Thoughts on thought?

By Brandon Towl

Today, I spent a little time thinking about introspection and the various ways that it can be used as evidence (a topic that our own Gualtiero Piccinini has written about, though I also had in mind the kind of “polling” that Hurlburt and Schwitzgeibel do).

I began to wonder just how subjects might interpret questions that ask about their inner “thoughts”.  We all have an idea of what thoughts are, but I wonder if the term is precise enough to ask meaningful questions about inner experience in most contexts.

So here’s a question and a scenario, and I’d like to hear what Brain’s readers think: can one be awake, conscious, and aware, but not have any thoughts occurring?  Imagine a scenario where you are on the beach (or any place relaxing), and you are simply sitting, drink in hand, and enjoying the opportunity to not do anything in particular.  You are not pondering anything you have to do or any place you have to be, nor are you daydreaming.  Are you having any thoughts in this scenario?

I can see two (incompatible) responses.  The first would be a “no”– one would not be thinking anything, though one would have sensory awareness of, e.g., the visual scene, one’s bodily state, etc.  The second, naturally, would be “yes”– there must be some thought, even if that thought is just “ah, this is nice” or “I am at the beach” or “I am holding a drink”.

Clarifications?  Intuitions?  What is the party line?


  1. Brandon,

    I’d say that one can be aware, conscious, etc., without having any occurrent thoughts. This is what some meditative states are like, and although it’s not easy to do, people can do it. Zen practitioners talk about going from being in a fully aware state, having no thoughts, to then having the thought that they were having no thoughts, and how frustrating it can be to maintain the first state without going into the second one.

  2. gualtiero

    I’d agree with Corey with the qualification that someone can be conscious/aware without any _propositional_ thoughts. They will still have sensory awareness, or at least I am skeptical that someone can be conscious/aware without being conscious/aware of anything at all, at least under normal circumstances. Maybe someone with a certain kind of brain damage could.

  3. Hi Brandon,

    There seems to be two issues here: (1) how do the folk understand thought-talk, and (2) is this a “precise” (enough) notion.

    I take it that (1) is sort of beside the point if WE (or rather they) as experimenters define how we(they) want subjects to understand the notion (e.g. “report your thoughts, including inner speech, reasoning, imagery, etc.”). I recall that there was an early experiment that claimed to refute Chomsky because the guy asked people to “say whether the sentence is grammatical” without any instruction of what was meant by ‘grammatical’. Of course the data was all over the place. So, if we define what we mean, where is the beef?

    I suppose matters will depend on how or why you are collecting the evidence. Were there specific issues you had in mind?

  4. Brandon N Towl

    So, I’m not sure I had so much of an “issue” in mind, more than a loose grouping of pre-issue like thoughts.

    One such thought was prompted by Schwitegeibel’s post over at the X-phi blog (– I tended to agree with the commentators that asking the audience to report “inner experience” might unduly bias them towards immediate perceptual experience.

    But I also suspect that asking someone to report on their “thoughts” would bias them towards reported linguistic (or propositional) thought. In fact, I ask my undergrad class to report on their thoughts sometimes, and it all seems like linguistic thought. But I would wager that the reports would be more wide-ranging if I asked them to report *what they were thinking about*. In those cases, one might get, for example, some non-linguistic imagery.

    The third thought was about whether or not there really was non-conceptual content. Some people doubt that there is. But if one can find a case where one is aware (and, as Gualtiero says, aware *of* something) but not thinking anything (using concepts, that is), then there can be non-conceptual content quite easily.

    So, before getting more lost, I thought I would just take stock on people’s intuitions about what thoughts were, and how we would interpret requests to report on thoughts and/or experiences. Indeed, I like the meditation example a lot.

    And I would also second Brendan’s comment– always be careful with experimental design!

  5. Jonathan Speke Laudly

    Yes, it is possible. In fact everybody does it at one time or another. There are times during the day when there is a
    gap between on thought and another–in that gap between thoughts is no thought—-and yet there is nothing missing. In other words thought arises from or is imposed upon a backround of this silence–and when thought subsides or thought slows down sufficient to reveal the gaps between thoughts—-this silence is there.
    Meditators cultivate the experience of this no thought–which is also no self—that is silent but entirely present.
    The suspension of thought marks what is called the state of samadhi in meditation. It is accompanied by temporary stilling of the breath–the breath so slow it practically halts.
    After a long time meditating the silent backround slowly becomes more and more the foreground and thought and
    sense the backround. This comes with the realization that thought and sense, the world, arises out of this silence and this silence is ever abiding and unchanging. This silence becomes what the personality identifies with—and the little ego, the central troublemaker
    takes a permanent back seat and the person experiences life as a series of spontaneous events and actions which are selfless—and instead are part and parcel of the ongoing machinations of the universe.
    This is the meaning of transcendence.
    The self, in essence, disappears as the central motivator of life, the message being that the ego is a false center—and this is part of the illusion said by Yogis to characterize
    the relative world.
    There is a realization that there is no person–no entity– and there never was. Instead, there is complete continuance with the rest of the cosmos—no separation at all. While the silence untouched by thought and sense becomes the center. This silence is what Buddists refer to when they ask the Koan “show me the face you had before your were born”.
    This disappearance of the domination of ego is the true death the Yogis say.
    The transcendence of enlightenment is just the realization that there is no
    descriptioin for what you are–and if asked–you can honestly say “I have no idea what I am, and that is what I am!”
    For transcendence is a return to being
    generally—your existence is being–but no being, no thing in particular.
    YOu can say you are the whole world–that the world in some way is your body—but that otherwise you are nothing in particular. You are at once completely gone and entirely here.
    And that is liberation.
    I advise all to sit and just watch the
    thoughts come and go —make that a frequent habit and the depths of being will gradually reveal itself.
    Nisargadatta, the famous Indian sage, said that his mind tells him he is nothing and his heart tells him he is everything–and in between these two he lives his life.
    Find out!

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