Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Sensing and solving: two modes of mind and the solving mode bias

Whether you are driving on the road, walking on the pavement, or eating in a restaurant by the side, you are likely to be in the solving mode. You are most likely trying to go from your current state to a desired state. The desired state could be being in your office, achieving 8000 steps for the day, or being satiated with your favorite food. While eating, walking, or driving, which is happening without your conscious effort, you are also likely to be trying to solve more complex problems like project planning, hiring/firing, providing help to aging parents, etc. And yet could this tendency to be in the solving mode be a handicap to solving problems in challenging situations? If so, what is needed to balance things? We will explore this in this article.

Sensing mode and solving mode: Let’s begin with a simplistic yet useful perspective that says that the mind is iterating through two modes: sensing and solving. Sensing mode involves estimating the state of the world including the body state and solving mode involves mental simulation and action to change the current state to match a desired state. Underlying both modes is a model or a map with a set of beliefs guiding the navigation through the world. These modes are also known as being and doing modes [1] or perceptual inference and active inference [2]. The picture above depicts perspective.

The sensing mode uses a map consisting of a set of beliefs to estimate the current state and the desired state [3]. The gap between the current and desired state could be based on our primate homeostatic needs such as hunger, thirst, cooler shelter, etc. But it could also be based on higher-level beliefs regarding security such as a secure job, a secure bank balance, a caring circle of friends and family, etc.

Bridging the gap: Solving mode tries to find different paths to go from the current state to a more secure desired state. It does so by changing the current state through action. To maintain homeostasis, heart rate, blood pressure, and various other parameters may be changing without our conscious awareness. This is covert action. A subset of solving part gets expressed as overt action. If my job is insecure, an action may involve sending a resume to friends and posting it on job sites. It could also involve building new skills that may be more relevant in the changing scenario. It could also involve reducing discretionary spending so that there is a better saving for the rainy days.

The sensing mode can also reduce the gap between the current and desired state. It does so by updating existing beliefs resulting in a re-estimation of the current and desired states. For example, I may have a belief that I must have a job. Suppose this belief gets questioned and I entertain a belief that it may be good to try out freelancing or even taking a break for six months and traveling. Then the current state of an insecure job doesn’t look so bad and the desired state doesn’t need to have a job.

A key difference between solving and sensing is the presence and absence of time. Solving involves belief simulation over multiple time scales e.g. if I send a resume to friends, I might get a call for an interview after a few days. Sensing, on the other hand, involves belief updates e.g. Is a job necessary?

Solving mode bias: As the belief map gets more and more sophisticated, solving mode takes over. It feels it knows the current state, why waste time and energy in sensing? It begins to suppress sensing pathways. We begin to go through the motion smoothly without sensing any newness. Tables, chairs, rooms, roads, and even people begin to appear the same and predictable. There may be updates in lower-level beliefs such as a friend’s phone number or the color of the street light but the higher-level beliefs get frozen. These could be religious beliefs, political ideologies, or even scientific theories.

Sensing the limitation of solving mode: Solving mode bias can create an impression that the world is predictable and the map of the world as projected by the current beliefs is reality. It feels as if any problem or conflict can be resolved through more and more simulation and action of different options and scenarios holding the current beliefs tight. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. A key turning point happens in this process when there is a sensing of the limitation of the solving mode. It is a realization that no matter how sophisticated the beliefs, a map is just a map never the territory. This insight may open newer sensing pathways that have been suppressed by the solving mode. And the quality of listening and observation improves. People with opposite beliefs don’t look morons anymore and the urge to “clean” the world subsides.

To summarize, both sensing and solving can reduce the gap between the current and desired state. We have a tendency to rely mostly on the solving mode which tries to change the current state to match the desired state. Sensing involves belief updates which may result in new current and desired states. Over-reliance on solving mode dampens the sensing mode. A good first step to rebalancing the solving-sensing imbalance is to observe the constant time travel and the urge to change the world. 


[1] J. Mark. G. Williams, “Mindfulness and psychological process”, Emotion, 2010, vol. 10, No. 1, pages 1-7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20141295/

[2] Norman Farb et. al., “Interoception, contemplative practice, and health”, Frontiers in Psychology, June 2015, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00763

[3] Norman Farb et. al. June 2015 (same as [2])