4.8 Why we think

This section addresses the question what the ultimate purpose of thought is. According to wikipedia, “most vertebrate species devote between 2% and 8% of basal metabolism to the brain. In primates, however, the percentage is much higher—in humans it rises to 20–25%.” The waking brain is always active, although specific focused attention tasks temporarily suppress part of this global activity [Gusnard, 2001].

The question is how this energy expenditure is justified by the contributions of the brain.

The suggestion developed in two attitudes towards a complex world, the analysis of the strengths of the two brain hemispheres, in combination with the assertion that individuals can may or may not have internalize authority suggests that we might have two quite different modes of thinking and even two reasons or justifications to think in the first place. In fact the question why we think seems to be answered differently, dependent on which hemisphere gives the answer. The left hemisphere might call the purpose of thought “successful coping” or protecting agency while the right hemisphere might see its purpose as “pervasive optimization” and thriving. Both modes of thought are important, the coping mode particularly in times of adversity and the pervasive optimization mode the rest of the time.

A key difference between authoritarians and libertarians is that authoritarians — due to their shallow understanding of the world — have only limited success with the pervasive optimization mode that prevents them from co-creating an environment in which all their basic needs are structurally fulfilled. As such they rely heavily on the coping mode of thought to ensure safety and (basic) need satisfaction. Yet as one’s (proven) understanding of the world develops, one can rely more and more on the pervasive optimization mode. Libertarians are able to use both modes of thought effectively, but will, due to their ability to understand most normal situations (and therefore to flexibly and often effortlessly cope with), favor the pervasive optimization mode of though.

Everyone uses both modes of thought. Even the strongest authoritarian (someone with a very shallow understanding of the world) predominantly uses the pervasive optimization mode during play and among friends and family. Conversely also strong libertarian can end-up in situations that they do not understand and in which they gladly submit to external authorities or fall back to more primitive strategies in which they are temporarily less or unconcerned with the full consequence of their behavior as long as immediate or pressing goals are achieved.

In more detail this leads to the following descriptions.

Coping mode of though (protection of agency)

The first (left hemispheric) mode of thought aims to maintain or regain sort of control over one’s current situation or the protection of one’s own agency in general. It is typically important — and highly beneficial — in situations in which one or a few aspects of life (such as physical safety) are the presssing problems to be solved or otherwise mitigated, even if this goes at the cost of other aspects of that are not currently critical. This is a situation that favors certainty over improvisation. In this authoritarian/left hemispheric mode individuals think because it allows them to cope [6] with a world that is always in danger of developing out of (their) control and they think thoughts that help to bring or keep the situation within the bounds maintained by some external authority. [7]

The coping mode of thought is essentially a form of thought suitable for a closed/specific environment in which entities can be defined objectively and in which one relies on structures maintained and created by others (in a social-historical context of which the left hemisphere might not have access to). This entails that thinkers in this mode use concepts and contexts that are either defined consensually of defined by some authority. Because of this stabilizing role of [external authority] the central entities of thought are invariant and of a symbolic (abstract, generalized, and de-individualized) nature.

So in this mode of thought one does not (really) has the freedom to change the entities/symbols and rules that define the specific environment. As such autonomy in this mode of thought is characterized by successful manipulation of the given (authority maintained and therefore supposedly invariant) structures in the environment: which makes it a form of autonomy that essentially relies on external authorities.

The success criterion for this mode of thought is successful coping: it should result in increased or restored (personal or ingroup) adequacy. As such it leads to ways to make the (living) environment more suitable for the available competence (typically by suppressing or purging “irrelevant” diversity) and to solutions that rely on the specifics of a particulate environment (society, clique, specialism, or ideological ingroup).

It is the mode of thought for a specialist or engineer in search of the application of his/her knowledge and for any agent complying with the demands of a hierarchical organization. Within the boundaries of the particular environment or context this mode of thought, if executed well, leads to highly effective and possibly even (locally) perfect solutions. However the probability that these solutions can be generalized to a wider context than the context in which they were created is (very) small. It is this mode of thought that allows scientists and engineers to make the fallacious conclusion that because something is safe in the in the confines of the lab, it must be safe in the world.

Pervasive optimization mode of thought

The second (right hemispheric) mode of thought becomes prevalent when control is not an issue, when the situation is safe, and when basic needs are satisfied, which allows a shift from control to pervasive optimization. In this libertarian/right hemispheric mode individuals think because it allows them to shape themselves and the world they live in for the better: thinking is to self-guide the global optimization benefits of co-creation. In this case the individual is authoritive.

This is the mode of thought that allows one ideally to optimize the whole (in the context of everything else). It is therefore a mode of thought suitable for an open world and as such its is also essentially participatory since an open world is fundamentally dynamic due to the absence (or at least ineffectiveness) of control/coping strategies for open worlds. This entails a need for continual interaction — participation — to respond to the inherent dynamics of an open world. In this mode of thought the entities are not symbolic, invariant, and context independent, but individualized, in constant flux and development, and essentially context dependent.

This mode of thought allows one to deal with a variable and developing world of which the dynamics is neither fully known nor fully controllable or predictable, but to be discovered and adapted to through participation (e.g., play and creativity). The participatory nature of this mode of thought indicates already a higher level of autonomy than the coping mode of thought since one not only has the option to manipulate system dynamics, but one also has the option to adapt to the specifics of the system’s dynamics to influence its nature and character. The more one understands the dynamics of a region of the open world, the better one can predict, influence, and stabilize the region and the more authoritative the agent is.

The success criterion of this mode of thought is pervasive optimization through the co-creation of a region of the world in which the inherent dynamic of different entities complement, strengthen, and stabilize each other. This leads to unique, dynamically stable (and therefore always changing and developing) environments to which the agent continually adapts. Because each state of an open world is both unique and developing, this mode of thought relies on ever more general knowledge that is however rapidly adaptable to the particulars of the situation at hand. Success in this mode of thought is apparent as a feeling of happiness.

This is the mode of though of the experienced generalist and in general agents that understand how to work with the inherent dynamics. It is also the mode of thought that characterizes wise people.

Summary of why we think

The Key properties of thought, as outlined above, are summarized in the following table. In the section Two modes of cognition we addressed the need to be discover novel structures and the need to apply knowledge to exploit known structure. In the section Two brain hemispheres we listed McGilchrist’s synthesis of the strengths of the hemispheres. The summary below is a more structured summary of these two modes of cognition. Of course it is a hypothesis, but it is consistent with a wide range of sources and internally consistent.

Key properties of thought
Topic Coping mode of thought Pervasive optimization mode of thought
Hemispheric dominance Left Right
Basic understanding of the world The world is problematic and some pressing problems need to be addressed, even at the detriment of non-pressing problems. The world in by-and-large a well-understood, safe, and reliable place and where it is not, it should be explored, interacted with, and familiarized with.
Purpose of thought Either to maintain or regain some sort of control over one’s current situation or the protection of one’s agency in general. Extending the behavioral repertoire through interested guided behaviors. And self-guiding the global optimization benefits of co-creation
When default mode? During times of stress and adversity and within formal culturally defined situations Among friends and family and in thoroughly familiar [8] and understood environments.
Basic activity Preventing one’s world from spinning out of control and to bring an out-of-control world under control again through the suppression of ill-understood diversity. Continual interaction — participation — with the world to stabilize its (ever evolving) inherent dynamics and at the same time explore its affordances.
Type of autonomy Successful manipulation of the given – i.e., authority maintained and therefore supposedly invariant – structures in the environment Successful adaption to the specifics of the environment’s dynamics and successfully influencing its nature and character as apparent from a dynamically stabilized co-created environment in which the agent is an autonomous co-creator and therefore authoritative.
Role of external authority To be obeyed and appreciated. Trusted to uphold the conditions in which the coping mode of thought is effective. Sources of belief that one trusts without proper justification function as external authorities. As sources of beliefs to be verified and validated. To be used, tolerated, or even to be ignored as much as possible, but never fully trusted and considered as a potential threat to individual freedom.
Success criteria Increased or restored (personal or ingroup) adequacy (e.g., apparent from pride of own or ingroup achievements) The co-creation of a region of the world in which the inherent dynamic of different entities complement, strengthen, and stabilize each other, resulting in pervasive optimization and ensuing agentic thriving (e.g., apparent from a felt “spiritual” connection in the form of peak experiences).
Failure strategy Fallback to primitive (emotionally dominated) coping strategies, in particular violence of any kind, with the purpose to restore some sense of agentic adequacy. Fallback to left hemispheric strategies due to insufficient understanding of the open world resulting in (immanent) pressing problems.
Basic entities of thought Symbolic, invariant, and context independent knowledge. These basic entities and contexts are either defined consensually of defined by some external authority Individualized, in constant flux and development, and essentially context dependent. Knowledge is never stable but becomes progressively more generalized, while remaining rapidly adaptable to the particulars of the situation at hand.
Main requirement A stable or stabilized context and associated domain knowledge and (at least) shallow understanding of the subject matter. A participatory relation to a deeply understood open environment, and a deep understanding of the processes and the entities that shape and define the environment.
Link with authoritarianism Dominant for authoritarians because a limited understanding of the world leads to low success in the pervasive optimization mode and a ensuing propensity to select the coping mode of thought. Dominant for libertarians because the their fuller understanding of the world allows them to prevent or address pressing problems with a pervasive optimization mode.

  1. Coping: (of a person) deal effectively with something difficult (New Oxford Dictionary)  ↩

  2. The power elite differs in this sense from other authoritarians since they do not rely on some uncontrollable external authority, but strive to become and remain the external authority of all others. So for the elite the typical coping strategy boils down to ensuring the disempowerment of everyone else to ensure their dependence on them. Because this is a coping strategy — and not a co-creation strategy — entails that the power-elite should (and can) be understood from the viewpoint of authoritarianism, not from the viewpoint of libertarianism.  ↩

  3. Note that the use of the word ‘familiar’ is a direct reflection of the word ‘family’ that occurs often in the pervasive optimization column, this suggest that the concept of familiarity (and probably that of ‘home’ as well might be a typical pervasive optimization concept.  ↩


  • Gusnard, D. A., & Raichle, M. E. (2001). Searching for a baseline: Functional imaging and the resting human brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2(10), 685–694. doi:10.1038/35094500