What is thinking…..
What do you think?
This is not meant to be a trick question. It is curious as to how we think and even more curious that even with the little we understand about ‘thinking’ that we don’t all do it the same way.
Let’s wade in at the beginning and try to characterise thought — though unfortunately even this is not simple as I found many interpretations, each subtly different. One definition stated thought as the ‘experience of the here and now’. Another specifies that it generally refers to any mental or intellectual activity involving an individual’s subjective consciousness. Psychology today considers thought as ‘maps representing and corresponding to things that our brains have either perceived with our senses, felt with our emotions, or formed as an action plan’. Furthermore these definitions raise a follow on question — when do we acknowledge a thought; when does it come into being?
The human brain contains c100 billion neurons, or nerve cells which are connected by trillions of connections called synapses. Neurons communicate with each other via chemical and electrical signals sent along these synapses. When we discern something with one of our senses it triggers an electrochemical process that enable the input (whatever it is) to be transformed into impulses; signals sent between our neurons. A signal will spread to several billion neurons in different parts of the brain and that is when perception occurs.
The next or most likely instantaneous stage is converting these perceptions into meaning. Into thought and possibly decision making or action. Unfortunately this is where the science becomes vague. Although we have been able to employ imaging techniques to observe which part of the brain lights up as we ‘think’, we don’t really understand how signals are interpreted. How does the brain know which neurons to light up? How do these electrical signals become imbued with meaning? How do we think without external input?
One line of reasoning says that part of what allows us to interpret external input is relating the pattern of signals it evokes with past experiences (memories if you will) that are held within our neurons. As Carlo Rovelli (a Physicist) wrote in his book, The order of time : ‘The mind is the working of our brain. What little we are beginning to understand of this functioning is that our entire brain operates on the basis of a collection of traces of the past left in the synapses that connect neurons. Synapses are continually formed in their thousands and then erased — especially during sleep, leaving behind a blurry reflection of that which has acted on our nervous system in the past’.
This theory suggests that the extensive neural network holds many memories and associations which as they interact with each other (lit up by signals) allow the brain to access a vast trove of thoughts and memories. Not only would this provide greater depth to our thinking, it possibly explains why random ideas seem to suddenly appear in our heads. In a ‘moment of reflection’, new situations and novel experiences are judged against recalled ones and the brain utilises this to turn our perceptions into thought. That is one theory.
Let’s move on. In 2017, Harvard scientists proposed that when we think, we do so mostly in words and images. If you take a minute to consider your thinking process, that intuitively seems to makes sense. However, there are individuals (either from birth or through head injury) that cannot make thoughts or memories through mental images. No colours, no textures, no pictures. These people are called non-imagers with a condition called Congenital aphantasia. They mostly use worded descriptions to recall memories although certain of those diagnosed can think in sounds or in physical sensations. To be clear there is no evidence suggesting these individuals are any less mentally able than others; they just process inputs in a different way to your average person. Nevertheless the inability to conjure remembered images of deceased loved ones feels deficient and painful.
Synethesia is another remarkable condition. As I put previously, most of us when we process inputs, ‘see’ shapes, pictures or a blur. But for someone with this condition — words that enter the brain are each associated with a particular colour, hue or symbol. Doesn’t this condition sound almost magical, playful? I also discovered Chromesthesia where a person hears a sound that invokes a colour in their head so that you hear the world in colours. According to Professor Palmer at the University of California the likes of Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Hockney, Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington had this condition.
An even tinier number of people smell in colours or taste colours or words which seems to be a more intrusive way to live. Someone wrote that they find it difficult when they go out to eat as the colours of the food and the cutlery (invoked by the inputs of smell and taste) can clash to cause an overload of sensations which can be overwhelming. Another person amusingly mentioned that when they hear the name ‘Audrey’ they can taste tinned tomatoes!
‘How ghastly for her, people actually thinking, with their brains, and right next door. Oh, the travesty of it all’. Gail Carriger, Soulless
It has been a really enjoyable meander looking into what we think but the problem is I and I’m sure you are none the wiser. Despite the millions that is invested in research on the brain it is a part of the body that we really don’t understand — and don’t get me started on consciousness. My conclusion from this wander is although I’m not much the wiser, I am glad it seems we are more than electrical impulses even if we don’t know what more is…..