Sunday, 11 October 2015

Thinking about thinking - how do *you* do it?

One thing I have learned from asking people about their own experience of thinking is that most people have never thought about it - and quite a few seem unable to think about it.

Many people find it very difficult/impossible to introspect, that is, to look within themselves - their own thinking is experienced as a 'black box' process - they feed things into the box, things come out - but they have no idea what goes on inside the box (and perhaps very little interest).

But a couple of interesting answers were:

1. That thinking about a topic was like selecting a video and replaying it - experiencing pictures and sound; and

2. That thinking was like looking-up text - being in a library and reading passages -  thinking was primarily in words, and words were then experienced as pictures and sounds

Neither of these experiences much resemble my own - which is neither visual nor auditory, but rather that of  trying to grasp simple concepts, a process of 'feeling' around in a medium, or discarding inessentials... trying to get things so simple that I can grasp them whole... Probably something more tactile than visual or auditory.

I would be interested to hear about other people's experiences of thinking, described in this kind of metaphorical way?...


  1. Pattern recognition. Is there a pattern? Can one be found?
    It's like those join-the-dots books for kids.
    When I was younger, I remember stringing words together in my mind, in a cumbersome way, and that was thinking.
    Then it was more a visual thing. Pictures replaced words.
    Then LSD gave me a massive warehouse of compartments in which information was retrievably stored as memories, allowing decisions to be made.
    Still later, I discovered an off-switch, and thinking stopped, until I chose to think.
    For many years, now, I have plucked solutions and revelations from the ether, with no perceivable thought process happening at all.
    In simple terms, intuition has replaced, and proved superior to, thinking.
    Much like a satellite receiver replacing a carrier pigeon.

  2. I imagine myself talking with someone about the subject.

  3. From a correspondent Nabokov compared with Evelyn Waugh:

    From Nabokov's interview. (02) BBC Television [1962]

    What language do you think in? 

          I don't think in any language. I think in images. I don't believe that people think in languages. They don't move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that's about all. 


    From Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 30, Evelyn Waugh 

    I gather from what you said earlier that you don't find the act of writing difficult.
    I don't find it easy. You see, there are always words going round in my head: Some people think in pictures, some in ideas. I think entirely in words. By the time I come to stick my pen in my inkpot these words have reached a stage of order which is fairly presentable.
    Perhaps that explains why Gilbert Pinfold was haunted by voices—by disembodied words.
    Yes, that's true—the word made manifest.

  4. I think in an imaginary dialogue, sometimes with people I know, sometimes with people I have been reading.

  5. Most of my thinking does not lend itself to sensory metaphors at all -- it is not visual, aural, or tactile. It does have a sort of spatial feel to it, though -- a sense of a three-dimensional structure shifting and rearranging its parts. Very occasionally, usually with the aid of music, I can experience this structure visually, but more often I just feel it -- not in the tactile sense of "feel," though. I suppose the sense it is most analogous to would be what is called proprioception or kinaesthesia -- a sense of the position and movements of one's own body parts.

    Although I'm not a very verbal thinker, I do tend to be a very verbal dreamer -- much more so, I gather, than most people. A significant minority of my dreams are more like radio than film. My most distinct dream-memories upon waking are of sentences or songs as often as of images. (Just last night, for example, I dreamed: "We call them clock-cleaners, but in fact not all of them can really be called clean. Some of them are defilers.") Memorable dream-images are most often still photos, not videos.

  6. From a correspondent:

    "Wrt thinking I am not a kinaesthetic person (quite clumsy) but have the same feeling about it that you mention. A somatic response - not auditory or visual. I have an aesthetic response to ideas and the way someone says something (because you can sense where it's coming from and whether it's true and/or product of mindless repetition, and/or lying to oneself). Those things slightly different from the qn you asked about, but in that domain I find same as you described it."

  7. I think this post and it's responses just goes to show how conceptually weak a therapy like CBT therapy is. The reductionist approach of trying to re-frame ones mental content exclusively as thoughts or even just thoughts and images (Although practically speaking the later is rarely considered) is an extremely impoverished model of the actual human psyche. The kind of model you might expect a creature who lives on a two dimensional sheet of paper to produce of what it imagines a 3 or 4 dimensional being is experiencing. For a 'Cognitive' therapy it really doesn't seem to understand or recognise what cognitions are or how thinking works.

  8. For me, thinking is like moulding a piece of clay into something meaningful. The clay can be a different colour, temperature, have a certain texture or viscosity (sometimes jarringly unpleasant or metallic, sometimes soft and nebulous) and like clouds in the sky can drift or collide to produce sudden Gestalt's of overall meaning. Sometimes I can direct the clouds like a tiny demigod, and combine them in novel ways with other bodies of clay or clouds, sometimes they are presented as wholly formed as if someone is showing me something they feel is important. I discuss this layer of visual and sensory information with myself or *the other* that is the being onto which I reflect my thoughts for clarification or verification. The other is usually an implied presence that 'I talk out loud with' in discussion, not seen but just assumed or felt, comfortingly almost always there (when they are not that is when I feel really alone and sometimes even frightened). But equally, it could be a projection of myself into a totally immersive 'scene' as if I was there at the same time as I am where I am in the physical world. For example, when I walk through some woodland I might imagine myself talking to a tree, spot an imaginary Unicorn in a sun-kissed clearing or see the ghosts of Robin hoods merry men cross the path in another time that has long passed; all the time the sense of aliveness of the woods pulsing and warm but resistant to a concrete reduction into words. Crucially, I know that I am 'imagining' this so the images and augmentations to what is 'actually there' are welcome and make me smile but I don't *chose* to see things individually in my minds eye, they come spontaneously and unbidden, from where I know not, but I respond to them. I can only sample it and respond to it with attempted reduction into words as I am doing now. Putting it in words always seems a little feeble compared to the lived experience.

  9. Even from this small sample of comments and the ones I cited in the post, it is clear that there is great variety in people's experience of thinking. I find this very cheering - indeed quite exciting!

    We really do seem to be different from one another in ways that seem complementary.

    Paradoxically, perhaps, these reports of introspection apparently lead me to the social conclusion, that we benefit from knowing and interacting with other people; because the range of approaches to apprehend and comprehend reality that is encompassed by a combination of people is greater than for an individual alone - so long as the communication is sufficiently deep, honest and mutually trusting.

  10. Subjectively focused meta-thinking is interesting/entertaining, and largely narcissistic.

    When engaging in it, I quickly reach a point where I either encounter the black box barrier - beyond which I cannot go - or it plays out as self-referential associations which are punctuated by whatever external influences create a bit of grit for my mind's oyster to begin spinning. It is like walking into a hall of distorted mirrors and watching all the surfaces change as I move. I am not sure that it has provided much more insight to me than what I have just said, though it does occasionally spin some forms which appeal to me, but then again it would, wouldn't it? At other times it may yield a disquieting and even ominous state of emotions, images and thoughts. I suppose it is like a strange attractor in chaos theory; see -

    Even so, it provides a pleasurable distraction from which there occasionally arises something that has more than just subjective interest. Most often, however, the glittering gem that I felt drawn towards beneath the surface - when brought to the surface of consciousness - is merely some bit of broken shell rather than a glittering gem.

    I do, however, appreciate your last paragraph:

    Paradoxically, perhaps, these reports of introspection apparently lead me to the social conclusion, that we benefit from knowing and interacting with other people; because the range of approaches to apprehend and comprehend reality that is encompassed by a combination of people is greater than for an individual alone - so long as the communication is sufficiently deep, honest and mutually trusting.

    I have a few people with whom I can enter these types of communication, and even with some side trips down dead end alleys, these conversations have a richness that is synergistic compared to a purely introspective one. When this society of two or three gathers and exchanges honestly it is a lovely fellowship, and highly creative one.

  11. Great Topic.

    Nancy Andreasen discussed this in her book _The creating brain_. I don't recall the details, but she says it's mostly free association, in the neocortex (sorry, my neurology vocabulary is pathetic).

    I am a word person rather than an image person, and I think about 2/3 of the people in the USA are the other way around. So, I tend to work with words. words, ideas, concepts--often I have an argument I am toying with or seeking to advance, and ideas kind of "pile in" or get mustered or drafted in the service of that argument.

    I find that I read a lot (typically books) with postits and then taking notes long hand--reviewing and elaborating the notes later can help. It's the process of review.

    I'm sure MIhaly Csikzsentmihalyi (FLOW) has written about this in his work.

    A few other thoughts offhand.

    Garry Kasparov talks about toying with ideas while playing chess, and reciting Pushkin verses to remain cheerful and relaxed, trying to break out of a rut when thinking during a game.

    In addition, this reminds me of what Al Siebert (The survivor personality) mentions when he discusses a maxim: "Toy with trouble."

    Much of these last points are targetting at staying relaxed and fluid, not ruminating.


  12. One other thought: Walking helps. Not running, not biking, but walking supports thinking.

    In addition--I always have pen and paper to write down transient thoughts that may be of use. My most original thoughts are transient, fleeting, and may not visit me again.

    But the original thoughts come mixed in with recurrent ideas that I could access from long term memory whenever I wanted to call them up again.

  13. My thoughts are like shapes I'm trying to fit together in a particular way, the more abstract the object of thought the harder it is to manipulate. Memory is very abstracted, but this abstractedness is not problematic necessarily as when I reach into that well and pull items into the mill, they gain structure and can be manipulated again. Abstract problems hang around, the pieces bumping into each other and defining their shape over time. This way I can sometime handle problems with a significant amount of abstract content. I prefer thinking about things that have well defined shapes, objects in the physical world, people, and certain types of system. When I have a particularly intractable problem I find my mind wonders to things that seem unrelated but are also difficult. I go through a period of intense obsession with the new problems when this happens, and sometimes when I come out of it, the original problem is solved. I have a name for this, I call it 'thrashing' like when you hear a badly fragmented drive on a computer trying to operate.
    The mental straight-jacket of organisation retards my capacity to deal with complex subjects, so now I try to avoid it. An irony, given how much organisation contaminates my profession.