What am I thinking: Nature of thoughts 2
This series of articles explores the nature of thinking by drawing on a number of psychological explanatory models. The previous article provided a brief introduction to the idea of sensations or direct experience as the building blocks of thoughts, as well as conscious and less conscious thinking. This next article looks at an even deeper level of thoughts which are stored in the deepest most primitive structures of our minds and often without words.
The previous article suggested there were thoughts that we are aware of (to a greater or lesser degree) which can be addressed by language and examined in a logical sense (the propositional, system II, rational brain). The deepest level of thought which this article will focus on is what has been described as by some as “implicit” thought or as a “felt sense”. This kind of thought is often out of the realms of language and it can take engaging in dedicated self-work, therapy, or meditation in order to access and identify such thoughts.
Essentially this deeper level records experience on a level that doesn’t use words but is strongly linked to emotions and bodily experiences.
This third level has been described in other models as “system I”, the “implicational system” or “emotional mind”. In neuropsychology, this aspect of thought is associated strongly with deep brain structures like the amygdala, and emotional reactions (The Brain's Response to Threat). As such the thoughts stored here are often non-verbal, and involve information gathered from the senses or direct experience. One way of describing them is as visceral thoughts.
We don’t realise it but our minds are constantly absorbing information through the senses. However most of this is filtered out unless there is something that indicates to us “this is important!” prompting us to pay attention to this aspect of experience.
Information processed using this system is often related to our survival responses and begins when we are infants, at a time where we do not yet have the ability to label experiences by putting words to them. As adults these sorts of thoughts are often formed in times of heightened threat, and used when we need to make decisions quickly based on little information (Beyond Fight or Flight).
For example, imagine my partner broke up with me in a coffee shop which plays 80’s music. That experience will be recorded using the various raw units of experience as described in part I. There will be experiences that I am aware of, for example, what my partner is saying and how they look when they deliver the news or the name of the coffee shop.
There will also be raw units being received on the deeper level that I am not aware of. For example the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the sound of Spandau Ballet “True” playing on the radio. At the same time, the emotion of sadness will also be triggered as an understandable response to the loss of this relationship. While I might recognise that I’m sad at the time, what I might not pay attention to is the smell of coffee and Spandau Ballet.
So next time get a strong whiff of coffee beans or hear that classic chorus I am filled with sadness with no apparent logical reason of why. This is because this deep level of thought happens very quickly, without conscious effort, and non-verbally so the feelings of sadness are triggered by the smell of coffee and the sound of music which were also stored when the break up happened.
Without making the link between the break-up, coffee and Spandau ballet I may have found myself confused and worried about my “being sad for no reason”. I might start having automatic thoughts like those described in part I “There’s something wrong with me” which might lead to other feelings of sadness or fear etc. However there was a reason, I just didn’t know it yet. It was outside of my awareness.
The next article in the series will explore thoughts and thinking from a different angle by considering the virtual reality time machine (VRTM) in the mind.