What is a Thought?

December 9, 2012

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Thought generally refers to any mental or intellectual activity involving an individual’s subjective consciousness. It can refer either to the act of thinking or the resulting ideas or arrangements of ideas. Similar concepts include cognition, sentience, consciousness, and imagination.

Dictionary Definition:   thought ( noun)

  1. the product of mental activity; that which one thinks: a body of thought.

  2. a single act or product of thinking; idea or notion: to collect one’s thoughts.

  3. the act or process of thinking; mental activity: Thought as well as action wearies us.

  4. the capacity or faculty of thinking, reasoning, imagining, etc.: All her thought went into her work.

  5. a consideration or reflection: Thought of death terrified her.

Because thought underlies almost all human actions and interactions, understanding its physical and metaphysical origins, processes, and effects has been a longstanding goal of many academic disciplines including, among others, biology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology.

Thinking allows beings to make sense of or model the world in different ways, and to represent or interpret it in ways that are significant to them, or which accord with their needs, attachments, objectives, plans, commitments, ends and desires.

In common language, the word to think covers numerous and diverse psychological activities. It often refers merely to the act of being conscious of something, especially if that thing is outside the immediate environment (“It made me think of my grandmother”). It is sometimes a synonym for “tending to believe,” especially with less than full confidence (“I think that it will rain, but I am not sure”).

At other times it denotes the degree of attentiveness (“I did it without thinking”). Many other mental activities—many of which may shade into each other—can be covered by the word, such as interpreting, evaluating, imagining, planning, and remembering.

In common usage, “thought” is often attributed to animals, machines, other non-human objects, and phenomena. The exact meaning of such usage varies as well. The attribution of thought or thought processes to non-human objects and phenomena (especially computers) could be considered anthropomorphism, though such categorizations have been contested by such computer scientists as Alan Turing (see Computing Machinery and Intelligence). As regards animals, to what extent different animals think depends on the exact definition of the word that is given, so it may be taken literally or regarded as anthropomorphic.

Source:  Wikipedia Article

What thoughts are remains mysterious from a neuroscientific point of view. They are certainly caused by brain function, but we do not yet have a solid idea regarding what it is about brain function that gives rise to them. Is it the particular kinds of neurons involved? The way a single neuron (probably not) or population of neurons fire? Do conscious thoughts require the activation of specific networks of brain regions or of tracts (the information highways that allow for brain regions to communicate with each other)? Do thoughts require activation of perceptual areas of the brain (a controversial notion)? At this stage of scientific understanding, we just don’t know. 


by Jack Carpenter

As scientists adapt computers to be more like ‘thinking machines’, and as we learn how to plant electrodes in the brains of the disabled  to re-enable them, and Matel adapts the same technology to a board game that allows the player to move a ball with just his thoughts, we are moving toward thought to thought communication – aka telepathy.

Right now some electrode enabled  patients can send Email using a keyboard image on a computer screen and focusing on one letter at a time.  The next step will be Word speak software programs which (for most uses) bypass the keyboard. The form will not be in ‘choose from a list on the screen’ but rather drawn from the known vocabulary in the user’s head. This will be awkward at first, but in a few years we will be communicating thought to thought with our computers or anyone online.


As computers get smaller and smaller (Ipod, magic rings) and Bluetooth and Wifi become ubiquitous, and with your headband / implant / ear bug turned on, you will not only be able to ‘think speak’ with your friends, you could translate English to Thai and back on the fly,….
(And imagine! A quiet school bus!!!)


And will our thoughts be subject to external mind control ?
Borgs (one mind controlling / directing another)… And telepathy (one mind controlling the action of a ball over a board game, or filtering those electrodes in your headband or implanted in your brain) – all without wires.
And then will come telepathic messaging – my brain to another – all without wires. Censored, of course…


All this and we are still left without a clear definition – What is a thought?

  • What is it’s shape?
  • What are it’s boundaries?
  • It’s limitations?
  • Is it linear or spacial? Or spacial with linear rays?
  • Could it be linked to “soul”?

 Suppose a thought could be visualized as a cloud, having visible outlines and shading. And like the common water clouds that we see every day, they would vary in density and size, merge and separate, build and fade away.  In Chemistry there are clouds of many gases, some visible and some not. Some have special properties like “radiation clouds” that project beyond their cohesive mass. It is within this framework that I perceive the concept of  a “thought”. And just as rain clouds can form from moisture and changes in temperature or pressure, so thoughts can spin off from ideas, forming in the (electromagnetic?) fields around our brains.

Could the thought exist without the brain? Yes, but not without a field of reference (or recording, such as this text).

The bigger question then becomes whether the “total field of reference” is what we call “self”; the collection of all the thoughts (ideas) by which we define ourselves as separate from every other person – above and beyond our biological bodies.

(Note that this concept of individuality of mind/spirit is not ubiquitous – that some cultures subjugate these individualistic feelings in favor of a “cog in the wheel” self identity.)

NOW lets consider this self consciousness, this “total field of reference”, without the biological body – free from attachment to physical form.
First, when I read something on the internet, I do not think much about the writer, but rather focus on the idea presented. Turn this around, and the idea is trying to influence me, without knowing or caring who I am. And if that idea takes root in my mind and prompts an action, has not some sort of telepathic control taken place?


I picture a room full of monitor screens. On each screen there is a line with a sine wave crossing it, sometimes evenly, sometimes varying heights and lengths. All elemental matter can be represented thus. I now know that there is no such thing as “solid” matter. It can all be broken down and represented by frequencies on those monitors. From hydrogen to the radioactive isotopes at the dense end, it can all be represented, clocked and counted , and atoms of even the densest are – by far – mostly empty space.

And so our perceived reality, our physical baseline, is not absolute and does not preclude other realities from existing in overlapping regions. (for example, think of the many radio frequencies to which we listen.)

I like to tell this story…

…Driving on a mountain road, listening to the car radio. Go around a bend and the station fades out – and another station fades in, without changing the dial. Next curve and the reverse happens – we are back to the original station. It happens because the radio waves bounce around off the mountains, creating distortion in the wave lengths.
I believe that in the same way, in certain atmospheric conditions, we can see spaceships, elves, fairies and hobbits.
If we accept this – the possible presence of other overlapping realities, including some more advanced than us, it would follow that they, too have thoughts…

(Note that if alien spaceships are plausible it pretty much rules out mankind as the pinnacle of anything other than a biological chain…)

Chicken or Egg?

If I tell my thought to another, and another tells another and on and on,the thought becomes independent of it’s source; it becomes an entity in it’s own right.

If there are many different realities between hobbits and spaceships and beyond, it seems probable that some of them see no use for  physical form, but exist as societies of thought, manifesting at will various physical forms to serve specific needs (or whims?) And time (as we know it) would be taken out of the equation.

This brings us to - free floating, non physical conscious entities, with the power to create & influence people, cultures, & the seeds of whole civilizations.


As we approach the threshold of elevating and separating our consciousness from our physical bodies by mechanical means (computers, AI etc) we may find that we have gone full circle, and meet our maker not face to face but thought to thought… and we may find our true identity as avatars of spirits.


Note that I hold this thesis to be within the physical framework of the universe – suns, stars, planets, black holes etc and probably not affecting biological eruptions and evolutions, or the collisions of matter in space.



Consider the collective consciousness of a school of fish. Watch as they turn. each individual fish turning exactly the same degree at exactly the same instant. This would seem to indicate a “cloud” consciousness directing the actions of each fish.  The lemmings, too, on their march to the sea are clearly directed by a collective consciousness.  In these two examples, note that there is no leader, no charismatic or fearsome figurehead to follow, only “instinct” - a cloud consciousness.



External Links

Books and Movies

What is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches (Canto Classics) [Paperback]
Erwin Schrodinger (Author), Roger Penrose (Foreword)

Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? is one of the great science classics of the twentieth century. It was written for the layman, but proved to be one of the spurs to the birth of molecular biology and the subsequent discovery of DNA. What is Life? appears here together with Mind and Matter, his essay investigating a relationship which has eluded and puzzled philosophers since the earliest times. Brought together with these two classics are Schrödinger’s autobiographical sketches, which offer a fascinating account of his life as a background to his scientific writings.

Description form the earlier edition:

A distinguished physicist’s exploration of the question which lies at the heart of biology, it was written for the layman, but proved one of the spurs to the birth of molecular biology and the subsequent discovery of the structure of DNA. The philosopher Karl Popper hailed it as a ‘beautiful and important book’ by ‘a great man to whom I owe a personal debt for many exciting discussions’. It appears here together with Mind and Matter, his essay investigating a relationship which has eluded and puzzled philosophers since the earliest times. Schrodinger asks what place consciousness occupies in the evolution of life, and what part the state of development of the human mind plays in moral questions. Brought together with these two classics are Schrödinger’s autobiographical sketches, published and translated here for the first time. They offer a fascinating fragmentary account of his life as a background to his scientific writings, making this volume a valuable additon to the shelves of scientist and layman alike.

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What is Thought? 

In What Is Thought? Eric Baum proposes a computational explanation of thought. Just as Erwin Schrodinger in his classic 1944 work What Is Life? argued ten years before the discovery of DNA that life must be explainable at a fundamental level by physics and chemistry, Baum contends that the present-day inability of computer science to explain thought and meaning is no reason to doubt there can be such an explanation. Baum argues that the complexity of mind is the outcome of evolution, which has built thought processes that act unlike the standard algorithms of computer science and that to understand the mind we need to understand these thought processes and the evolutionary process that produced them in computational terms.

Baum proposes that underlying mind is a complex but compact program that exploits the underlying structure of the world. He argues further that the mind is essentially programmed by DNA. We learn more rapidly than computer scientists have so far been able to explain because the DNA code has programmed the mind to deal only with meaningful possibilities. Thus the mind understands by exploiting semantics, or meaning, for the purposes of computation; constraints are built in so that although there are myriad possibilities, only a few make sense. Evolution discovered corresponding subroutines or shortcuts to speed up its processes and to construct creatures whose survival depends on making the right choice quickly. Baum argues that the structure and nature of thought, meaning, sensation, and consciousness therefore arise naturally from the evolution of programs that exploit the compact structure of the world.

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A.I. Artificial Intelligence [Blu-ray] (2001)


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

William John Meegan December 11, 2013 at 10:42 am

Thought is merely the SUBJECTIVE activity of the ego and/or the concertizing of egocentric whims.


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