The Knowledge Illusion | Steven Sloman

Summary of: The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone
By: Steven Sloman


Embark on an enlightening journey through ‘The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone’ by Steven Sloman. This fascinating book explores the reasons behind our tendency to overestimate our own knowledge, which is known as the illusion of explanatory depth, or IoED. Delve deeper into the complexity of the human brain, our remarkable ability to collaborate and divide cognitive tasks, and the importance of recognizing our own limitations in order to cultivate a better understanding of our world. The book also addresses our growing reliance on technology, the dangers of groupthink, and the need for reconsidering our approach to education. Get ready to challenge your assumptions and unravel the intricate web of human thinking and capabilities.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Most people tend to overestimate their knowledge about how things work, even when they don’t know much at all. This phenomenon is called the illusion of explanatory depth (IoED). To test the IoED, a psychology professor gave students a drawing of an incomplete bicycle and asked them to complete it. The results showed that many students were unable to articulate knowledge they thought they had about bicycles. Other tests have found people tend to overestimate their knowledge of everyday objects. The conclusion? People don’t know as much as they think they do.

The Brain is Not a Computer

The brain is not designed to function as a repository of information, but rather to solve problems and make decisions based on limited data. The predominant theory among cognitive scientists in the 1960s and 1970s was that the brain was an organic computer, but this model was turned on its head by cognitive scientist Thomas Landauer in the 1980s. He estimated that the size of human knowledge in computational terms would be roughly one gigabyte, which is still small, proving that the brain is not primarily a repository of knowledge. The human brain didn’t evolve to store vast quantities of information because there is too much of it in the infinitely complex world. The brain evolved to solve problems and make decisions based on limited data.

The Evolution of Brains and Their Purpose

Animals evolved brains to enable effective action by interacting with their environment. The more neurons an animal has, the more complex actions it can carry out. Humans possess billions of neurons that allow them to engage in causal reasoning, an ability that sets them apart from other creatures. Diagnostic reasoning, the ability to reason forward and backward, might be unique to humans. This skill has helped humans to thrive in a rewarding world.

The Power of Storytelling in Causal Reasoning

The Yiddish story of the shopkeeper who paid vandals to deface his store teaches us about the difficulty of diagnostic reasoning and the power of storytelling in making causal sense of the world. Reasoning from effect to cause is harder, but it’s a crucial skill for humans to diagnose disease and conduct scientific experiments. Stories allow us to envision counterfactual events and consider possible alternatives, aiding in human progress. Without the ability to reason causally and tell stories, we wouldn’t be the successful species we are today.

Intuition vs Deliberation

Why do some people answer questions with lightning speed while others pause to reflect? The answer lies in the way we use intuition or deliberation to reason. Intuition helps us arrive at quick answers, but it can also lead to inaccuracies and the illusion of explanatory depth. Deliberation, on the other hand, requires engagement with a community of fellow knowledge possessors and a reflective nature. Although most of us rely on intuition, those who prefer deliberation are aware of their limited knowledge and less likely to fall for cognitive traps. This is just one of the many ways our internal thought processes externalize to aid cognition.

Thinking beyond the Mind

Our capacity for thought extends beyond the boundaries of the mind, through our embodiment and interaction with the world around us.

René Descartes believed that thinking determines our identity and is separate from physical activities. However, as we learn more about the mind, it becomes evident that thought is not limited to the mind alone. In fact, we utilize our bodies and the world around us as tools to facilitate our thoughts.

One way in which we utilize the world is through storing information. We assume that the world will continue to operate the way it always has. As a result, we can store a significant amount of information in the world without the need to remember the details. A simple glance around a room can remind us of its contents.

Similarly, we use the world to aid complex computations instead of relying solely on our minds. For instance, when catching a fly ball in a baseball game, we use our gaze and body movement to position ourselves correctly automatically.

Our bodies also play an essential role in aiding our thought processes. Embodiment, the notion that physical actions assist thought, is a testament to this. Children learning to count frequently use their fingers, and adults find it easier to solve math problems with pen and paper.

Moreover, our emotions serve as a sort of memory bank. Emotional responses replace the need for memorizing long lists of things to avoid. For instance, we feel disgust when we encounter feces or a puddle of contaminated water.

In conclusion, our ability to think is not solely dependent on our minds. It extends beyond the boundaries of our minds and is deeply rooted in our embodiment, actions, and interaction with the world around us.

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