Machine learning can help diagnose a new cancer, for example of the prostate, fast and accurately. All that’s needed is the input of radiological images (x-rays) of prostate cancers (training data) from thousands of other patients plus the radiologist’s diagnosis for each. Then the best match is found by comparing the numerous characteristics (pattern) of the new cancer (test data) with those from the training data.
To me, this is like how we drive our cars and do many other important things. Let me describe the similarity. For this example, let’s replace the new cancer in the example above with a different target for our information, like a local food store (test data). When driving, visual elements, like trees, houses, crossroads, etc., match to the internal map (training data) you’ve assembled over the years. If we start at an unusual place, like a friend’s house, confidence in our position relative to the food store might be low. Our confidence increases, though, when additional visual elements provide the next new and better pattern match for our current location relative to the store. We successfully arrive without engaging thoughts and thinking. We braked, accelerated, turned corners, and avoided other cars. We might have produced a thought about a better route, other food to buy, or another activity for the day, but none of those were necessary to get to the store.
Driving is like many other activities, such as playing tennis or basketball, knitting a hat, plantings annual flowers in a garden, etc. Our perceptual processing system, our fastest one, handles sensory-perceptual inputs (percepts). It doesn’t use thoughts. We save logical thought, which requires considerable mental effort, for calculations, like multiplying 13 times 45, planning a trip through four different cities, synthesizing an assortment of facts, etc.
Percepts, which are information directly gotten from what we see, hear, smell taste, and touch, enlighten us before we can think. In fact, we cannot “think” about percepts because we have to use concepts (word in the mind like “red,” “more,” “store”) to think. Many believe we use thinking to drive, play tennis or basketball, knit, plant flowers, and many other activities. We so enamored by thought we even use the insulting terms “auto pilot” or “coasting” to disparage anything other than thinking using thought. But, it’s a mistaken belief that we only understand and rationally act by using concepts (thought). But, no one thinks, using words in the mind, about the angle to hit the ball or about whether the yarn gets looped over the needle or not. It’s seen and felt, processed perceptually without thought involved, and done correctly, too. We do win games, do make hats, and do get terrific-looking spring flower gardens. None of this is done passively on “auto pilot” or by “coasting” with mental operations on a standby mode. It’s a very fast and efficient process that just doesn’t need thought to work. Can mistakes happen when using this, our foundational intelligence system, sure. However, we also make mistakes by bad thinking, too.
The mistaken belief that we need thoughts for most of our decisions and actions causes us quite a bit of harm. The harm comes from “over-thinking”—the clouding of a normally clear mind by thoughts. Juggling thoughts, like worries over detailed plans or reminders, causes more harm than good. None need to be brought into mind more than once. But, by holding the opinion they are necessary and helpful, who would want to let them go? It’s the opinion that’s wrong.
The best way I know to clear the mind and prevent problems that stem from over-thinking is mindfulness. Mindfulness involves developing the power of your attention so it is not captivated by thought. Over thinking may have become a bad habit simply because you believe thoughts are so important. It can be broken by regaining the powerfulness of the attentive concentration you once had. A consistent practice of mindful attention, mindfulness, helps regain attentive power that was lost to unnecessary distraction. When you regain the ability to think on purpose, released from captivity from preconceived notions, desires or intrusive thoughts, well-being improves.
We are humans with the birthright of a clear mind, one capable of making good, informed decisions. We sense and assess complex patterns faster than the blink of an eye. Machine learning mimics the way we humans process percepts. It learned from us. We didn’t learn from it. Our processing of perceptual information is an intelligent, sound method. When there’s too much reliance on thoughts, mindfulness rebalances how you assess information, such as “Is my spouse being fair? Is college necessary? Is that a better opportunity? It increases your power to drop detrimental, unwanted and unnecessary thought and by doing so helps you regain mental clarity.