What is a Thought?

What is a thought?

An elementary thought – not a thought made up of other thoughts.

  • What is the nature of a thought?
  • What is it made of?
  • What is an example of the most basic thought?

As an image is to visual sense, and a sound is to auditory sense, a thought is a unit of cognitive sense. The difference between perceptual senses and cognitive senses is that cognitive senses are directly participatory. While we can imagine a sound or image, the experience resembles a request that is fulfilled behind the curtain, by some faculty of imagination. With thinking, we feel that we ourselves are directly expressing ourselves rather than passively watching a presentation of thought in the mind’s eye.

To me, this suggests that the cognitive level of awareness is a meta-level of perception. It specializes in abstracting sub-personal levels of sensation into a communicable form, and in the rehearsal of hypothetical experiences. In this way, the base level sensory-motive interactions of the body-world experience are extended. Senses can be interpreted with more perspective and intelligence, while motives can be executed with more strategic forethought. Thinking is a way of making an enriched present and future by distilling from the past. The distilling process is inherently sequential, as the oceanic nature of experiential aesthetics is reduced to a sequence of gestures and symbols which can be projected and received not only as sensory-motive presentations, but also as information-theoretic representations.

If a feeling were a cube that is full of some kind of juice of experiential significance, a thought would dehydrate the juice, leaving the cube with just the residue of its former significance. The empty cube can now contain other thoughts and feelings – stacks of them. What thought lacks in experiential qualities, it makes up for in versatility.

What is the nature of a thought? Metaphor. The etymology of metaphor has to do with carrying over, and the root word ‘phor’ is also found as ‘fer’, as in euphoria and inference. If a feeling is an aesthetic quality which we carry (or ferry), then meta-phor implies a stepping outside of the system – a carrying of carrying itself. This is what thought allows us to do – to pick up fragments of our feeling and experience as if we had a mental thumb and forefinger which we can use to arrange into larger re-fer-ences with larger or smaller application. Without the basic capacity to isolate some significant sense from experience and to apply it to another experience as if they were related independently of our intent, there could be no thought. Thought is pretending.

What is it made of? In my view, all things are ‘made of’ what I call sense. The power to perceive and participate in perception. Thought seems different from electromagnetism or mass-energy because we are directly within it. Physics presents our body with features of other experiences as external bodies. The results of that exteriorized view, are, in my view, responsible for the alienation that we encounter when we try to re-absorb our own subjectivity after we have objectified it as physical forms and functions. In particular, thoughts are made, as far as we know, of the experiences of Homo sapiens or perhaps earlier hominids as well. Honey is made of bees sense and motive, thought is made of human sense and motive.

What is an example of the most basic thought? If we look at what infants seem to be thinking about, “mama” seems popular. They seem to want a lot of help and attention. When we wake up in the morning, there seems to be a sense of remembering where we are and what has been going on. Likewise, before falling asleep, our hynagogic state of consciousness seems to hinge on dissolving our sense of locality and memory. We can slip in and out of fragmented dream states until the figure-ground relation seems to tessellate us into a less thoughtful and more relaxed mode of being. Thought then, like a birds tweet, may begin as a localizing beacon. To think is to encapsulate your experience and to consider whether to alert others about it. We weave a web of memories within ourselves and our social group – externalizing, perhaps, the process which is represented by our own neurology.

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  1. December 30, 2015 at 2:16 am

    I’ve been jumping around your site these past couple days, having found it through a comment you made in an article in Quora, though I can’t remember which. There’s much playful and even beautiful language here, though also much I don’t understand. I deeply sympathize with the your project though, as well as the difficulty both of finding an audience as well as writing in a way that brings out curiosity rather than defense.

    You highlight an important aspect of thought in which, when we are doing the activity of thinking, there’s a sense of participation, willfulness, and even merging with the thinking, similar to when we’re immersed, e.g., in a basketball game. But if we don’t “play the game of thinking,” for example abstracting our sense of self to an inner location from which we can observe or witness thought, then the game loses its close, merging, participatory flavor. We might “hear” internal conversation with our inner ear or “see” images with our inner eye (speaking loosely), and it may seem at certain points as if we have no actual relationship to the phenomena witnessed, aside from proximity, as if sitting on park bench and watching the game in the distance.

    As you know, much effort is expended in meditative traditions to fundamentally change the participatory relationship to thought, the first step generally being into some kind of witnessing mode (though this itself can be seen as an act of imagination, the placing of a locus for a self that seems to but does not exist upon inspection).

    I like this: “While we can imagine a sound or image, the experience resembles a request that is fulfilled behind the curtain, by some faculty of imagination.” The experience of magical appearance and disappearance is particularly strong with thought, despite our extreme habituation to it. In your writing above, an aspect I’d like to hear more about is your sense of the “substance” of thought. We have metaphors: like a dream, a mirage, smoke, mist…for me, mist perhaps best evokes the quality of thought, always disappearing just as its evocative shape takes form.

    Thought as smoke or mist also suggests its blinding, dulling quality. The thinker sits oblivious to the world around him, “lost” in thought, “absorbed” in thought. Coming back to the senses, there is a palpable increase in clarity of mind. Somehow thinking obscures.

    And it has a definite addictive quality, a story in itself, and seemingly, is localizeable for most people in the head, although curiously, thoughts can seem to have an origin point in various parts of the body, and sometimes seem to coincide with inner flashes of light.

    What is the nature of thought? You say metaphor. I like that very much, meta (self-referential) and phor (carrying), but the Buddhist in me would also want to talk about its essence — which again, the Buddhist in me would say is “empty,” not only in the way that all phenomena is empty (i.e., of a self-nature), but in a way that is quite visceral and directly apprehend-able. Of course from a Buddhist point of view, this would be the most important thing about it, because the deeper thought’s fabricated and ephemeral nature is realized, the greater the experience of lessening of the suffering it creates.

    But here I’m “just sayin,” really not trying to get into a Buddhist explanation thing. “Thought is pretending” — yes, so I wonder, is it really much necessary? I gotta use words when I talk to you, yes, but beyond that, I wonder if you have the feeling that thought is an impediment to deeper sensitivity.

    What is thought made of? I agree with you, it’s made of the very same thing everything else is, and I’m persuaded that you’ve found a good word for it — sense — that stimulates curiosity and might open up deeper experience for some people.

    What is an example of the most basic thought? I think you are going in the right direction when you say that “Thought then, like a birds tweet, may begin as a localizing beacon. To think is to encapsulate your experience and to consider whether to alert others about it.” I am certainly not the first to suggest that the most basic thought is “I am.” Like a bird’s tweet or a Trump belch (sorry), the most basic seems to be self-signing: “me, here.” Seems to make sense in evolutionary terms, also an expression of fundamental confusion. But all of thought does seem to encapsulate experience, not only at the level of carrying meanings in Chinese boxes, but faux-experientially, in that thoughts draw merely imagined distinctions which create boundaries taken as real, creating the basis for war, etc.

    Well, I’m just rambling here, but again, I’ve much appreciated the often delicious food for thought that you’ve offered in these pages, and wish you the best of luck with the scrappy scientists! 🙂

    • January 3, 2016 at 2:55 pm

      I do think that for a lot of people thought is an impediment to deeper sensitivity, but it doesn’t have to be. In the West, we seem to be encouraged toward constant preoccupation with doing, knowing, and measuring. Awareness itself, and awareness of awareness is buried beneath an unceasing flow of messages about the external world and about defining the self in its terms.

      As far as substance goes, I think that thought is a sense modality like sight or smell, except that it 1) renders experience in the cognitive-cogitative aesthetic rather than optical-visual or olfactory-gustatory
      2) that it simulates and abstracts all other aesthetics, and 3) that its aesthetic is one of transparency, like a lens or bubble. It magnifies or reflects experience as a locally symbolized monologue.

      Listening and speaking can be used as a good metaphor for thinking. There is a reason that our cognition and cogitation are so easily transmitted in the form of words and phonetic textures. We record and play back bits of what we hear, like a parrot, but unlike a recorder we use repetition of sounds to symbolize and extend them into an expression. The expression makes public some of what is private, and leverages a phonetic-aural sense text to re-fer (re-phor) to a cognitive-cogitative sense-making context (meta-phor).

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. January 3, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    Thank you! I replied first to this here, so I guess I’ll redirect to keep it in a single thread: https://multisenserealism.com/about/what-is-a-thought/#comment-125675

  3. January 4, 2016 at 5:41 am

    Within some schools of Buddhism, it’s taught that there are 8 consciousnesses — the 5 senses, in addition to the mental sense (6th), as well as an “afflicted” 7th consciousness which essentially refers to the sense of duality, and the 8th “storehouse” or “base” consciousness, which is understood to store habitual tendencies. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’ve long appreciated how this classification contextualizes thought as one of many sense experiences.

    My experience regarding thought as impediment to sensitivity is that this depends very specifically on my relationship to thought, in that moment. If I am “thinking” in conventional fashion — which is my normal mode — then it is an impediment. I am then involved in an experience of simulation and abstraction, which, like a video game compared to life, does not have the same vividness or clarity of experience as when I am not “thinking.” I can also notice a very clear transition to increased clarity when I become present again after being engaged in thinking. Presence is the clearest, brightest thing going on. Once present, how to engage with thought enters the realm of choice. But I don’t doubt that there are people for whom thought has become very transparent, and for those folks I would guess it is not much impediment — just not my experience at this time.

    Detachment from thought and emotion (which can be considered a type of “strong thought”) is an experiential possibility (though I doubt most people have experienced it), and is distinct from dissociation. Seemingly paradoxically, detachment can make the thought and emotion much more vivid and clear. In fact this type of inner vision can be revelatory in that one can have the experience of seeing the thought and emotion as if without bias, for the first time.

    • January 8, 2016 at 12:02 pm

      I think that I know what you mean about the limited form of “thinking”. Most arguments online take place in this narrow tit-for-tat way which privileges combative thinking which jumps to simplistic conclusions. When I return to an argument like that after being in a more open state of mind, it’s very much like returning home or to work after being out in nature. It feels stuffy or stale, hiding from the larger currents of the universe.

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