index --- part 1

Thinking Stack, Part II,
Archive, Perception and Wisdom building

by Roger White, copyright July 2003


In my layered approach to thinking about human thinking, the Judgment layer carries most, if not all, the feeling we have of consciousness. The Judgment layer perceives and makes decisions. When those decisions call for action, Judgment passes actions requests down to the Morality and Habit layers and monitors the results through Perception.

But the Judgment layer concerns itself with thinking as well as action, and there are other areas of the brain that "think" besides the Judgment layer. Two of those are the Archive area and the Wisdom area. This essay is a discussion about those two areas, and a third that links tightly with them, Perception.

The Archive Area

Like many kinds of computers, the brain has a long-term, slow-access storage area. Unlike many kinds of computer, this Archive area is pretty seamlessly connected to the Judgment layer. The connection is so seamless that most people don't realize they have an Archive area.

For a quick demonstration of the Archive in action, ask someone directions. If the person is not going somewhere -- they are standing around, or watching TV, or whatever -- they will take a few seconds to answer you. At first, they may tap their head and say something like, “I know that,” … and then the answer will come to them, and you'll hear, “Ah Ha! You go … ."

What has happened is that person has moved their internal "map" out of Archive and into Active Memory where Judgment can get a hold of it. When they were saying, “I know that", the Archive area had told Judgment, “I have a pointer to what you want," so Judgment knew an answer would be forthcoming, but the answer itself was still inaccessible in Archive.

How come Judgment layer doesn't normally "feel" this delay? Because Judgment layer usually plans to go somewhere long before it actually commands the Morality and Habit layers to start the journey. Archive gets the message that the map will be needed in the planning stage, and "unfolds" the map so it is ready when action is needed. Likewise, when you are "warming up" for a sporting activity, Archive is unfolding information that Morality and Habit will use.

My most vivid experience with the Archive Area

One day, I was walking out of the Arby's restaurant near the Novell Inc. campus in Provo, Utah. As I did, someone I knew walked up and said, “Hi."

I said, “Hi. How are you doing?" back, and we proceeded to engage in small talk for the next five minutes.

The disturbing part was that all I knew about this person was that I knew him! My Morality layer took over the small talk while my Judgment layer quizzed my Archive area.

"Who is this?" asked Judgment.

Archive area said, “Yeah, I recognize the face," … and that was all that came out.

One minute of small talk … two minutes of small talk …. My Judgment layer listened for clues as to who this person was and checked with Archive layer again. Nothing new!

Internally I was getting distressed. "You've checked the Novell 'Rolodex'?" Judgment asked Archive area.

"Many times. … I'm still working on it." said Archive. (A Novell relation was the logical place to check since this person looked like a Novell person, and I was standing near it.)

For minute three and minute four, I felt like I was playing the part of "Doctor" in the late 70's computer program called Doctor: This person would say something, and I would turn the sentence around and give it back to him as a question, “You've had a good day, you say?"

Finally, we finished small talk, and he said good-bye. As he was saying good-bye, he mentioned Toastmasters. Ah! Finally! A new clue! The Archive area hit the Toastmasters Rolodex, and within three seconds, I had remembered my first solid fact about this person: "I met him at Toastmasters, and he's very dull." (Toastmasters is a public service club where people meet to learn and practice public speaking.)

The Archive area was on a roll now and provided me with a stream of facts on this person.

"He works for Western Union, and he's dull."

"He's a beginner speaker, and he's dull."


"Yes, yes!" my Judgment layer said, “I know enough now. He's gone. You can stop."

But my Archive area wouldn't stop! For the next three days or so, I kept remembering new things about this person. Somehow my Judgment layer had convinced my Archive area long ago to bury memories of this person deep because he just wasn't worth remembering, and it had! But they weren't gone entirely, and Judgment was so traumatized by not remembering anything about him for five minutes that Archive now made this a big deal, and it was very slow to turn off.

(Epitaph: The memories of this person are now buried very deeply again, except for this story. He really was dull.)

What I learned from this experience: I now know for sure I have an Archive area, and I know it functions even when I'm not paying attention to it. So I now don't spend too much effort on hurrying the Archive area. I give it a task, and my Judgment layer moves on to other things while it waits for an answer back.

Perception, Patterns, and building Wisdom using background processing

Wisdom is the cross-linking of knowledge (memories) into useful patterns. When people speak of a person having knowledge but not wisdom, they are saying that the person's cross-linking hasn't gotten strong enough to be useful. Wisdom and patterns are closely related; so are Perception and patterns, and patterns are one of Judgment's most useful tools in deciding what actions to take.

In fact, recognizing patterns is much older than Judgment. Recognizing patterns is as old as life itself: A bacteria must recognize the pattern that means a good growing environment. A virus must recognize the pattern that means a favorable cell wall to penetrate. As organisms grow in complexity, they grow in their ability to recognize patterns. And as with the organizing of the nervous system for action, the nervous system organized for perception is also layered. The Perception systems are layered so that patterns can be recognized quickly.


Examples of what we see being "preprocessed" before it is sent to Judgment layer

The visual system does a lot of preprocessing before it hands an image to Judgment layer. Here are two examples.

When we look up in the sky at night, we may see a full moon. Some of us will see a face in the moon, the Man in the Moon.

The Man in the Moon isn't there. He is a product of a visual perception aid called aliasing putting out a "false positive". (A false positive is perceiving a pattern that isn't there. A false negative is missing a pattern that is there.) To help quickly find patterns in what we see, the optical system has a nervous layer that aliases the raw signal coming from the retina. The pattern of dark and light gray dots that is the reality of the moon's surface confuses the alias layer, and it reports a pattern instead.

The Man in the Moon is a pseudo pattern -- a false positive -- and it develops fairly high in the visual processing stack. So high that young children don't have enough aliasing power to see him, and Koreans see a rabbit in the moon rather than a man. (Australians don't see the Man either, but that is for another reason. For Australians, he's upside down!)

Another example of preprocessing is the "blind spot". This is a place where the eye can't see, but it "covers up" this spot by blending it in with the scenery around it, so the Judgment layer is unaware of it.

Pattern recognition is as old as life, but it is so important that every organism applies its "best technology" to the task. In humans, the best and newest part of the brain -- the Judgment layer -- gets to sit on top of the Perception stack and take action based on the patterns that are perceived.

Memories are important to recognizing patterns, too, and while it is not as obvious, lots of brain power is applied to recognizing useful patterns in memories. This, again, is Wisdom: The discovery of useful patterns in memories. Wisdom is not the same as Judgment. Wisdom can be trained by Judgment, just as Morality and Habit can, and like Morality and Habit, it can function without Judgment being aware of what it's doing -- Wisdom can be cross-linking without Judgment's intervention.

When a person has an “Ah Ha!" thought that comes out of the blue, it is often the result of Wisdom coming up with an interesting cross-link while Judgment was paying attention to something else. Likewise, “sleeping on something" is allowing Wisdom time to do more cross-linking on the subject.

A person with more memories has more to cross-link. This is why older people tend to be wiser. A person with wider ranges of experiences has more to cross-link. This is why well-educated and well-traveled people tend to be wiser.

Like the Archive area, Judgment can give tasks to the Wisdom area, and Wisdom will work on them. I quite often hand off questions to Wisdom, and I am surprised at how many get answered in a day … a week … a year. Wisdom is constantly looking for useful patterns, and when it finds a fit to a question Judgment asked it, it proudly ponies up the answer as an insight.


Archiving and Wisdom are two more of the brain's functions that support Judgment.

Archiving is a way of storing memories that makes them slow to access. The Archive process leaves fast access "pointers" so that Judgment can know if there will be an answer forthcoming.

Wisdom is the process of cross-linking memories to reveal useful patterns.

Both of these functions are busy whether Judgment is paying any attention to them or not, and both help Judgment make good decisions quickly.

These insights into thinking do not show up directly in any of my science fiction stories, but my book “Evolution and Thought” expands on these ideas.

-- The End --

index --- part 1