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thinking with words and images

we think. it’s something humans do. most of us in the modern world think nearly constantly and the vast majority do all they can to avoid it. but thinking — truly thinking — is the hallmark of humanity. there is nothing more human than thought. while there are other lifeforms that may be capable of it, organic or potentially others, we are the only ones we know of who have ever achieved thought. and that’s hugely significant. let’s take a short look at what it means to think in the human sense.

since before i even started doctoral work, i think the most frequent question people asked me was what it means to think. of course, given that i studied psychology, that’s not really all that weird. the curious part is that most people didn’t seem to have any idea what the answer looked like, despite spending pretty much their entire lives engaged in the activity. this confused me because the answer doesn’t take a decade or two of research and study. it’s obvious even when you’re a child if you just put your mind to it. and putting your mind to things is exactly the whole point of childhood, isn’t it?

but let’s start at the beginning.

what is thought?

thought is not a basic function of the brain. and we should probably get that whole notion of brain function out of the way first. that’s not something a young child will automatically get the way they should probably understand thought but it’s a good starting place for adults. the brain realistically does three things. it processes information automatically, stores memory and thinks. we’ll get to thinking in a moment but the other two are key to understanding the difference between thought and other brain function.

our brains work every moment of our lives. from the time the brain begins to exist before birth to after our last breaths, our brains are making our bodies function. without the brain keeping them organized, our hearts wouldn’t beat and our lungs wouldn’t pump air in and out. our legs wouldn’t hold us up or take us anywhere and our hands wouldn’t be able to pick up glasses of water or pour them in our mouths. for that matter, our mouths wouldn’t open, throats wouldn’t swallow and stomachs wouldn’t digest. the brain’s primary function is to regulate all functions in the body. that’s what it’s doing all the time. remember that old saying about “you only use a tiny percentage of your brain when you think” that always sounds stupid because you want to be able to use 100% and think like a superhuman? well, you don’t. because you need most of your brain’s power just to keep your body alive. we call this by many names — the autonomic nervous system covers a good portion of it and it’s sometimes talked about as homeostasis or homeostatic maintenance. but you can think of it as “operating costs” of having a physical body. this process also does some things with memory and rebuilding cells in the brain but that’s getting a little too in-the-weeds for a general overview and you’re not trying to become a brain specialist, just understand what thought is.

memory is a little more common-sense. only a little, though. it’s not what you think it is. it’s not a coherent story saved in our brains like one of your school creative-writing projects that you can take out and read again when you get nostalgic about eighth grade. we take in information from various sensory organs and build a model of the world around us. that model is inaccurate and biased but it’s that model we store, not the actual reality of the situation. it’s why two eye-witnesses never tell the same story. not only did they experience it from different perspectives, their sensory input is different and memory isn’t perfect so there is degradation. the other important function of memory is that it is write-only. that’s going to sound really weird. if it’s write-only, how do we remember anything? a very good question. you’re used to things like dvds that are read-only. you can’t take a standard dvd and save information to it. that’s why if you take it from one player to another (yes, i know, they’re out of date but most people still remember how they work) it doesn’t remember where you were in the movie. but it hasn’t forgotten the movie. it’s exactly as it was when it was first created. read-only. memory is the opposite. every time you access your memory, you write it again. so as you experience an event from your past you write it into your memory again, usually deleting the original copy or at least mostly replacing it. the fragments of overlap can come back to haunt us but the general idea is that the old memory is replaced by the new memory, processed through our modern brain experience. so if something happened to you as a child and you remember it as an adult, it’s not uncommon to gradually shift your perception of the experience because now you’re having those sensory experiences with a much different body and thinking about things with a very different mind. a child who experiences trauma, for example, may not have realized just how wrong something that happened was but remembering it as a teen can very suddenly realize someone shouldn’t have done whatever it was to them and the shock is both immediate and permanent. this is the write-only nature of memory. if you remember playing baseball in a field by your house when you were six then suddenly your mother tells you that field was turned into a shopping mall when you were four, what happens to the memory? it’s not the same. you obviously merged different memories to create it. now when you think of it, you know it’s artificial and with each passing memory you build a new structure. you’ve shifted your baseball to a new location — despite the actual sensations not having changed at all. memory is flexible and imprecise. if it was accurate and detailed, we would all be traumatized by obsessive memories and never able to function. be thankful for your somewhat meh memory. it’s the only thing that lets you get on with your life, allowing the past to stay where it belongs most of the time. scents and emotional states (as well as chemicals like drugs and alcohol) can trigger very strong memory reactions and this can often lead to serious problems when a particularly troubling one surfaces unexpectedly. post-traumatic-stress-disorder is a very complex thing to treat but it’s pretty simple to explain in basic terms — it’s an inability to stop reliving negative memories in the way most people can. that doesn’t mean you’re a bad or weak person. it just means something in your memory has malfunctioned and you’re stuck in it.

with those two pieces out of the way, though, there is a third and extremely important function of the human brain. i should mention those other two functions happen for almost all living beings across species. dogs and cats and horses and frogs and whales, even fish and scorpions and bees have homeostatic functions and memories. they might not work as well as human systems or (like in the case of whales and dolphins) may work far more effectively in various ways. but the important thing to remember is that we all do it. this is a pair of things we share with all our animal planetary cohabitants.

the third piece, however, we don’t. thinking is something other species may someday be able to do. life on other planets is likely to exist and it probably has the ability to think. computers can’t do it yet (it’s 2021 and i suspect this will be true for at least the next ten or twenty years) but someday they might be able to. it’s not guaranteed but it’s definitely possible. with enough evolutionary time, unless we completely fuck the planet up and kill all life on it, which is a distinct possibility, other species on earth may evolve the ability to think naturally. this is not to say it’s an inherently human-only ability. just that we have evolved that ability and nothing else we know of has done it yet.

so what exactly is thought?

thought is the ability to process symbolic information. reactive brain function requires a trigger — a stimulus. a dog smells food and it goes to eat it. a cat sees a bird and chases it. a dolphin hears a distant sound screaming for help and goes there. these are all reactive, not thought-based actions. their brains work automatically. they don’t have to think. it means the actions are extremely fast but there’s no choice. if the dog smells food and their stomach is full, the reaction might be different. but they don’t see the food and have an empty stomach and think “how many calories are in this?” or “is it ok to have another helping of dessert?” — they just eat or don’t eat based on the reaction of the body to the moment.

and it’s this in-the-moment-ness of reaction that makes it different from thought. a dog (i like dogs because they’re good examples and almost everyone has had a chance to experience life around one at least a few times) can think of a ball when there’s a ball. but (and you’ve probably had this experience) say the word “ball” to a dog that’s used to hearing that particular sound trigger and it will be the funniest reaction you can possibly imagine — absolute shock at the possible existence of a ball. the dog isn’t aware balls even exist until suddenly that trigger appears, either seeing one or hearing the word, which triggers the memory and ball is now the entire reactive consciousness of the dog and shock is replaced by desperate searching for something round, squishy and often flying through the air. if i say ball to you, you’re not suddenly shocked by it. you knew balls existed the last time you saw one. you didn’t think they stopped existing when there wasn’t one in sight. their presence in your mind is a calm pond without ripples compared to the sudden tsunami of canine playtime. this teaches us another useful thing, by the way. memory isn’t thought. it’s an automatic reaction and that’s extremely important to keep in mind. we don’t think our memories. we experience them. we can think about them after or even during. but thought isn’t required — often isn’t even possible — for memory to come from the past to haunt or inspire us. while animals don’t have thought, they certainly have memory. and this allows animals to be trained, for example. show a dog a ball enough times and they’ll know exactly what it is. take it away and they’ll stop being aware of it until it comes to mind again. reactive processing in a nutshell — a dog with a ball.

so thought is processing symbolic information from outside the moment. let’s run with that idea.

what is symbolic information?

this has been approached in various ways. lacan talked about signs and signifiers (among other things) in a way that was both highly insightful and intentionally confusing. i wish academics would stop doing that. but that’s what most academics do. they want to overcomplicate things as a barrier to entry. let’s avoid that trend, though. we won’t talk about semiotics in those complex terms. it’s the same idea below the surface.

if i say “ball”, you have a mental idea of what a ball is. it’s not because there’s one here or even because there’s one anywhere. it’s because you know what it is and can picture it. there are various ways to represent an idea. the easiest way to think of it is spoken or written language. the word “ball”, either seen on a page or heard as sound, triggers the idea to happen and thought jumps through the mind. the chemical and biological processes that make that happen are actually not significantly different from all the automated processes we talked about already. but the result is incredibly unique (yes you can be more or less unique — unique, as pedantic fucks will tell you, means “one-of-a-kind” but being “more unique” doesn’t mean it’s “more one-of-a-kind” — it means there is more distance differentiating it from others that are similar so more unique makes perfect sense, despite the silliness of academic books on language theory complaining about it as a functional impossibility).

it doesn’t have to be spoken or written language, though. it does have to be language. but that language can be in a totally different form. for example, when i say “language is a precursor to thought”, people often hear “you have to be able to speak before you can think”. and for many people this is exactly the case. but not everyone can speak. and not everyone who can speak learns to speak as the first language act in their lives. take someone who’s completely deaf. if you’re partially hearing-impaired, speech might still be your first active language-act. it might not be clear or intelligible speech but it’s often speech. if you have no functional auditory system, however, that’s incredibly unlikely. you might develop a symbolic language system based on the written forms of words but that’s not going to happen until you’re a bit older unless you’re very unusual (and probably have very good parents helping you along, though it doesn’t have to be biological parents doing the helping) — most children simply don’t learn to read as quickly as they need to develop language skills but they can usually learn to speak pretty quickly, even if that speech is subpar and extremely simplified, garbled or even not in an intelligible language to the outside world. the deaf child in our example, however, may have to learn symbolic blocks as visual triggers, a rudimentary version of sign language. some will even learn, as their first active linguistic act, a full sign-language like asl (by far the most common visual language symbol system in the modern world), though there are various others corresponding to other spoken languages in a loose sense. it’s useful to remember that asl doesn’t correspond directly to english grammar but it does loosely approximate english structure and, more importantly, symbolic representative models. it has a visual trigger action for “ball” the way the auditory trigger of speaking the english word can represent it. the relationship between asl and written language, however, is far more tenuous and this often puts asl students at a disadvantage when learning to read. it can be an advantage later in life the way learning a foreign language can so it’s not all shit and charcoal in the stocking, though. and that’s a discussion for another day. the key here is that it doesn’t have to be spoken or written language to be language. it can be something very different.

here’s another example that might make it a bit clearer, though i hope it will not be taken as racist and i assure you it is not. there are various african populations that speak languages where varying the pitch, nasal tone, airflow and explosive nature of sound conveys completely different meanings. a click (and there are various types) combined with a change in breathing may have the same meaning as in english or chinese is represented by syllabic vowels and consonants. there is nothing more or less functional about this way of manipulating sound — and i mention it is done in africa more because it will make it easier for you to find examples to listen to than because it’s far from where i live. chinese uses tones (different dialects use different quantities of them) to vary symbolic meaning. korean and japanese often use physical gestures accompanied by vague sounds to convey things that in english, french or spanish would be complete words or even whole sentences. what’s the point? not all language is written or simple consonant-vowel groups of sounds. it can be symbolic regardless.

symbolic information allows us to process information asynchronously. i’ll use a technological example you’ll all be familiar with and this loosely corresponds to how the brain deals with symbolic thought. you and i are both on a social media site (let’s say facebook but most work in similar ways) but we live in different time zones. i’m in east-asia and you’re in south-america. so when i’m awake, you’re probably falling asleep and the opposite is true. i’m an insomniac but let’s pretend for a moment and i’ll try to take a nap. i go to my messaging screen and write you a message. it sends that message to your phone but you’re asleep. i fall asleep and you eventually read the message, react to its contents and write me another in return. i’m asleep when it arrives and get it when i wake a few hours later and the cycle continues. this is something you’re both familiar and comfortable with. this is how symbolic language works. at some point there is a stimulus thought — usually in childhood but sometimes later, especially if we are learning a new language. we’ll use the word “ball” again because it’s already been drilled to death and what’s another round going to do for it? when you were a child, you saw a ball for the first time and someone told you what it was. you stored that information in your memory and now the word ball triggers the image. it is a generalized concept, though. not a specific ball. just a notion of balls being round and bigger than a coin but smaller than a retriever. mostly. yoga balls are huge as all fuck and you can get a pretty tiny retriever but you get the idea. it only takes once to connect the symbol, though there are often many repetitions clarifying its vagueness — are all cats black or can they be white if you’ve only ever seen black cats? well, when you see a white one, your definition expands and now you have a more accurate symbolic pattern for cat in your head.

what’s the connection between symbolic thought and language?

without language, there’s no symbolic thought. it’s that simple. you have to have a trigger (or at least a way to trigger) for this symbol to manifest in your consciousness. language is that trigger. someday we may encounter a species that communicates using scent language or electrical conductivity but human languages are almost completely auditory and visual. there are some touch-language systems but they’re mostly representative replacements for audiovisual languages by proxy.

to think about something, an animal requires there to be a real-world physical trigger. reactive processing — otherwise known as instinct. it’s why animals often seem to be so fast they anticipate the near future. humans don’t usually work nearly as fast. we take in information in a symbolic nature and process it through active thought before acting on it, often taking seconds, sometimes minutes or hours. we’re slow. but we have a massive advantage in exactly one aspect.

we don’t need a real-world trigger. if i say a word like “love” or “peace” or “harmony” to you, you might not know exactly what i mean by it but you’ve got an idea. not necessarily going to be the same as my idea but it’ll trigger thought. if you say “love” to our friendly neighborhood fido, it has exactly as much meaning as saying it to a stone. but fido’s alive, you scream. and fido, i hope, remains that way for a long time, being incredibly unlike the stone. but, like the stone, dearest fido has no symbolic processing ability so non-physical concepts don’t exist and there’s no way to bridge that gap and make fido think. fido doesn’t love. fido reacts to your presence and cuddles because it feels good — to them and you. but love? not on your life. ain’t no puppies protesting for peace or designing harmonizing societies. no greedy canines, either, as much as we might like to anthropomorphize them into it. they experience and react.

so do you, of course. walk in a room where there’s a fire and your breathing will suddenly change. take a drink of water and have it go down the wrong way in your throat and your whole body will spasm to make sure it doesn’t drown. automatic reactions are part of what it means to be alive — the biggest part, in many ways.

but to have active, coherent, conscious thought, we do that in terms of language. i don’t think “store”. i think “i have to go to the store”. no, not everyone thinks in full sentences. there is shorthand — something loosely approximating “must go store” and everyone’s shorthand is different. some people really do think in complete sentences while others minimize the information. there’s no right or wrong way to deal with what can loosely be termed “internal language” or “personal grammar” but we all have it. it might not even always be words. it could be images. anyone who thinks language has to be letters obviously hasn’t studied chinese. but, even more significant, they haven’t kept up with the obvious trend where you can communicate a whole emotional state experience using emoji (or, as they were once more commonly known, emoticons, which sounds like something from an 80s cartoon about transportation equipment gone wrong). a smile doesn’t necessarily say a thousand words. but it certainly has that potential.


where does that leave us? the simple answer is our brains do three things — keep us alive, remember and think. automatic function keeps us alive (homeostasis) while memory, write-only, allows us to both remember and reremember (or rewrite) our pasts. thought is language in action. we think words (or other symbolic elements like pictures or sounds or gestures) and turn those into thoughts the way other animals can do it with real-world triggers, allowing us to process things completely divorced from the current situation or momentary environmental trigger set.

i hope this simplified things a little. after thousands of words, that may be a little much to expect but thought is language, after all. and a bit of extra language never hurt anyone who wanted to think more about thinking (and that’s meta af). happy thoughts…