Thinking about Thinking…

February 16, 2009


I tend to do a lot of thinking. Not a moment passes when cascades of thoughts aren’t flashing across my mind like channels flipping quickly on a television screen. I suppose it’s both a cause and a symptom of working in a creative field and constantly being attuned to all things visual and verbal (I was never one for kinesthetic activities like sports).

There are different patterns or types of thinking — linear, circular, random or non sequitur, among many others — but the kind that burns the most cerebral calories for me is recursive, or thinking about thinking (I’m sure there’s a more accurate term for this somewhere). To continue the television metaphor, it’s the mental equivalent of pointing a video camera at the television screen it is connected to, or placing two mirrors directly opposite one another. Images repeat to infinity, containing their own image, contained within their own image. Recursive thinking need not continue to infinity, as in an Escher print — just one or two degrees out or in from where you are is all it takes.

Recursive thinking is an attempt at objectivity, though not quite free of personal bias or perspective. Outside of any rigorous studies in philosophy, psychology and cognitive neuroscience, I find the best description of this phenomenon by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary:

MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with. From the Latin mens, a fact unknown to that honest shoe-seller, who, observing that his learned competitor over the way had displayed the motto “Mens conscia recti,” emblazoned his own front with the words “Men’s, women’s and children’s conscia recti.”

Some of my favorite works of art, cinema, and literature deal with nested repetition of the same reality (also called the Droste effect):

And although this isn’t exactly recursive — unless you keep your own Earth-level consciousness in mind as the film’s perspective zooms out and in — The Powers of 10 by Charles and Ray Eames (1977) best captures the experience of shifting one’s perspective:

(best viewed in high quality)

So does anyone else out there have any personal insight into thinking about thinking, especially folks in the design field? I’d like to collect examples of how this is depicted visually and maybe share them in another post, so comments and suggestions are welcome.


UPDATE, 1/30/10 – Here’s an interesting example of geographic recursion.

Comic Belief

February 2, 2009


Photo: Jacob Dingel / PGC Photo

Yep, it’s Groundhog Day. I’ve never been sure if it’s an actual holiday or some sort of day of observance, but just the thought of there being a “Groundhog Day” on our national calendar has always seemed odd to me. No doubt it must confound poor little Punxsutawney Phil as well, what with the throngs of fans gathering around him every year, anxiously awaiting his verdict on the arrival of an early spring. Then there’s the Inner Circle, Phil’s very own Knights Templar in top hats, sworn to uphold tradition and protect the oversized squirrel for future “prognostications.” How can anyone keep a straight face?

Time to get to the bottom of all this. As it turns out, February 2 is the midpoint between the start of winter and the start of spring, thus signaling the change of seasons and return of warmer weather. Originally called Imbolc by the Gaels and then St. Brigid’s Day and Candlemas by the early Christians, it is also a day of celebration, rich with the symbolism of fire and new life. As a further sign of the coming spring, animals such as snakes, bears and badgers (and later groundhogs in North America) would come out of hibernation. But what seems odd is the connection of a groundhog seeing its shadow and 6 more weeks of winter: wouldn’t not seeing its shadow mean more dreary, overcast weather? Of course, wouldn’t anyone be able to see or not see their own shadow and draw their own conclusion?

I think the concept of what we now call Groundhog Day is nothing more than good old fashioned fun — a folksy way of breaking the monotony of winter while preserving a piece of the past. Phil’s predictions aren’t even all that credible: according to one source, Phil has a success rate of only 39%. Phil’s internal clock, which is set for hibernation and mating according to his local winter/spring cycle, must already be thrown out of whack if he’s living in captivity. As for Phil’s cousins living in the wild in other areas, there’s climate change to contend with.

Much like the white bunny and baby chick that have come to represent Easter and springtime, the groundhog will remain the furry mascot of seasonal change.

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