the really big job will get done by all of them together: drinking tea.

How many processes are going on, to keep that teacup level in your grasp? There must be at least a hundred of them, just to shape your wrist and palm and hand. Another thousand muscle systems must work to manage all the moving bones and joints that make your body walk around. And to keep everything in balance, each of those processes has to communicate with some of the others. What if you stumble and start to fall? Then many other processes quickly try to get things straight. Some of them are concerned with how you lean and where you place your feet. Others are occupied with what to do about the tea: you wouldn't want to burn your own hand, but neither would you want to scald someone else. You need ways to make quick decisions.

All this happens while you talk, and none of it appears to need much thought. But when you come to think of it, neither does your talk itself. What kinds of agents choose your words so that you can express the things you mean? How do those words get arranged into phrases and sentences, each connected to the next? What agencies inside your mind keep track of all the things you've said — and, also, whom you've said them to? How foolish it can make you feel when you repeat — unless you're sure your audience is new.

We're always doing several things at once, like planning and walking and talking, and this all seems so natural that we take it for granted. But these processes actually involve more machinery than anyone can understand all at once. So, in the next few sections of this book, we'll focus on just one ordinary activity — making things with children's building-blocks. First we'll break this process into smaller parts, and then we'll see how each of them relates to all the other parts.

In doing this, we'll try to imitate how Galileo and Newton learned so much by studying the simplest kinds of pendulums and weights, mirrors and prisms. Our study of how to build with blocks will be like focusing a microscope on the simplest objects we can find, to open up a great and unexpected universe. It is the same reason why so many biologists today devote more attention to tiny germs and viruses than to magnificent lions and tigers. For me and a whole generation of students, the world of work with children's blocks has been the prism and the pendulum for studying intelligence. In science, one can learn the most by studying what seems the least.