Mindware: A Theory of Learnable Intelligence

For decades, the metaphor that the brain is a machine has caused some confusion. However, even if the metaphor is incorrect from a biological standpoint, viewing the mind as a machine can be useful as a heuristic for everyday decision-making.

Created by a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, the concept of “mindware” builds upon the computer analogy to encapsulate the mental knowledge and procedures we use to solve problems and make decisions. It’s a practical metaphor to help you decide what to “download” into your mind.

What we download onto our mind

The term “mindware” was coined by David Perkins in his 1996 book Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence, where he argues that there are three types of intelligence: neural, experiential, and reflective.

Perkins describes neural intelligence as the “hard-wired, original equipment”, or the brain’s hardware that we have to work with initially. This form of intelligence might be genetically determined, and is the type that is often measured by traditional intelligence tests. Neural intelligence might assist you with pattern recognition, time series prediction, signal processes and anomaly detection.

Experiential intelligence refers to context-specific knowledge that is accumulated through experience. The more stimulating the environment you are exposed to, the more experiential intelligence you might expect to acquire. Varied stimulation could therefore give you an intellectual advantage.

The last type of intelligence according to Perkins is reflective intelligence. Reflective intelligence is what Perkins calls mindware; the ability to use and manipulate our cerebral skills to effectively utilize neural and experiential intelligence.

Mindware represents the tools that we can “download” to our mind to broaden our thinking patterns and processes — it’s not too different from the most scientifically accepted concept of metacognition.

Mindware as a practical metaphor

Again, mindware is not a neurobiological aspect of the brain you could directly observe, but rather a useful metaphor for thinking about thinking. Whereas neural intelligence can be compared to the hardware that a computer is built with, reflective intelligence, or mindware, would be the figurative software.

In his book, Perkins writes that “the programs you run in your mind […] enable you to do useful things with data stored in your memory”. Perkins argues that reflective intelligence is a form of intelligent behavior, and its development should therefore be fostered.

As with computer software, the mindware that we might choose to download will depend on what we currently consume, our interests, and our goals for development. If you apply this metaphor, choosing to download useful mindware can be beneficial for everyday decision-making.

Selecting the right mindware for your needs will help you make the best use of your mind in terms of knowledge, understanding, behavior and attitudes. With mindware supporting the development of your thinking, you can make better choices, decisions and judgments. With greater quality to your reasoning, you can select better mindware. It’s a virtuous cycle.

In his book Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking, Richard E. Nisbett explores how mindware can promote a powerful form of problem-solving. Mindware can help us frame common problems so that scientific and statistical principles can be applied to them. Nisbett argues that developing these tools needed for cognitive reasoning allows for the practical application when faced with personal or professional decisions.

Just as with computer software, we should also remain alert to the risks of downloading “cognitive malware”. A  study by researchers led by Jala Rizeq argued that contamination with cognitive malware could cause unwarranted beliefs and attitudes, including conspiracy beliefs and anti-science attitudes.

Without maintenance, our brains can become congested by malware. Learning how to clear the malware and make space for helpful mindware can help to protect us from negative thought processes or decisions. With practice, one can learn to better identify forms of malware so that it is not downloaded in the first place.

This idea is similar to the concept of mind gardening, which encourages us to be mindful of the “seeds” we plant in our mind garden so it produces supportive, productive, creative thoughts.

How to download useful mindware

One of the first steps is to become more mindful of the content you consume. In the same way that you would not download random software onto your computer without checking if it is safe and genuine, downloading mindware to your brain requires the same process. Before you cognitively “download” anything new, think about whether you trust the source of the data, and if the information will benefit you.

A common form of mindware is mental models. They can be used constructively in shaping our thoughts and behaviors. You may discover mental models that will work for you when reading a book, listening to a podcast, or having a conversation with a friend or colleague. If you encounter a useful mental model, add it to your note-taking app for later reference.

Conversely, avoid downloading cognitive biases, a form of mindware that can lead you to incorrectly process and interpret information or to make inaccurate assumptions from your observations. This can negatively impact the way we think, or stop us from fully exploring the potential consequences of our decisions. Being aware of cognitive biases can help us ensure we intentionally act in ways that will support our personal or professional growth.

The theory of learnable intelligence shows that by downloading mindware, we can take control of the tools we employ for thinking. To remain healthy, our minds need to be treated with care, including the mindware that we download to them.

In the same way that you take care to protect your computer from malware, it’s important that you feel confident about the reliability, reputability, and safety of the information you consume. This will allow you to create a library of mindware that will support you in making well-thought-out decisions. That’s part of why the concept of mindware can be such a helpful metaphor.

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