Thinking About Thinking

I often wonder about the way we describe various mental processes. There seems to be a bias toward describing mental processes in physical terms. Perhaps this is because language itself evolved to deal with physical, tangible things and later evolved to cover the intangible.

Consider imagination. How many people actually see what they are imagining? It seems there must be a significant number. I have lost count of the number of times someone has told me to imagine something floating in front of me or to picture some object or other in my mind. I am not saying I lack the ability to imagine. What I am saying is that when I imagine something, I do not actually see it. Things that I imagine exist in a completely separate perceptual space than the things I physically perceive. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for me to be able to switch my attention entirely into the imaginary perceptual space, such as when reading an particularly engrossing novel. I can also, to an extent, overlay the contents of my physical perceptual space on my imaginary perceptual space and come to an understanding of how some imaginary object might interact with a real space. Still, I would not call that actually picturing an object in the room. Next time you imagine something, observe carefully how you do it. Do you actually see it? Or is it more like I described?

Now consider the alleged stream of consciousness. Supposedly, there is an ongoing stream of thoughts that comprise a consciousness and that stream can be expressed, at least theoretically, as a stream of words. I find this a fascinating concept. It is certainly useful as a literary device but does it have any grounding in reality? I know I have never noticed anything I could quantify as an ongoing narrative in my mind. As near as I can figure things, I am constantly thinking about many things at the same time and as one thought process reaches some important milestone, it comes to the fore and I am able to perceive it in that state. Then, at another time, a different thought process comes to the foreground. But there are a great many times when there is no active foreground process when my mind feels essentially blank. Now that would make a very boring stream of consciousness narrative.

I suppose it is not particularly surprising that I am not fully aware of my own thought processes. This is just like not being fully aware of breathing or how to walk or talk. There is a similarity to a computer system where the operating system deals with many low level tasks transparently and nothing else in the system needs to be aware of them. Supposing that consciousness itself is merely a process on the system that arbitrates the rest of them, it makes sense that multiple thought processes would be happening at the same time. The consciousness can then choose to snoop on a particular thought process, assuming it can find it and figure out how, but it need not be aware of all the various lines of subreasoning and so on that are required to complete the process. The consciousness process decides something needs to be worked out so it dispatches a process to do so and then forgets about it until it is worked out. Of course, the analogy is not exactly accurate but it provides a useful comparison for discussion purposes.

Next time someone asks you what you are thinking, actually consider it. Were you actually consciously thinking anything or was your mind essentially in a halt state waiting for some process to finish? Do your imaginary and real perceptual spaces overlap? How do you think? Do thoughts and conclusions appear fully formed in your mind or are you aware of every step from the initial conditions to the conclusion?

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One thought on “Thinking About Thinking”

  1. On the subject of thinking about thinking, I would like to start by offering my viewpoint on your viewpoint.

    First of all, I in no way disagree with anything you said. It all makes logical and metaphysical sense.

    Secondly, I too see the line between visual imagination and conceptual imagination, and in order to make the concept fit my daily thinking process, I simply had to expand my definition of the word image.

    Classically, an image is a physical object that emits a pattern of light designed to convey visual information about the subject of interest. In a more progressive viewpoint, an image is any (physical or metaphysical) object that emits a pattern of light designed to convey some kind of knowledge.

    It is within this more progressive viewpoint that I found a reconciliation to the dichotomy of visual images being integrated with conceptual images. In my mind, when I envision a program or any web of thoughts, I create an abstract, non-concrete visual image of light-flares that are connected by streams of light. To me, the streams of light simply represent a (usually) symbiotic relationship of information (a mental relation). However, when “zooming in” to the details of the knowledge, I only use the visual image as a focus-base, while I consider the actual processes or information in it’s raw (and usually non-visual) form. Upon completion of my journey from abstract to specifics, I can then “return” to the general image of light, then imagine any new connections flaring up, and then choose a new path of consciousness.

    Of course, this is not a linear process; I am not limited to focusing on one form of image or another… It is the generalization of thought into light that I find the most interesting. If we are to look for some lowest-common-denominator to all forms of energy in life… From matter and heat to electrical impulses and magnetic fields, I see all energy as just one more form of pure light energy. On this level, all knowledge becomes a simple (or very complex) set of energy that describes a finite slice of the universal light which connects all life.

    I don’t know if it will work for you or not, but this abstraction from “physical reality” to a more “metaphysical world of light” can help bridge the difference between visual imagery and conceptual imagery.

    Oh, and one final thought on threads of consciousness. Although I’m positive that your mind already considers the quantum nature of thought, I would just like to state my opinion that our living consciousness is always a parallel group of near-independent thought processes which are temporally tied together by the “internal monologue” you had mentioned in your post… The internal monologue might be switching between a bunch of loaded subprocesses, or it may wind down the path of a single thought in full focus, or it may pause its chaos to enjoy a moment of conscious serenity before re-entering the oceans of thought available to the human system.

    PS – I like the layout of your website. The scripting on this blog is simple yet effective. Email me if I said anything you find interesting.

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