What am I thinking: Nature of thoughts 1
This series of articles discusses the nature of thoughts as processes that go on in the mind. Hopefully, having a better understanding of how our thoughts operate (in mainstream psychology “metacognition” or otherwise understood as “insight” or “self-awareness”), can help us be kinder towards ourselves and others as well as develop more satisfying ways to be. There are many explanations, called models in psychology, of what thinking is. These models range from those based on contemplation and self-observation to those based on observations and measurements in laboratory studies. The ideas presented here draw on a few different models in order to present you with a ‘working model’ of thoughts.
What is thought?
Thoughts or thinking can be understood as a type of activity that takes place in the mind. There are all kinds of thoughts, however, they are predominately verbal or language-based, but can also be pictures (still and moving) and sound without words.
Levels of thought
The first level I want to highlight isn’t really a thought in the traditional sense but is crucial as part of the building blocks of what makes up a thought. Experience, i.e. what information or stimulation we take in through our senses is the rawest form of thinking. Our senses, often listed as sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, position and balance (or body), are the gateways that allow us to experience the physical world. The ability to perceive something outside us and within us is the beginning of all forms of thinking as it forms the basis for the mental representations of our environments, ourselves and other people. What we often will refer to as perspective.
Like breathing, a lot of our thoughts are automatic, they seem to happen without us wanting them to or willing them to. This kind of ‘running commentary’ or ‘stream’ is the default mode and for most of us, this takes place in our conscious mind all the time. This is perfectly normal, however, sometimes we have thoughts that we judge to be scary, rude or inappropriate and for some people, their reactions to these thoughts lead to strong feelings (fear, anger, embarrassment, guilt etc). In therapy, these are often described as ‘intrusive thoughts’. The good news is that all of us have troubling thoughts from time to time, it is part of life. What determines the nature of these thoughts are the inputs (what we are exposed to) and the processing of these thoughts (how we respond when we notice these thoughts).
There is another level of thought which is deeper and less accessible than these surface thoughts. These deeper thoughts can include things like our assumptions, values and beliefs and we often become aware of them when there is an event (internal or external) that prompts us to examine them. For example, if someone asks you a question about your beliefs, or you are drawn into a situation where you have to make a difficult decision, this might force you to “dig deep” to find what you really think. Although we don’t notice them, these beliefs can be extremely powerful and can often influence how we feel about ourselves, others and the world. In doing so they shape our behaviour on a daily basis. Together these more language and reason based thoughts have been described as “system II” the “propositional system” or slow thinking (The Three-Part Brain).
There is a level of thought that is deeper still. It is non-verbal and often made of the building blocks of our direct experience that have been stored within us - often from an early age and following highly emotive experiences. This is the subject of the next article in the series.