The Costs and Benefits of Cloudy Thinking

Conspiring with the crowd seems safe but can be dangerous.

Posted May 16, 2014

Most people have by now heard of so-called cloud computing. This describes online services distributed over a network such as the Internet which allow individual computers to share applications and data and to backup to remote servers. By analogy, cloud cognition allows people to do something similar on the mental level: It lets the group do the thinking for them, and stores all their knowledge as part of the collective mentality of the time. And this is useful because it gives you all the right reactions and proper prejudices. Seldom will such foggy but fashionable fulminating let you down in public or make you look a fool in front of your friends! Thanks to knowing all the correct clichés and believing all the pious platitudes, cloud cognition will safeguard your respectability and make you an acceptable member of society. Your head may be in the cloud, but your feet will be on safe ground!

Unfortunately though, if you do the exact opposite, and constantly question accepted wisdom and readily remember anomalies and exceptions, you quickly find that you are treated at best as a witless fool, and at worst as dangerously deluded. You swiftly lose friends and don’t get invitations; people avoid you and you become an object of derision or worse.

Clinicians might regard this as a symptom of autism, but you could just as well argue that it was a sign of sanity in comparison with the contemporary craziness that we find so easy to scoff at in the past, but so hard to question in the present. Crude, cloudy thinking of the conventional kind is, after all, the stuff of which wars, witch-hunts and worse are made, and explains why almost all great advances in human science, society, and culture  are made by individuals thinking in a very different, much more isolated and down-to-earth-and-detail way—seldom if ever by committees of the great and good! 

One reaction to this problem is to carefully research the more important issues where you find yourself out of line with received wisdom just to make sure you are not as wrong as everyone says you are. But this of course only makes things worse for you because then you have real knowledge of topics where safety and respectability mean being cloudy in every sense—especially where hard facts are concerned. And of course, on any controversial subject there are always two sides to the argument; but finding out about the other one is usually regarded as threatening to the dominant view, and so inevitably lands you in trouble. In short, there are some subjects about which it is downright dangerous to know too much.

But as everyone knows, the weather is changeable. If you watch speeded-up images of clouds, you will notice that they roil, roll, and constantly re-shape, and the mentalistic miasma that passes for conventional wisdom does the same. Fifty years ago, the cloudy thinking was almost the exact opposite of what it is today on many contentious topics—wars and witch-hunts included. But, even here in England, it isn’t always cloudy. The sun can and does break through, unclouded and clear. And the same happens with the weather of the mind: clarity and truth can and do emerge among the passing lows.

Indeed, the previous post is a striking instance of such an illumination because, as I explained, we now know where cloud cognition occurs in the brain. And as I also pointed out, we also know now that the mentalistic cortical areas concerned are "anti-correlated" with the mechanistic, bottom-up, Devil-in-the-detail ones. Clearly, clear thinking is antithetical to cloud cognition not only in culture and society, but also in our brains and minds! Indeed, according to the imprinted brain theory, the conflict is rooted in genetics and built into the brain before birth.