A term coined by William H. Calvin in his book The Cerebral Symphony.
This is a very entertaining treatment of Calvin's mechanistic hypothesis
of how the human brain might have evolved to develop intelligence.
He starts with the problem an early hominid had: how to combine the
rock in his hand with that rabbit scampering by to produce a
prehistoric version of hasenpfeffer. Having learned that he could
kill an animal with a rock to the head, the problem was that the animal
would rarely agree to stand still for this procedure, and he therefore
had to throw the rock and hit the rabbit.
Clearly, by trial and error, just as we learned to throw a baseball
as children, he learned this valuable skill. Calvin explains this by
suggesting that each time he threw the rock, the variables from
the encounter (distance to the rabbit, weight of the rock,
muscular effort expended, etc)
were "memorized", along with the result (too far, not far
enough, off to the left, hit myself in the knee, etc.) A set of these
configurations that were deemed successful were stored for future reference.
The next time a rabbit comes by, in order to throw the rock effectively,
a whole set of these configurations is compared to the current situation
(Calvin gives a mechanical picture of how the brain could do this), and
the "muscular program" that was used for the situation most like the current
one is then used as a pattern to direct the throwing motion of the arm this
The saved setups that we use to cope with later situations Calvin refers
to as scenarios; unsurprisingly, the more scenarios we have to choose from,
the better our later judgement is expected to be.
He then goes on to suggest that the same neural machinery that
was developed for this task was later adapted for more and more tasks
that we perform today, from speech and visual pattern recognition to
creative writing. These higher functions are groomed and exercised by
going one step further, and spinning new scenarios by combining old ones,
combinations based on links between concepts stored in our
brains and that may or may not seem rational if we examine them consciously.
When we choose to go with one of these scenarios built from seemingly
unrelated concepts, it might produce results which we then consider to
be insights or quantum leaps in our thinking.
And, the neat bow on the top of the whole package is that this whole
process of selecting and comparing scenarios is not available to our
conscious, but that consciousness is actually an emergent property
of the selection of the winning scenario!
Whether this thesis is exactly descriptive of our thought processes, or
couldn't be more wrong, it is presented very credibly, and the book is
a fun read. I recommend it!