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Do We Really Think?

In the quest to know ourselves, it is likely that, at some stage or other, we will attempt to observe our own thoughts. Indeed, doing so is central to most techniques which purport to lead to self-realisation.

After all, much of our lives appear to be dominated by our minds, and although we have physical senses, our experience of them is typically interpreted continually by the mind. So clearly, any insight that we can obtain into thoughts and thinking will be key to self-understanding.

Having undertaken quite a lot of meditation myself over the years, I have gradually come to get a sense of what goes on in my own mind, and I am expressing here conclusions based on my own experience.

The first observation I have is that thoughts appear to come to me more or less instantaneously. I am unable to identify anything that I could reasonably call “thinking” which takes any length of time. Rather the thoughts just arrive or occur (as in the expression “it occurred to me that”).

It is true that there is a time-based element in what happens subsequently. For example if I want to express the thought verbally, this process takes some time. However, I am not necessarily actually thinking while I speak. Rather I am just holding the memory of that thought and transcribing it. During that process I might realise (ie. have another instantaneous thought occurence) that a word that I was about to use could be improved with the substitution of another. So I can have another thought occurrence while the memory of the original thought was still there. But it appears to me that this is still not really a process of thinking per-se, but rather the subsequent occurrence of further related thoughts. So while the talking may appear to be continuous, there is no continuity in the process that fuels it ie. no “thinking” process.

An apparent contradiction here is how I can appear to be able to string coherent, related sentences together. Would that not imply some kind of thinking process going on?

I suspect that can be explained by the fact that when I focus on a particular topic, for example, the thoughts that occur to me do usually relate to that topic, and to one another – and the reason for that is because I am filtering thoughts ie. choosing to ignore or disregard any thoughts which are not relevant, which gives the impression that only relevant thoughts are occurring to me at all. It is a matter of where I am putting attention.

In those cases where extraneous thoughts do also appear, they are usually ones triggered by some form of sensorial input eg. I may hear a sound, or see something that apparently triggers a “distracting” thought. However, might it not be the case that all that happened here was that the change of attention from the topic of discussion to the distracting sound/sight simply caused my focus to change, and hence be receptive to thoughts relating to the distraction rather than the original topic?

So the picture that I am painting here is one in which

  • thoughts occur to us – and that therefore we do not “think” per-se
  • the subject of thoughts that occur to us depends on our current focus of attention
  • the focus of our attention may or may not be changed by distracting phenomena that we perceive

The conclusion that we don’t actually “think” may seem contentious, as it seems to imply either a lack of individual control over our thoughts, or that there is no personal creativity involved. However, I cannot deny that some of the thoughts that occur to me are creative ones. They can at times be funny, inspiring or even beautiful, for example. But if they appear instantaneously in my mind rather than being constructed by me in some kind of process, then what actually created them, and can I really take personal credit for them?

This kind of self-questioning is central to the teachings of Advaita (non-duality). The results of such enquiry may seem to go against common sense, but unless you are actually prepared to question what is commonly accepted as true without question, then can you be sure that it is?!

  1. May 27th, 2010 at 12:39 | #1

    Fascinating post. To me it really turns on the word “think”. The word has strong implications of a kind of completely conscious, completely rational, step-by-step calculation, where “thinking” consists of moving from one small conclusion to the next to the next – something like a mathematical proof/analysis.  In reality, as you so lucidly portray, most thought is nothing like that.  Is it that a large but entirely subconscious process of considering a huge range of options takes place before delivering the finished product to the conscious mind? Or that the process is, perhaps, within the scope of the conscious mind but simply so astonishingly fast that we perceive it to be instantaneous? Or is there some means whereby the mind draws on an “external” resource for inspiration, in sense of the Jungian collective unconscious and parallel ideas in other traditions? Fascinating stuff!

  2. May 28th, 2010 at 09:13 | #2

    Hi Matt. Thanks for sharing your further thoughts on this. 🙂
    One thing I am sure about is that the traditional view of a series of continuously moving cog wheels inside your brain as a pictorial representation of “thinking” is well off the mark. A quantum representation would seem much more appropriate to me, ie. jumping instantaneously from one thought/state to the next. Its now more than 100 years since quantum theory revolutionised our ideas about the physical world. Perhaps it is time we updated our ideas about thinking along the same lines?!

  1. May 28th, 2010 at 08:50 | #1

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