Thoughts. We pump them out like a sausage machine pushes out sausages.Some of them we even push out onto paper or a computer screen and some pass on to other people by way of speech.
Thoughts are private to us and are never visible to the outside world. Each of us has their own thoughts, unless you are all zombies and my thoughts are the only ones that exist. Most people, I would guess, have thoughts that they would rather that other people do not know about, which would embarrass them if made public.
Descartes believed that since he thought, that he must exist. One can chip away philosophically at that belief, but there is no doubting that Descartes exists and that he thought. We all do, solipsistic philosophy aside, even if Descartes’ argument is not correct.
The difficulty comes when we look at where thoughts come from and, indeed, what thoughts are. We may think “Did I leave the gas on?” or “I must change my library books”. Thoughts seem to happen unconsciously at first, and then move into the consciousness, at some level or other.
The type of thought that I mention above about the gas and the library books spring right to the front or top of the consciousness, sometime surprising us. Other thought don’t impact so much on the consciousness, such as the thoughts that occur during a conversation.
For instance, suppose that you were chatting to friends, someone might question how you all got onto a subject. You are having coffee and find that you are discussing Amazonian Army Ants. How did you get on to the subject? On thinking back you piece together a chain of thought, that goes back to some totally unrelated topic, like the quality of fruit in the supermarket.
To be sure, I’ve suggested a conversation between several people, but similar happens in one person’s brain, as you can verify for yourself. Just grab a passing thought and work backwards from there and you will see what I mean.
Thoughts tend to be like cetaceans or some varieties of fish that live beneath the surface but sometime broach the surface before sinking back into the depths. It appears that the actual generation of thoughts happen below the level of consciousness, and then sink back into the unconscious. Memories of past thoughts can however be retrieved.
Although we do not perceive thoughts being created, the thoughts passing through our consciousness and things happening external to our minds play a part in creating our thoughts. If I think of the first few digits of π, it is because I am looking around for an example of prior thoughts affecting current ones – I consciously decide to think of an example, and immediately became a past thought and so I thought of the first few digits of π.
I suggested that we pop out thoughts like a sausage machine pops out sausages. Unfortunately that analogy breaks down somewhat as current sausages are not influenced by prior sausages unless you really stretch the analogy by saying that the delicious taste of past sausages leads you to create the current sausage!
The analogy does help a little though. What comes out of the sausage machine depends on what is put into the hopper. You won’t get pork sausages by filling the hopper with bits of beef of course, and in much the same way you will only get certain thoughts coming out if you have certain inputs going in.
The type of thoughts that we have can be changed by various methods, including repetition and example. We can learn by example and it influences what thoughts we have. If we see people standing for others in the train, we think to do this on other occasions.
A group of people will often start to think similarly, as the group forms and develops. A team that works well together may act as if they are reading one another’s minds, simply because they have learned to think in similar ways, and the team is said to have gelled.
It’s possible to force someone to think the way that you want them to think, by repetition and making things uncomfortable for them. This is called brainwashing and is for obvious reasons frowned upon. A fictional example come from the end of the book 1984 where Winston Smith is brainwashed into loving Big Brother by O’Brien.
When people live closely together they tend to start to think alike as in the sports team mentioned above. Another example would be the cases where hostages have come to espouse the aims and objectives of the people who have taken them captive, such as the heiress Patty Hearst who was kidnapped by a terrorist group but came to support their cause even to the point of taking part on in armed robberies.
Thoughts can be directed by a person, but only to an extent. One can concentrate one’s thoughts on study, but it is difficult to know how that happens. The experience of study (or the loosely related one of computer programming) can an in depth totally encompassing one, leading to a condition known to programmers as “being in the zone“. This can also apply in other fields of human endeavour too.
Often though, without the person being aware, the zone drifts away and the person ends up in the day dream state, thinking of things other than the topic that is supposed to be being thought about. This usually happens when the person has difficulty in concentrating on the topic as it bores them or they don’t understand it.
Some thoughts are completely below the level of the conscious, such as those that one has when one is asleep. Like all thoughts they soon fade into the depths and mostly leave no impression on the memory. Occasionally though, some dreaming thoughts survive in the memory through the process of waking, but they often seem bizarre or irrelevant to anything to do with our conscious lives. Sometimes though, they can be source of inspiration, as in the case of one of the inventors of the sewing machine, Elias Howe.