Creative thinking: Cognition as physical, emotional, and mental feeling

Can you do Division? Divide a loaf by a knife – what’s the answer to that?

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

What happens in your brain when you go to multiply 16 and 5? When you go to pay for a purchase with cash? Or when you think about the result of adding red and yellow? Is there some part of your brain that actually does this as a computation, that takes these data and performs a function on them, that processes information according to some set of rules? Although we can readily manipulate the physical forms of symbols in various ways, these symbols and their meanings have no discrete physical substance in the brain. So what then are we manipulating when we are thinking, and how?

The metaphor of thinking as a computational process is key to the defense of human beings as logically reasoning creatures. Yet there is research to suggest that what we refer to as logic is inextricably rooted in emotion. What if reasoning can never be wholly logical because thinking emerges from feeling? Or maybe thinking is really a type of feeling?

And why not? The concept of feeling readily applies to both physical and emotional contexts (I feel cold; I feel sad). Perhaps belief is the conventional equivalent of feeling in a mental context, while reasoning might arguably be based on more objective or verifiable information than “having a feeling” usually implies. But is there any reason to believe the underlying cognitive processes are actually any different?

What is often described as thinking might be more accurately represented as a dynamic interpretation of physical, emotional/affective, and mental feelings emerging from various levels of cognitive processing. We could still contend that thinking involves manipulating symbols, but also insist that feeling involves deriving a sense of meaning from those symbols. Subsequently, this version of cognitive representations would result from less computation and logic, and more habit and intuition. All of which serves to remind us of the well-trained but innately wild nature of human cognition.