The Nature of Intelligence

Chapter 4. Stages of the Reflex Circuit

L. L. Thurstone

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1. The adjustment
2. Perception and the stimulus
3. Ideation and conception
4. Precognition
5. The universal and the Particular in the psychological act


When we are thinking and writing about the simplest kind of action, the reflex, we find it expedient to split it into the familiar temporal sequence of a stimulating cause and a reflex response. This agrees with a demonstrable material neurological relation. Since there is evident correspondence between the temporal sequence of events, as we see them, and the neurological machinery by which the reflex is carried, we extend the same language with some hypothetical additions to the more deliberate forms of conduct. In deliberate and intelligent conduct we assume that the neurological correlates become correspondingly more complex hit that their general pattern remains essentially the same with reference to these three phases— the stimulating cause, a modifying mental set of the actor, and a terminal in the act as seen. When the act is quite

(58) complex, or when the concept of the reflex is applied to continuous adaptive conduct, we speak of the reflex circuit instead of the reflex arc to indicate the fact that the adjustment is itself, in a sense, the starting-point for continued adjustment.

Let us apply the idea of the reflex circuit to the mental history of an act. I have said elsewhere that we may dethrone the stimulus as a starting-point for conduct and promote the individual person himself to that responsibility, giving him the use of his environment as his perceptual tools with which to live. We may consider mental life as unfinished action, conduct in the process of being formulated. The total sequence of the development of an impulse originating in the person himself, defining itself through the perceptual present and issuing completed in the form of overt behaviour, may be thought of as a psychological act. The psychological act is to be distinguished from an act in the usual sense in that a seen act is the terminal of the psychological act, the end point in the development of an impulse, a present issue or completion which a moment before was unformed and mental. The reflex circuit would apply to the route by which the psychological act travels. Its description would tell us something of the typical stages and turning points at which mental life formulates itself into conduct.

The logical procedure would be to start at the beginning of the circuit and to describe the successive parts of the road, as it were, the successive typical stages by which an impulse becomes real action. But that would be to start with what is necessarily vague and unknown, action which

( 59) is so unformed that it contains no introspectively distinguishable attributes at all. It is better, therefore, to start the description at the terminal end, the end of the circuit which is definitely known to common sense, and to trace its course backward as far as we can go.

By adjustment we mean simply seen behaviour and, possibly, glandular activity as well. There is nothing necessarily mental about the adjustment itself, but it becomes of psychological interest in that all mental life is adjustment in the process of being formed. The psychological categories which immediately precede overt behaviour are perception and sensation. In these categories we shall find the adjustment almost completed, but not sufficiently specified, to issue into conduct without some further delimitation. The central interest in the category of perception and sensation is to note the typical ways in which, at this stage of the psychological act, the impulse to activity becomes sufficiently delimited to become conduct as judged by the environment. The other cognitive categories, the so-called higher ones, concern the impulse to activity, the impulse to live, when it is even less definitely specified, when it does not contain enough attributes to constitute even a percept.

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When a motive or impulse expresses itself into action without conscious participation we call the act an automatic one. It may be either the random expression of the activity which constitutes living at a moment when no particular purpose is urgent, or it may be the expression of a fully formed habit expressing itself without conscious or purposive guidance. The next step in increasing psychological complexity is the non-conscious particularization of an impulse until it reaches the perceptual stage of the psychological act. It then becomes subject to perceptual guidance which is conscious and rational between the limits of the perceptually given present. The general nature of the adjustment is at least partly specified, and that which constitutes the percept indicates in what ways the unformed action still remains to be defined.

Perception may be thought of as particularized sensation. The percept is a motorially defined sense-impression. The ideo-motor tendency from sensation to perception is so strong that it is exceedingly difficult to maintain a sensequality without giving it the motorial interpretation which constitutes perception. If we consider the history of the psychological act, especially as regards its degree of completeness, we find that perception is action almost completely formed and that sensation is a still less specified, an earlier stage of the act. This is represented diagrammatically in Fig. 5.

Figure 5, Stages of the psychological act

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Where is the impulse or motive before the stimulus is found ? It is either a readiness to act in a satisfying way, or else it is focal in ideational form. One is a latent state while the other is an active one. One refers to a potential purpose while the other refers to a purpose that is active. The purpose may or may not be conscious. We are here using the term motive as more or less synonymous with impulse. It may be conscious or unconscious. We express our gregariousness, for example, whenever there is perceptual provocation for it, and sometimes we seek the stimuli for expressing it. A man walks into my office and says " Good Morning ", and I answer. I was entirely willing to see him before he entered, but my willingness was not necessarily focal. The perceptual presence of the man simply gave suitable opportunity to express my willingness in action. My willingness to be agreeable was there before the stimulus.

The other form in which the motive may exist before the stimulus appears is focal and ideational. When I am working at my desk, it may occur to me that I should like to see that man. This idea may express itself by grasping the telephone or by going to his office. The various stimuli are then either sought for or, if encountered unexpectedly, they are perceived in terms of my present purpose to sec him. The idea is a motive or impulse in its unfinished and pre-perceptual stage. The idea is the imaginal representation of an expected experience, and it contains fewer attributes than the corresponding

(62) perceptual experience itself. The idea is a tentative course of action and is subject to trial-and-error inhibition or expression depending on its consistency with the momentary purpose. The idea may be considered as a turning point in the definition of the motive which allows greater latitude and better control of its expression than a perceptual form of the same motive. A motive may define itself automatically to the perceptual stage, or it may become focal earlier when it has fewer attributes and appears as an idea.

The concept is similar to the idea except that it contains fewer attributes. I find it profitable to draw a distinction between the concept and the idea in that the idea contains enough attributes to define one's bodily relation in the imaginally expected experience, whereas the concept does not. If my imaginal representation of " newspaper " contains enough attributes to specify whether I am imagining myself holding a newspaper, reading it, tearing it, looking at it, talking to a reporter, or otherwise imagining my bodily relation to the psychological object, the representation should be called an idea. If, on the other hand, my representation of "newspaper" is simply the visual or articulatory imagery of the word, a something which means publicity, or " bad ", or the carrier of public opinion, without containing enough attributes at the moment to specify my bodily relations to the psychological object, then the imaginal representation should be spoken of as a concept. The concept is a motive, caught and rendered focal so early in its expression that it does not yet contemplate our own bodily situation in the imaginally

( 63) expected experience. The concept is an unfinished act so skeletal that our own bodily location still remains to be chosen. In this sense the concept is impersonal while, in the same sense, the idea is personally defined. The latitude in choice of adjustment is considerably extended by the capacity to guide our motives before they are even personally defined. These various stages of the reflex circuit are represented diagrammatically in Fig. 5.


It sometimes happens that we want something without being able to say just what it is that we want. We feel dissatisfied with our situation, but we are unable to state what it is that would satisfy us. This attitude of mind is discernible by unusual shifts in what we might call our interest limens or interest thresholds for different topics. We feel our motive without being able to make it focal. The only way in which the motive can be at all inferred in such a state of mind is to note the attitudes of appetition or aversion to different ideas, images, and topics of conversation. This is a stage in the expression of the motive that may be designated precognitive. There is nothing in one's focal consciousness that definitely identifies the motive. And yet the motive makes its presence felt by favouring certain topics and discouraging others. The motive in this stage is, however, particularized to this extent that it favours a certain group of topics and inhibits other topics. This constitutes a kind of definition by elimination and that is what the subsequent particularizations in focal consciousness are also.


There is one sense in which the precognitive stage of the motive is indicative of at least momentary failure. The delimitations of the motive in its precognitive stage are not subject to mental trial-and-error choice. The specification of the want or need at this stage is subject to random definition. In this way a series of ideas occur until one appears which is consistent with the momentary purpose. Its further elaboration is subject to rational selection and control.

Suppose that a man is designing a machine part. He feels what he wants, but he is not able even to describe the nature of the design. He feels certain, however, that he could identify the design that he is looking for, if it were suggested to him. Usually these felt criteria are in the nature of operative conditions rather than descriptive of the machine detail. When the purpose is in this precognitive stage it is not yet sufficiently defined to be identified by any focal content even in conceptual terms. The same attitude may sometimes be found in a man who takes a position with administrative duties. He feels certain that something definite and desirable can be accomplished out of the mass of detail in which he is placed, but he would be unable to give a good account of himself if pressed at that time. He would be capable of expressing strong likes and dislikes about other comparable organizations depending on the similarity or dissimilarity to his own objective. But his own objective is not yet sufficiently defined to be completely specified in focal and cognitive terms. This objective is cognitive only in the sense that he has feelings of aversion and appetition toward groups

(65) or types of cognitive specifications. When this attitude is accompanied by strong feelings for or against large types of adjustment, it is probable that the felt objective will shortly become focal in more closely defined form although there is never any guarantee that this attitude will be fruitful. A distressing fact about this frame of mind is that it is not subject to rational solution. There is as yet nothing definitely focal to rationalize about. On the other hand, this attitude is not infrequently diagnostic of the appearance of a new solution.

If we are in the habit of applying the free-body principle to problems in mechanics, we define any such problem through this principle preconsciously so that the problem becomes focal with the attributes of this principle already attached. This makes for effective thinking because the application of the principle is then made without rational effort and choice.

If we have an exciting emotional experience, it is not unnatural that an attitude of aversion or avoidance should become habitual for some element in that experience. To find ourselves again in a similar situation is to experience fear and avoidance. The fear is part of the habitual perception of the situation. Since the fear is habitual the situation contains the fear when it becomes focal. Further rationalization can add new attributes but it cannot eradicate or reduce the attributes already in the motive when it became focal. To accomplish this, it is necessary to render the motive focal at an earlier, more abstract stage, before the fear-attribute has been added. If this can be done, rationalization along a non-fear route is

(66) possible. This is essentially what the psychoanalytic methods attempt to accomplish. They would make focal the fear-situation as it was before the fear was added. Let it then particularize itself along a non-fear solution and the mental habit is at least partially broken.


The development of the reflex circuit can be spoken of as proceeding from the particular to the universal, and it can also be represented as proceeding from the universal to the particular. Since I have described the particularization of the circuit as an irreversible process in the direction from the universal to the particular, it may be advisable to make clear the manner in which the development of the circuit can also be represented as proceeding in the opposite direction. If we should describe the phylogenetic development of intelligence, we should begin by the perceptual intelligence of animals. Their mental life is primarily concerned with the particulars of perceptual experience. The intelligence of man is capable of imaginal anticipation of experience, and this anticipation is more universal than perceptual anticipation. The highest forms of intelligence involve conceptual thinking which is in terms of universals. This description traces a development from intelligence with particulars to intelligence which deals in universals and particulars. The same order would be appropriate for the genetic development of intelligence in man. The intelligence of children is first

(67) apparent in terms of particulars in perceptual experience. It develops later the capacity for imaginal representation of experience, and still later in more mature form with universals.

Whenever we are describing the genesis of intelligence we are tracing it from the particulars to the universals. But whenever we are concerned with the psychological act on any occasion, we must realize that the process is from universals to particulars. The perceptual intelligence of animals proceeds in the same direction when it is actually functioning. One of these considerations is with respect to the derivation and development of the intelligence, and the other consideration is with respect to the actual functioning of intelligence on any specific occasion. When the animal uses his intelligence in the form of distance-perception, he is making focal an adjustment in terms of the distance-impressions, particularizing them toward the overt act which is relatively more particular than the distance-impression with which he starts the conscious specification of the overt act. It is the same with human intelligence at work. If we get an idea by which to resolve a difficulty, this idea can be considered as a universal relative to the particularization of it toward the overt act. Whenever we are describing the intelligent act as such, we are describing an irreversible process which always proceeds from the universal to the particular. But when we are describing the genetic development of this capacity, we arc: describing the intelligent act as starting explicitly farther and farther back towards the universals.

In Fig. 6 I have represented this distinction. Even in

(68) the lowest form of the intelligent act, as it may be seen in the mental life of animals, we have the motive particularizing itself toward the adjustment. This process is from universals to particulars even though the universal by which the adjustment becomes focal is of a relatively low order. In imaginal intelligence we have the same irreversible process from universals to particulars, with this difference that the process becomes focal earlier in the act. This genetic development is represented graphically by moving the focus to the left in the diagram. This means that the starting-point for the conscious particularization of the act is moved toward universals of higher order.

Finally we have conceptual intelligence, which, when it is in operation, functions irreversibly from the universals to the particulars just as in animal intelligence. The difference is primarily that the focal point in the particularizing process has moved to universals of still higher order. It should be clear, then, that intelligence at work always proceeds from universals to particulars, but that the genetic development of intelligence marks a progress in moving the focal point from particulars, or universals of low order, toward universals of higher order.


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