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How do problem-solving and rules impact decision-making?

Published on 23 September 2013
Updated on 08 April 2024

In her delightful non-fiction book, Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves, neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland points out that problem-solving is peculiar to higher forms of life and references a video clip similar to the one below.

Problem-solving in the wild: A case study

YouTube player

A mother bear takes her two cubs hunting for caribou. Her attack yields not just food but also a lesson on how to hunt. She allows the cubs to be near but not in the brawl. Once the bear engages in the fight, she finely balances aggression with self-protection. The caribou’s horns are fearsome, and the bear risks its life. Bringing down the quarry implies waiting for just the right moment to penetrate the caribou’s defences. Killing is not by maiming. The bear pushes the caribou into the nearby river and then, positioning itself between the caribou’s horns, forces the animal’s head under water. Death comes from drowning, not from the attack.

This is an example of problem-solving at its best and exemplifies adaptive thinking. The mother bear shares a blend of experience, aggressiveness, caution, and multitasking with the cubs, alongside an indirect approach to achieving the goal of a meal. In so doing, she seizes available degrees of freedom and uses them to her advantage. She has never hunted exactly like this before and will never do so again; she has been sublimely creative in a given context. Whoever argued (was it Descartes?) that animals are blindly instinctual has never seen animals in the wild.

The image shows a mother teaching a child yoga

What is discernment?

Stones don’t solve problems; they follow physical laws, like the second law of thermodynamics. Life solves problems, and for the last four billion years, it has found ways of circumventing this same law and reproducing itself.

A precondition for problem-solving is a disposition, which I shall call ‘discernment’, which is a broad-spectrum enabler. It emerges from an awareness of the ‘Self’ as opposed to the ‘Other’ (the environment or the context). The ‘Self’ interacts with the ‘Other’. Subtle manipulation ensues, and a goal (e.g. survival or reproduction) is achieved. Often, the result is remembered and becomes an input for subsequent interaction. Higher animals are not the only ones using discernment to solve problems. In some form or another, awareness of Self, as separate from the environment, is over 500 million years old (see Chimeras and Consciousness: Evolution of the Sensory Self). Proprioceptors (sensors that inform the individual about their condition) probably emerged with life itself. These sensors prompt the individual to seek food and shelter, and to avoid danger; they also facilitate the resolution of conflicts with multiple goals.

Humans are the ultimate problem-solvers. In about 250,000 years, mankind has journeyed to the Moon and back (including dealing at a distance with unexpected damage to their transport module). Language and writing have expedited mankind’s progress. In particular, humans have compiled an infinite, multidimensional library of lessons learned, but have also forgotten one of at least an equal size.

Lessons learnt are remembered. They are starting positions when embarking on the next round of problem-solving. In the case of the mother bear, one can see her calling upon all the lessons learnt, applying them with discernment, and transmitting them to her cubs. Lessons learnt are preferences that are applied to context as appropriate. If the fit is poor, we adapt the lesson learnt. A new lesson ensues. This is how the brain works, Prof. Churchland points out.

When you learn a skill, such as how to ride a bicycle, subcortical structures get copies of your current goal along with copies of the current motor commands from the cortex. When you get a movement right, given your goal, neurons in the basal ganglia in effect say ‘nailed it!’ by releasing the neurochemical dopamine. The result of the precisely timed dopamine release is that connectivity changes are made in parts of the brain to stabilize the circuitry supporting the set of movements that were right. The next time you try to ride, those movements – the right movements – will more likely be generated by your motor cortex.

How extraordinary! The brain matches behaviour against expectation and rewards the close fit. As we imagine the outcome, the reward system follows suit. No wonder complex brains learn, are curious, and innovate. Nothing new or peculiar to humans, however: niche construction is a well-known phenomenon of life (see Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution). Humans are just better at discerning than other animals. Or are we?

The image shows a woman teaching ballet to four children

The social dimension of problem-solving

Like many other higher animals, humans are social. They act as a group and gain large benefits from cooperative behaviour. The reciprocal predictability of behaviour underpins a social system: social rules emerge. Individual problem-solving is restrained to accommodate social stability. Such social risk-aversion favours exact rules and best practice. One solution—allegedly the best—fits all contexts. The aim is to exclude (social) and issue-specific failure. If the goal is social stability, rules tend to be inflexible, like physical laws. Tradition and transcendence are invoked to place rules beyond deliberation.

There are, of course, advantages to rules. The social reality is frightfully complex. Once assimilated, rules can be relegated to the unconscious mind. We can navigate social reality unthinkingly. Rules dominate the humdrum of daily life. Rules appear innocuous, and mostly they are. Nudging can make it easy to follow the rules and attend to other matters (see Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass R. Sunstein). Compliance with the rules yields the reward of being one with the group. Totalitarian systems have exploited the exhilaration of conformism.

Stability through rules comes with a hidden price: the withering of discernment. Collaterally, rules destroy the individual’s capacity to adapt and learn from mistakes. When one has never learned to read a map because a GPS is at hand, navigating by a set of skills—discernment—is no longer an option. Discernment requires reflection. It is intensive in brain resources. Discernment is tiresome. Discernment cannot be improvised: it requires amassing and digesting heaps of information. Discernment is bounded by the individual’s mental skills. The outcome is uncertain. There is a ‘virtuous circle’ in discernment: the more discernment is practised, the better it becomes. There is also lots of dopamine in using discernment – think of it!

The image shows a child learning to swim in a swimming pool.

Discernment requires a mental map in order to grasp all aspects of an issue. We are losing our ability to construct mental maps of an issue. Increasingly, non-fiction books eschew presenting the empowering structure of the subject for a leisurely canter through it instead – tourism instead of teaching. In this, novels and non-fiction converge, as structure yields to the author’s subjectivity.

The tide of rules has been on the rise for some time. I dread drowning in rules. They are tiresome, for they are so often inappropriate to the situation. Worse, I dread the loss of discernment. People master the daily context but seem helpless when confronted with the unexpected. Professional elites are monopolising the rights to set rules. Deliberation over rules no longer eventuates, for the information gap between the haves and have-nots is too wide to bridge.

The downside of relying on rules

Should we despair or has the high-water mark been reached? In his first and long interview, Pope Francis puts discernment at the centre of his teaching. Coincidentally, the article Changing Brains: Why Neuroscience is Ending the Prozac Era heralds the end of the ‘one disorder – one drug’ dogma. In business, the command-and-control paradigm is losing ground, as flat and cooperative structures prove better at dealing with the unexpected. Redlining ( i.e. setting of rules in international relations irrespective of context) has just met its doom in Syria. Is context and discernment about to attract more attention than compliance with the rule and consistency?

There is nothing new in this question. Confucius believed in discernment and taught his students to seek it. China’s first emperor, Qin, favoured legalism, i.e. the rule of rules blindly applied. The pendulum has swung back and forth ever since that time. Where are we headed? I am cautiously optimistic. The way back from rules to discernment, however, is going to be a long one.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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