What is Thinking?

A “brain in a box” (as leaders in cognitive computing have said) is of no use in its box.

A mind, becomes what it is, through engagement with an environment of information, within which it is immersed (however it is that a mind undertakes such engagement).

So, or But…

What is thinking?

You might answer: “I have no idea.”

This is most certainly the correct answer. As Noam Chomsky says in his talk “The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding“, what the mind is, how it works, is at present (and may always be) beyond the limits of our understanding.

At 26:52 in his talk https://youtu.be/D5in5EdjhD0, Chomsky says:

“The theory of evolution of course places humans firmly within the natural world. It regards humans as biological organisms, very much like others, and for every such organism, its capacities have scope and limits. The two go together. That includes the cognitive domain.

So rats for example can’t solve, say, a prime number maze. That’s because they lack the appropriate concepts. It’s not lack of memory or anything like that; they just don’t have the concepts, so for rats we can make a useful distinction between problems and mysteries.

Problems are tasks that lie within their cognitive reach in principle. Mysteries are ones that don’t. (mysteries for rats; they may not be mysteries for us).

If humans are not Angels, if we’re part of the organic world, then human cognitive capacity is also gonna have scope and limits. So accordingly the distinction between problems and mysteries, holds for humans, and it’s a task for science to delimit it.

What we can understand about the mind, and about anything else, has both scope and limits. And though there are limits, still we can continue to make useful observations and hypotheses about how thinking works.

Two simple ideas/observations about thinking

I’ve made a couple of very simple observations myself.

(1) The first idea is that media is a place where thinking happens, where ideas develop and are clarified, where understanding grows, both for authors and for readers/viewers. For some kinds of thinking, human beings develop various kinds of media, the purpose of which, it seems, is to facilitate thinking. I’m referring to media types like written text, spreadsheets, drawings, spatial modeled environments, photos, painting… It’s in these media that our thoughts develop and our understanding grows. It’s important to note that certain kinds of thinking are really not possible without these media. Or, rather, the development of thought, without access to these media, is cut short. In media, thoughts are unfolded and developed. I give some examples of this in my brief 9-part short article: https://tangerinefocusdotcom.wordpress.com/2017/06/20/the-field-of-play-9/  [what are these things (drawings and models) fundamentally?]

(2) The second idea is that thinking seems almost always, if not always, to involve a kind of bouncing back and forth between wholes and parts. Thinking is a ping-ponging — between the “pings” of intentional directed acts of articulated narrowing focus, and the “pong” of the whole of an environment. Or more generally, a back and forth between concepts (which are broad) and exemplar information (which is narrower) supporting the concept.

The thing is, about the mind, and about successful thought, that exemplar data that supports a concept is not likely to be detected at all, without first the formulation/existence of a coherent concept [of which those exemplars are (can be) a part]. In a seeming paradox, the reverse also is true; we are unable to form a coherent concept, without first noticing, selecting, making sense of, and aggregating a set of exemplary details that induce the formulation of a nascent concept.

So it’s chicken and egg, and which comes first may be unanswerable. However, experiment seems likely to show that we can confidently assert in any case, that thinking is happening, and understanding is growing, in this ping-ponging back and forth between whole and part, between concept and exemplar, between environmental whole (wide, expansive) and acts of narrowing articulate focus.

Observations about thinking spur innovations in media

These 2 ideas (above), occurred to me one day after years of working in architecture firms building digital 3D models and making sets of construction drawings. Models are wide, expansive, environmental wholes. Drawings are deliberate acts of articulating narrowing focus. Understanding of my own work, through those drawings and models, required always a contemplation of both the drawings and the models, back and forth between both, constantly. It occurred to me that this simple truism is more than that.

The ordinariness of this back and forth makes it too familiar to notice, but it’s fundamental. Like air. Because air is so familiar to us we don’t reflect on it. We don’t notice it. It’s too familiar to notice. We just breathe it. So it is with thinking. It’s happening in this back and forth, between wide and narrow, between environmental whole and narrower focused articulation, and this back and forth is so familiar that we don’t notice it. But we should. When we notice it, then we can see something fundamental that can spur innovation in media itself, if we take it seriously.


In Part 7 of my short article https://tangerinefocus.com/2017/06/14/the-field-of-play-vii/ I describe in detail the observation that, if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit that we cannot well and truly understand our own drawings, without instantiating them in-situ within a nascent mental model of the spatial whole, an environmental whole, a mental model, a fuzzy-but-moving-toward-clarity model, that moves toward clarity through this thing called thinking, which is ping-ponging between that nascent and fuzzy model, and the drawings that develop articulate narrowed focus in certain areas. IN that model, the drawings have meaning and make sense. While there, the drawings also are generative; they propel the generation of a formative nascent model.

In that sense and likewise, the reverse also is true: we cannot well and truly understand our own models (whether mental models only, or models that are both mental and digital) without this act of narrowing articulate focus at certain areas within the whole: the narrowings that are “drawing”, that provide the pings to the pong, so that we can think — so that we can ping-pong between whole and part, concept and exemplar, environmental whole and articulate acts of narrowing focus. That’s thinking and that’s where understanding grows. More detailed discussion of this as it relates to drawings and models here: https://tangerinefocus.com/2017/06/20/the-field-of-play-9/

Problems in current discourse

This sets us up then to see fundamental problems in today’s current discourse related to models and drawings (and related to the development of media itself, its stasis or its potential progress). It’s a popular notion to claim that models supersede drawings, and that the need for drawings will evaporate, finally, “once all of these old guys retire“. An appealing notion in some ways, apparently, but flawed, undermined by fundamental conceptual error. And not a minor error. The idea is completely unfounded.

If you eliminate drawings, then you have no pings, and so, no ping-pong. Thinking becomes the sound of one hand clapping; thinking’s not happening, and understanding’s not growing. So that’s the wrong approach.

We can’t abandon drawing. Modeling in fact requires/demands drawing (and vice versa), for the reasons I touched on. Instead of seeking abandonment of drawing, what we need to do instead is seek drawing’s reinvention, and seek innovation in media itself that seeds the development of thinking and the growth of understanding.

Recent Media innovations

What we have to do is amplify the ping-ponging, to better support thinking and understanding. My new company, [Tangerine] www.tangerinefocus.com , is devoted to doing this. It will happen in two steps. The first step is already done. I conceptualized an important innovation in spatial media (automatically displaying drawings inside models). I then joined Bentley Systems, a CAD software company, succeeded in getting the idea on the development agenda, and helped managed its implementation in commercial software at Bentley. It was commercialized in 2012. See example demonstrations here: Media innovations: Drawings IN Models . Patents were granted:


Patent date
Issued Nov 3, 2015
Patent issuer and number
us 9177085

See patent

Multi-dimensional artifact assemblage for infrastructure and other assets with interface node mediators

Patent date
Issued Jul 5, 2016
Patent issuer and number
us 9384308

See patent

Hypermodel-Based Panorama Augmentation

Patent date
Issued Oct 4, 2016
Patent issuer and number
us 9460561
Patent description
Integrated Assemblage of 2D Drawings and Panoramic Images

See patent

The first patent clarifies the second. The third extends the other two with techniques for instantiating conventional drawing within multi-media visual environments comprised of vector and point cloud 3D models combined with various kinds of photography (still, video, cropped, spherical), with conventional drawings displayed in-situ within the hybrid, automatically. These patents were granted in 2015 and 2016, and represent innovation that was my idea. I don’t care about claiming authorship for an idea, except that I believe it’s a worthwhile innovation, it was my idea, it’s been duplicated since then by other software companies, and (here’s why I care) as I’ve done it before, I can do it again.

I have done it again.

NEW Media innovations

In 2015 I left employment at Bentley Systems where the above work was done. Since then, in 2016, I’ve conceptualized new innovations, on paper, at my own company, [Tangerine]. The new innovations still recognize the concept of “drawing as the act of articulate narrowing focus within a wider spatial environment”, but the new work is at the same time far more interesting and effective, and also completely untethered from the prior patents (above). The new work makes the old patents irrelevant and obsolete.

These new innovations I have not yet shared publicly, and I am seeking partners who share an interest in realizing them. The best of all possible partners is one that recognizes not only their potential value in all industries in which people need to make sense of very complex spatial visual environments, but also recognizes the potential contribution of such media in the field of cognitive computing.


A Letter to Future Partners

Developing the future of media, and fertile ground for cognitive systems

Dear future partner,

I know that your company is not (yet) in the business of reinventing the meaning of “drawing”, nor the business of revolutionizing the fusion of drawing into modeling, thereby creating the future of media itself. But your company could do this, and doing so may make significant contribution not only toward shaping the future of media itself, but also may make important contribution to the future of cognitive computing.

I want to share my work with your company.

I believe this work will contribute to computer vision, with application in industrial, entertainment, and healthcare applications, and may contribute to general artificial intelligence. Tangerine’s media innovations will be applicable in all kinds of spatial (“3D”) digital media, and in the various kinds of hybridized visual data environments, with applicability across all display types including desktop and mobile standard display, projection, and VR and AR systems with or without eyeware.

These media innovations I believe will be fertile ground for development and application of cognitive systems (like IBM Watson), a fertile field in which cognition can grow. Let me put it another way. A brain in a box cannot think. A brain in a data environment can get to work. But a brain in a fertile field may gain traction not otherwise possible.

Cognitive Systems, immersed within and parsing the new media environments that we envision and facilitate, may gain new traction building connectivity maps through diverse kinds of data, in a medium that better reveals semantic continuity, bridging gaps across diverse, traditionally disconnected data types, through detection and evaluation of potential correlations that otherwise are difficult or impossible to detect.

Tangerine’s envisioned media environments are, we think, not only going to be very useful to people in the whole range of industries in which drawing and modeling and visualizing are prevalent, but also these new environments may be uniquely apt to reveal otherwise well-hidden cross-data-type correlations. Therefore, Tangerine media may prove uniquely fertile ground for a wide range of different cognitive methods in the field of cognitive computing.


At the same time, Tangerine’s media innovations, reinventing drawing, and reinventing (again) the fusion of “drawing” into modeled space, will prove uniquely useful everywhere that conventional drawing and modeling today are useful, bringing new beauty and power to these media, enhancing the thinking process and making understanding grow, fuller, faster.

I’m seeking the right company to work with that shares my interest in these concepts and the possibilities that follow. That could be your company. I hope my message finds you and that I could talk with you about it.

Very Best Regards and thank you,



Rob Snyder

Tangerine 2017

[Tangerine] Makes Insight Tangible

Spatial Media Innovation and Cognitive Computing



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