What is the experience of having thoughts like?

As you’re reading this, what are you thinking of? Stop. Think about something else. What did you think about? That’s interesting. How did that thought come to you? Did an image appear in your mind’s eye? Did a concept float by the window of your consciousness? OK, here’s another question: how did that thought feel? Was it visual? Did you smell it? Or, was it abstract? Could it not be perceptible? In this essay, the issue of how thinking feels, or, what might be called the phenomenology of cognition, shall be broached. I shall attempt to decipher precisely how it feels to think, or indeed, to determine whether such an academic endeavour should even be possible. All aboard the train of thought!

To start, we must consider quite a foundational question: what is thinking? A simple, everyday response might seem something like: doing mental stuff; that is, thinking is the stuff your mind does as you go about your day. This seems approachable enough as a starting point. Should we not be disabled or handicapped, we are all aware to varying degrees of the stuff our minds do regardless of our understanding of that stuff. Even as a young child, I remember exclaiming to my mother that I had invented ‘mind speak’, not realising that, in fact, essentially everyone else could also have thoughts to themselves as well.

This said, a more technical definition fits better for the purposes of this essay. Looking toward the cognitive sciences for an answer, one that lists humans’ higher, more general cognitive processes might be provided. Such processes may include: memory, learning, problem-solving, decision making, reasoning, imagining, comprehending, or categorising — some even say that language may also constitute a broad cognitive faculty, although this is more controversial. Nevertheless, these are the kinds of activities, or stuffs, that our minds are doing all the time. As you walk down your local high street, perceiving and interacting with the world around you, your mind is constantly working in order to remember that discount in a shop window, to make sure you decide the right moment to cross the street, or to figure out what might have caused the police to be outside the local pub on a Saturday afternoon (hint: it’s derby day).

With this established, I would like to move to a slightly more abstract question: how does thinking feel? While I am sure that many readers will have, at one point or another, reflected on the machinations of their cognitive processes, the results of such introspections will not yield a satisfactory response to my question. Instead of these, which should only be taken to represent an investigation into the content of a thought, I wish to find out precisely how it felt to investigate that content.

One might object at this point that it ought not to feel like anything to think. Given the conventional understanding of ‘feeling’ as involving one’s perceptual faculties, which do not pertain at all to anything internal to the mind, at the very least it might seem that ‘feel’ should be the wrong word, and at most that feeling thoughts is impossible. Yet, I would find it highly implausible were one to suggest that there is nothing to thinking aside from the processes that underpin it. After all, an aspect of consciousness, which we all surely possess, is the capacity to introspect, have second-order thoughts (i.e., thoughts about thoughts), and reflect on our mental happenings.

Delving deeper into philosophical theory, one can make the distinction between reflective self-consciousness and pre-reflective self-consciousness to elucidate the notion of feeling one’s thoughts. On one hand, reflective self-consciousness is the quite ordinary ability or process one carries out when one reflects on a mental experience. If you accidentally touch a hot stove and feel pain, your description of that pain to me would exhibit reflective self-consciousness. However, your experience of that pain, that is, how it felt, would be pre-reflective, and your ability to process and understand those feelings as they present themselves exists thanks to your self-consciousness.

At face value, this does not seem too profound a concept. In one form or another, philosophers such as Husserl (1959) and Sartre (1943) have arrived at a conclusion that pre-reflective self-consciousness forms an essential part experience. However, its complexity compounds in the analysis of precisely how it is possible.

The philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938).

Essentially, this issue concerns, in an abstract sense, where or when exactly pre-reflective self-consciousness occurs. Under one view, it might be said that feeling one’s thoughts constitutes a separate cognitive process that facilitates pre-reflective experience. In this way, conscious experience is to a certain extent contingent upon the function of a wholly non-conscious faculty that monitors experiences and allows us to feel them. In this account, it would be entirely plausible to suggest that pre-reflective experiences could exist in a long chain, wherein one might have a feeling of a feeling of a feeling of a feeling (etc.) such that this regression could occur at infinitely higher-order levels.

In opposition to this view, one could suggest that the capacity for pre-reflective self-consciousness exists somewhere within experiences themselves, as and when they are processed mentally. Expanding further, this suggestion proposes that there is nothing more to feeling a conscious experience than it is to have had that experience; there is nothing more to feeling thinking than it is to think. Just as all that is required to feel the hotness of the stove is to touch it, so too is it that all we require to feel that experience is to have had it; all that’s left to feeling one’s thoughts is to will it. Though the arguments of this essay require no side to be taken here, it is worthwhile to assert that the latter option seems to conform more to Ockham’s razor, and thus that it appears more plausible.

In any case, highlighting the philosophical theories behind this essay only serves to further our understanding of the issue at hand — it does not help us come to a solution necessarily. To this end, let us investigate for ourselves the phenomenon of pre-reflective self-consciousness, or, feeling thinking. If you will humour me, try to carry out the following cognitive activities:

  • picture your childhood bedroom
  • decipher this anagram: tebaretha
  • silently recite a line of poetry
  • ask yourself an abstract question, and then answer it

In each of these examples, as you carried them out, a first important question should be asked: how did you carry them out? Though the recourse one’s mind takes to face these problems will vary from person to person, there should still be a striking similarity between the majority of readers’ experiences. Here’s how I think they will have been performed.

For the first two, I expect the reader to have undertaken a highly imaginative, or imagistic, procedure. To picture one’s childhood bedroom is to cast in one’s mind’s eye an image of that place; and to rearrange the letters of an anagram is to imagine that letter x existed in the place of letter y so as to determine whether a ‘real word’ might form out of that transformation. Even if you weren’t able to solve the anagram (for which the word was heartbeat), some form of mental imagery must have been summoned to give it a go.

How clear is the mental image of your first bedroom?

However, for the latter two, I predict that these processes may have been almost wholly linguistic in nature. That is, in order to have recited a line of poetry silently, the reader may have attempted to recall the memory of this line such that the content of that memory might have been accessed at such a speed as to represent the typical speed of ordinary linguistic speech. So closely linked with linguistic expression is thinking in language that some readers might even have found that the act of reciting unintentionally employed the instruments of the oral cavity (most notably the tongue) used in the actual production of speech, albeit possibly minutely.

Further, in the process of forming and responding to a question in one’s mind, it seems to me that one must have initiated some sort of internal monologue, wherein one forms grammatically sound linguistic expressions in one’s mind and combines them to form sentences of an appropriate kind for the task at hand. As this is something practically all of us do every day, it appears uncontroversial to describe the process thus.

Here, it is appropriate to say that it is entirely possible that individuals’ experiences with these examples may have differed entirely to the way in which my predictions describe. Of course, this is totally fine in a normative sense, as there should not be any prescribed manner by which one should think. Given that I suffer from no condition that affects my perceptual or linguistic abilities (e.g., being partially sighted/blind, experiencing synesthesia or hallucinations, suffering from Broca’s aphasia etc.) that might then affect my mind in these activities, I would hope my own insights would represent a sufficiently accurate account.

With the establishment that carrying out these activities was like imagining or formulating linguistic expressions internally, next in our investigation it is pertinent to ask a second question: how did carrying out these activities feel? Putting it more technically, what was the phenomenal character of these cognitive experiences? In response to this, I will suggest two answers.

For the first two activities, which involved the imagination, I would propose that they felt in many ways similar to how utilising the faculties of perception feels. Though clearly quite separate from perception, physiologically and phenomenologically, precisely how is a little more complicated. McGinn (2004) provides a highly insightful account into the nature of human imagination, and, in particular, gives a list of useful criteria for distinguishing conceptually between images (a singular conjuring of the imagination) and percepts (a singular instance of perceiving). Three of the most important ways to distinguish between them are that:

  1. images can be willed (i.e., produced at will), whereas percepts cannot be;
  2. images are not inherently informative (i.e., containing new information), whereas percepts are;
  3. and percepts are phenomenologically saturated (i.e., in high definition), whereas images are not (i.e., they’re patchy).
The summoning powers of the imagination are endless.

Providing answers for the latter two activities, however, leaves us with fewer phenomenological options. Quite clearly, forming linguistic utterances in one’s mind is very different to forming them ordinarily: the relevant physiological processes (e.g., the mouth, the ears, etc.) involved in speaking and listening remained unemployed. Though, in imagining, one can still form a mental image somewhat representing visual perception, in this endeavour, one does not necessarily hear words as if spoken or see them as if written.

Instead, they appear quite abstractly, almost conceptually, and then become interpretable to us when we focus our intentions heavily on them as if they had been spoken or written. In this sense, I would argue that linguistic thought differs quite significantly from imaginative thought insofar as the former holds no necessary form or structure until one focuses, whereas an image does necessarily have some kind of form that is only saturated by the intention of our focus.

So, how does it seem that these linguistic thoughts feel to have? What is it like to have a linguistic thought? One avenue for explanation is provided by Fodor (1975) and the Language of Thought Hypothesis, which essentially postulates that thoughts have an internal structure of the same kind that language does, occurring in a special kind of mental language, Mentalese. This internal structure is endowed with two important principles (for our purposes) that make it language-like: it has words possessing representational qualities that facilitate meaningfulness (i.e., concepts), and those words conform to a compositional semantics when they are combined into sentences (i.e., they can be composed to form complex, meaningful representations). In some sense, Mentalese provides a useful framework for how linguistic thoughts might be presented to us, but a structure for the language itself brings us no closer to understanding how it feels to “speak” it.

To meet this problem, the main argument of this essay will be made. The phenomenology of pre-reflective self-conscious linguistic thought (or, what linguistic thoughts feel like) seems to me best conceptualised with reference to the technology used on public transport vehicles such as trains and buses known as a passenger information system (PIS). Quite accidentally akin with the metaphor, ‘train of thought’, I propose that thinking in language should be taken to feel like how it would be to be, or at least to look at, a screen of scrolling text that appears by all means in well-formed, yet constantly disappearing, linguistic utterances. Thinking in language feels like being a PIS.

The display of a passenger information system.

Just like the ever-moving information that appears on a PIS about the train, the next station, or what to do if you spot something suspicious, so too do I posit the phenomenology of linguistic thought to be. Though the PIS of humans’ thoughts might be capable of much longer expressions than an ordinary PIS, and though our thoughts might not necessarily move at the same speed, in the same direction, or even with the same consistency of either, the similarities seem remarkably stark to me.

In some sense, and to some degree, the PIS display of the human mind might be conceptualised as the phenomenological seat of human consciousness. The capacity for pre-reflective self-conscious linguistic thought exists due to and occurs within the scrolling thoughts of Mentalese that appear to us and pass by in some corner of our minds. Although observing this phenomenon, I suggest, can only ever instantiate reflective self-consciousness, the process itself seems to me precisely what it is to feel thoughts just because this conceptualisation embodies so strongly such a distinct phenomenal quality.

Next time your mind wonders with a string of thoughts into some peculiar cavern or mysterious ravine, pursuing one after the other some destination of a conclusion that seemed far away before, reflect on how that journey felt. Those thoughtful thoughts you thought will have felt like a feeling you can re-feel to know what it was like to think them. So central for knowing life is feeling that feeling all you can will enrich your existence. So, feel away; try to notice how thinking feels. It’s what I do. I suppose, in a fashion, my approach could be framed like that famous Cartesian adage: I think therefore I feel. Do you, as well?

linguist | MPhil Cambridge | “digestible philosophy”

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