Thinking About Thinking


This is not a scientific treatise written by a scientist for the edification of scientists who study brains and their workings. It is an essay incorporating a random mixture of beliefs, observations, ideas, questions, and speculation relating to this work's title. Penned by a non-scientist to be read by laypersons, its purpose is more to motivate or inspire thinking about thinking than to educate on the topic.

As the reader, you might find you are neither inspired nor enlightened by what is written herein. On the other hand, you might become both. The decision and choice are yours to make.

Thinking is essential to life. Anyone who doesn't think to eat from time to time or to stay on the proper side of the road in heavy traffic doesn't live long. Everyone thinks to some level. Even the dullest or most primitive members of society think, although their actions and lifestyle might tempt one to conclude they don't. Some people are better at thinking than others. Hence, some in society become rich and famous while others become destitute and unknown. While thinking is a necessity, thinking about thinking is a rather esoteric luxury unless one is involved in the brain sciences. If you are starting to "tune out" at this point, that is understandable, but take the time to read on. You might conclude the effort was worthwhile.

At the risk of being criticized for saying too much concerning a topic about which I know too little, here goes.

What is "thinking"? What is "thought"? How do they relate to each other? Answering these questions is perhaps done best by analogy. Persons familiar with the origin of dairy products know churning (agitating) cream, a liquid, eventually produces butter, a solid. Churning is a process. Butter is a product. The former creates the latter. In a like manner, thinking is a process. Thoughts are products of that process.

Where within humans does thinking happen and where do thoughts get manufactured? Conventional wisdom has it these things occur in the brain. There seems no need to question that conclusion—at least for present purposes. How exactly does the whole complicated business of thinking work? At the present time, it is doubtful even brain scientists can provide a completely accurate explanation.

As a grossly oversimplified explanation, one speculates it happens this way. Humans are believed to have at least five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. As one moves through life, these senses feed information into one's brain, where it becomes stored. As a result of things experienced over time, a person might have information stored in his or her brain concerning, for example, how several animals look and sound, perhaps even how some smell, feel, and taste.

One day, that person with information stored in his brain about domestic cattle, moose, and goats saw some object moving in the distance. At first, it was so far away all his senses could convey to his brain was the object was a dark color and in motion. As the object moved closer and closer to the observer, his senses continuously sent information to his brain. By the time the object had approached within fifty feet of him, his senses of sight, sound, and smell had sent numerous messages. As they were coming in, his brain went through the process of comparing them to the stored information it already had. Having gone through the process, his brain produced a product, namely a thought in the nature of a conclusion. The conclusion produced was the moving object was a goat.

When do humans first start thinking? Leaving aside the thorny and extremely contentious issue of when a human being first becomes a human being, it seems apparent humans think from the moment of birth. Healthy babies are born with the five senses adults have. Once born, their environment provides those senses with much information. Being thrust from warmth and darkness into a cold, light-filled, unfamiliar, confusing world must cause the brain of a baby to suffer from information overload. No wonder the first thing most babies do when born is cry. Who can blame them? Watch the eye and limb movements of a baby experiencing different stimuli and listen to their sounds when they are hungry or comfortable. These observations should convince you babies think long before they speak simple words taught to them by adults.

Obviously, humans think deliberately during much of the time when they are awake and are conscious they are doing so. Can people also think unconsciously when awake? Yes, they can. When this writer was a teenage farm boy studying algebra, there were times at school when I could not solve an algebra problem given to me despite intense thinking. Later that day or the next day, while at home doing farm chores with my mind focused on doing them, my mind out of the blue would declare the correct solution for my algebra problem. This occurrence happened to me more than once. It always came as a surprise because I did not intend to think of algebra while doing farm chores. Nor was I aware at the time my mind was thinking of my algebra problem trying to solve it.

Can we think while asleep? We can and do. That's what dreams are. Some are in color while others are black and white. They can include people we know but also can relate to strangers. A concern dominating one's intense conscious thinking, such as the worry about successfully completing a work assignment, can become the subject of a dream. Some make sense. Others are nonsensical. Some are pleasant, others scary enough to convert drunkards into teetotalers. (Perhaps it is no longer politically correct to call drunkards what they are. Notwithstanding, one should not allow political correctness to interfere with clear-headed thinking.)

What are optical illusions? Everyone experiences them daily. Likely, few people are aware of the fact. Even fewer would trouble themselves to analyze them. An optical illusion is experienced when one does not see what one sees. That seemingly foolish statement requires an explanation. Describing specific common examples of optical illusions clarifies what they are.

As one drives down a highway in farmland, there often is a fence close to the road and parallel with it. Additionally, there often is an open field behind the fence extending out to a distant row of trees which also is positioned parallel with the road. As one looks sideways from the moving vehicle into the described scene, the landscape being observed appears to be spinning. The distant trees appear to be moving in the same direction as the vehicle while the close-up fence posts appear to be moving in the opposite direction. In reality, what is there to see are stationary trees and fence posts, but the observer doesn't see them that way. The observer sees trees and posts in motion. Their motion is not real. It is an illusion.

Another common optical illusion is experienced when one stands looking down a long, straight stretch of roadway that is the same width over its entire length. The reality there to be seen is the road's uniform width, but one does not see it that way. One sees a road that is broad close up where one is standing but becomes progressively narrower as it stretches away into the distance. When one sees it that way, one is being deceived about the road's width by an optical illusion. Landscape paintings created by talented artists constitute yet another source of optical illusion. When viewing a skillfully done landscape painting from a few feet in front of it, a person is looking at (seeing) several images that sit flat on a flat piece of canvas. All images depicted are virtually the same distance from the observer but are not seen that way. Some look close to the viewer while other images look far off. In reality, the landscape scene as painted on the canvas is two-dimensional (flat), but the skill of the artist who painted it causes the scene to look three-dimensional (exhibit depth) just the way landscape exists naturally. Therein lies the optical illusion.

How do such illusions relate to thinking? Are a human's eyes incapable of sending the brain factually accurate information in those circumstances that become the source of optical illusion? Is the brain deceived or tricked by receiving faulty information? Does the brain receive accurate information but somehow misinterprets the information, causing it to form an erroneous conclusion about what one's eyes saw? Precise answers to these questions most likely are unavailable at this time.

What about intelligence and wisdom? What exactly are they? How do they relate to each other? How do they relate to thinking? One explanation concerning their nature can be stated succinctly. Accurately discerning some man is a belligerent, brutal bully is intelligence. Not telling him is wisdom. The two abstract concepts can be possessed by the same person. Since they often are, people tend to get confused about them and use those concepts as if they are synonymous when they aren't.

This writer believes intelligence consists of having a large inventory of information in the brain that has reached there via the five human senses, conjoined with the brain's ability and inclination to analyze that data effectively. The inclination to analyze leads to thinking, which in turn produces thought. Thoughts, which are not observable, either motivate a person to commence or continue some observable action or cause one to continue some observable state of inaction. I speculate wisdom functions as the last link in the thinking chain. It selects from among the thoughts the brain has produced and motivates action or inaction as just mentioned. The observable actions or inactions of a person in a variety of circumstances will reveal much about how wise or unwise that person is.

What constitutes clear evidence showing when a person is thinking? When a person makes differing responses to changing circumstances or stimuli, that normally would be good evidence thinking has occurred or is happening.

Does the human brain need exercise to develop and remain healthy? There apparently exists evidence to show the human brain needs exercise. Subjecting the five senses to varying stimuli results in the brain being exercised. That is a good thing. Can there be too much of a good thing? Can there be such a thing as too much thinking? Just as a cup full of water can help you and a ship full of water can harm you, too much exercise of the brain can be harmful. When people

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