Advanced Cognitive Enablers: Why Not Online?

The scientific evidence for how we learn advanced cognitive enablers (critical thinking, complex reasoning, higher order creativity, metacognition…) involves iterative discussions; discussions between peers who weigh out evidence and come to conclusions based on logic, reason, and evidence. Since logic and reason are thought to be blind to emotion, why shouldn’t learning these skills through iterative discussions take place online, or even better, through the medium of letters that go back and forth between discussants? There is a good reason for this. In human discourse, logic and reason do not take place without the influence of emotion. Emotion is as much a part of thinking as logic is and the two are intertwined in how we think and process information.

Even as late as 10 – 15 years ago there were many cognitive scientists who recoiled at the idea that emotion influences pure cognition. Although there might still be a few holdouts, for the most part, the field is in agreement that thinking does not take place in the absence of emotion. Since emotion has, and always will, inform thinking then we need to consider the ways that emotion can be influenced and how that influence might emerge during iterative discussions.

One of the skills that underlie critical thinking is the ability to bring people to consensus. Bringing people to consensus requires a person to be able to self-correct – a skill that is not often seen in the absence of an authority to direct it. Iterative discussions are about building a case for evidence in order that the evidence being presented can be seen as the authority that underlies a correction in thinking.

So why not online? Because there is more to human interaction and real discussion than virtual environments can capture.

The immediacy of the effect of audience is overwhelming. Having participated in, and presented to numerous online webinars, discussions, and seminars, I can say that, from personal experience, they are not the same as face-to-face interaction. My own anecdotal experiences are backed up by research that tells us that there are a number of nonverbal cues that take place in an information exchange that aren’t perceptible or are too slow to impact a discussion online. Having a live, non-virtual audience present changes the dynamics of an exchange of information. Although they are brilliant technologies for information exchange, these technologies have very real limitations.

Consider the global effect of body language and facial expressions. In any interaction, these gross nonverbal cues speak volumes. Using video or virtual reality as a medium can take care of the largest of these cues, but there is a problem of timing – even with the largest of these cues. With a delay that can be measured in seconds in a there and back exchange, the impact of the gross cues with the loss of immediacy is lost or at least watered down.

More importantly than the watering down of the gross body language cues are the complete loss of the micro-cues. The millisecond eyebrow flicker is rarely consciously registered during a conversation but conveys real information about the sender to anyone who receives it. There are a plethora of these kinds of cues that influence much of our social interaction. We usually aren’t aware of them, either as senders or receivers. Even if we have virtual environments that can accurately convey these signals, the physical time it takes to transmit them from place to place renders them useless as information that might influence a discussion.

In addition, there is the exchange of smells. This might sound like an unpleasant and undesirable topic, but with our millions of odor receptors, it is not as though we can ignore the influence of odor on our lives. Chemosensory social signaling is real. Not the fabled pheromone spray that makes you sexually irresistible, but the real chemosignals that influence our behavior socially.

We send out chemosignals constantly, and these signals play almost as important a role in group interaction as facial expressions. How often have you entered a room where the tense atmosphere is almost palatable? Palatable is a description of what we perceive through chemoreceptors (smell and taste).

Chemosignals can indicate a wide range of states in people, ranging from identity to emotional states. The most common signals that would influence a group discussion would be a relaxed emotional state of the participants or alarm, fear, anger, or stress within a group. Although there are clear chemosignals signaling death, this signal does not usually (or shouldn’t) play a part in an iterative discussion where reaching consensus is the goal.

As much as we try to mask smells and pretend that they don’t really occur in the sophisticated society we live in today, chemosignals are real and we constantly use them in our social interactions. Online communication is simply nowhere near bringing that experience to headphones – or would we call them olfactory transmission plugs?

For these reasons alone, learning advanced cognitive enablers to the point where they become a part of our thinking repertoire, will need face-to-face interaction.

Online would be nice, but the experience necessary to really learn these skills is simply too shallow. That may change someday, but that someday is still a futuristic dream. Being able to transmit a clear enough visual signals at speeds that could be returned in micro-seconds across the globe requires physics that allow for the transmission of information faster than the speed of light. The transmission of chemosignals is something that, as far as I am aware, is not even on the radar.

I guess that leaves us with inconvenient and old-fashion methods of discussion – actually sitting and talking with each other face-to-face.

This may be out of fashion, even for people in the next room, but then, so is thinking using advanced cognitive enablers.

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