I’ve written before about Piaget, but this time I’m doing it to try to shed some light about the idea of a pre-epiphany and post-epiphany state of mind when it comes to learning a new concept. But, first of all, let us define our terms appropriately to have a better understanding of what is coming:
Propositional attitudes vs. propositional content. Enter philosophy of mind
Whatever an idea or knowledge is, it can be reduced to information at the cognitive level of analysis. When we are dealing with propositional attitudes and their propositional contents, these contents are information and the attitudes we have towards them are the way we generally process them. So you belief that snow is white, ‘snow is white’ is the propositional content (the information) of your belief, and the belief itself of this content is the propositional attitude you have towards it (the way you generally process that information).
Were you to believe that evolution is wrong, that is to say that you reject or simply that you don’t belief in evolution. There is the content ‘evolution’ and there is the attitude of ‘rejection’ or ‘disbelief’. What makes some people believe that evolution is either right or wrong? Let’s have a look from a Piagetian and information-processing perspective:
Back to cognitive psychology
Piaget believed that children are like little scientists who play with the world around them to create a coherent and systematic whole to explain it. This whole does not have to be evidence-based, as a child may think that thunders are actually caused by God by the noise he makes when ‘he is rearranging his furniture’. Even if they don’t develop evidence-based ideas about how the world works, they do strive to develop coherent and logically possible ideas based on what they know.
What is knowledge?
To know something, from a cognitive psychological perspective, is just to have certain information stored in your long-term memory. You know what you did yesterday (if you remember, of course), you know how to add and subtract numbers (hopefully), and you know how to read and understand English. These are all things in your long-term memory. So, to know something is to have information stored in your long-term memory; information you can retrieve to work new one that is in your short-term memory.
Memory, memory, memory
Having Murdock and Atkinson & Shiffrin in mind, since we don’t need to delve too deep into more intricate models of memory such as Baddeley and Hitch’s, memory is like a two-store system where you have information immediately available to you in STM (short-term) and also a lot of subconscious stored memory in LTM (long-term).
Short-term memory is like a passive store where the information that is presently available to you remains. What you are seeing right now, for instance, is in your STM, contrary to what you did on your last birthday, which is in your LTM and now is in your STM because you are thinking about it!
Information in STM doesn’t last long. Information here is either lost or transferred to LTM. How is information in STM transferred to LTM?
It depends on a series of processes called control executive processes by authors Atkinson and Shiffrin, but perhaps this term is way older than their research on memory. Control executive processes are conscious processes we use to manipulate the information in our STM and LTM in what we call working memory (WM). Working memory is like a workbench where you use the materials that you have in STM and LTM to create a new product which is either going to be lost or transferred into LTM as well.
Some of these control executive processes are elaboration, organization, imagery, context, rehearsal, and retrieval.
Rehearsal refers to repeating information in STS over and over again so it is not lost. Think about any moment you had to keep a number in your head so you kept repeating it to yourself over and over again.
Retrieval means taking information from your LTM and blending it with your STS. If I ask you to tell me what you think about x, you will start retrieving from LTM what you think about x first and then think about how you would answer to me. What do you think about Pixar’s most recent movie?
Elaboration entails adding meaning to new information by connecting it with already existing knowledge. So, when I tell you that memory functions as a store and that working memory is like a workbench, I am connecting new information with already existing knowledge in your LTM so you can properly grasp the meaning. Basically, the way in which our previous knowledge is structured influences the way in which new information is stored and subsequently recalled.
Bartlett, an early cognitive psychologist, introduced the notion of an schema. Schemas are our internal representations about how the world works and whatever information we receive is influenced by these schemas.
French psychologist Jean Piaget’s early approach to cognition was that of a qualitative theory of development where children leap from one stage to another. In each cognitive stage, children have different cognitive abilities. Nonetheless, here what matters to me is his later quantitative approach to cognition: relying on schemas to construct his theory about the way we develop our cognitive abilities.
Schemas, as our mental representations about how the world works, influence the way we learn new things, but we aren’t bound or ruled by these schemas. Our schemas can change in the future as we learn new things.
According to Piaget, cognitive development depends on four aspects: maturation, social interactions, activity (interaction with nature), and equilibration. The first three are easier to understand without explaining them. Now, what is equilibration?
When we are presented new information and evidence that wasn’t part of our schemas, we start assimilating new information. When we assimilate new schemas that are incompatible with our previous ones, we enter a process of equilibration where we start organizing and accommodating new knowledge with previous one in order to create a coherent whole. Of course, whether we reach equilibration or not, depends on how much information we are given and whether this information is properly transmited.
To say that we don’t understand an idea, or to be in a pre-epiphany state, would then be to say that we are going through a process of equilibration where we need to accomodate and organize enough knowledge in order to finally comprehend the idea. In order to achieve this, new information needs to be elaborated, and organized. As we grasp all the necessary evidence to comprehend an idea and we are given the facts in a clear fashion, we finally reach that ‘click’ which wasn’t possible because there were still conflicts (or disequilibrium) between our past and present schemas. A ‘click’ is, then, the event when we finally reach equilibration when information is at long last properly organized and accommodated in our minds.
Of course, to say that you understand an idea is not to state that you believe that idea. There is a difference between propositional content and propositional attitudes. Whether you believe in evolution after it has been properly explained to you is a matter of propositional attitudes, which may result from a cognitive bias.
So, what do you think? Did I miss anything? Or perhaps this was not the answer you were looking for?