Class Warfare Blog

December 18, 2017

Where Do Thoughts Come From?

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:31 am
Tags: , , ,

My free will post has suggested a couple of follow-ups. One such topic is the illusions of consciousness. A common manifestation of one of these is the general idea that we control our thoughts, that we create our own conscious thoughts, well, consciously.

It ain’t so, I am afraid.

Any one who has spent time learning to meditate can attest to this. Part of meditation is clearing one’s mind of thoughts, to experience some “peace of mind,” as it were. This is a bitch, if you will excuse the expression. Our consciousness essentially bubbles with unbidden thoughts. If we create them, why can we not just turn them off?

The simple answer is we can’t because “we” do not create them. The obvious question then is, “Well, then who does?”

I do not know and I do not think anyone else knows, but I can hazard an educated guess. It all stems from imagination. Imagination seems to be a mental ability that manifests itself in us creating a simulacrum of reality in our heads and then we can “imagine” or basically do experiments in that imaginary world with no real repercussions if “mistakes are made.” This ability leads to a much greater ability to survive and pass on our genes, aka evolutionary success. Consider an animal operating on instinct, that is hardwired mental programs. We are out of the African savanna, where humans evolved to our current form, and there is tall grass with a rustling in it a bit of a ways off. It could just be a gust of wind, or it could be a predator, moving through the grass coming their way. The animal becomes more alert, using vision and hearing to detect clues as to what it is. If there is no further disturbance, they go about their business. Predators, of course, learned from this behavior, learned to advance toward the prey stealthily … and then stop from time to time in utter stillness, to get the prey to ignore the stimulus of its approach. The prey animals, if they see or hear certain stimuli run away (the response is “fight or flight” and prey animals are better at the latter).

When we developed imagination as a mental tool, then we had more options. For one we could imagine that the disturbance was due to a wind zephyr and then imagine it was due to a predator. The consequences of the disturbance being due to a predator are far worse, so adopting a strategy of moving off now would be the most prudent. (This, of course, led us to believe in unseen movers and shakers we called spirits, demons, gods, etc.)

Now, if we were thinkers only in the conscious sense, we would have to stop what we were thinking, analyze the situation, run a few simulations through our imagination, and then act or not on what we learned. If this were the basis of the mutation/adaption that gave us imagination, we would have ended up in the bellies of predators too frequently and that mutation/adaption would have proved “non-viable” because it is too slow. Instead, our subconscious mental processing power kicks in to create all kinds of such things at a rate much faster than we can do consciously. (Remember, subconscious mental activities are the “fast” in Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow.) So, the subconscious “us” has the job of rapidly exploring myriad scenarios and alerting the conscious “us” if one of them reaches “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” levels.

We have evolved to generate thoughts that correspond to real reality and imagined reality. So, these come at us fast and furiously. Most of these subconscious thoughts that leak into our conscious are ignored as they carry little weight. If something is really serious, we get signals we cannot ignore, including heart palpitations, sweating, panting breaths, etc. As I mentioned, we do not have much, if any, conscious control over our bodily functions.

Some of us are better at this and some are worse. If we are better at generating images, thoughts, patterns, etc. then we find meditating more difficult, because of the sheer volume of such things flitting about. If we are less imaginatively energetic, meditation comes easier. (One is not necessarily better than the other, just different.)

I suspect an individual’s creativity comes from an ability to access that river of thoughts and images and feelings that are running through our brains subconsciously. Those people will have more options for artistic expression or really any other form of expression.

This is all quite speculative, of course, but I suspect there may be a grain or two of truth in it. We will see as currently we are learning a great deal more about non-conscious modes of thought. (Thank you, inventors of brain scanners.) But do keep in mind that we do not yet know how memories are storied, a basic function of our mentality, so we are just at the beginnings of understand such subjects. We might even get a handle on whether there is such a thing as free will.


  1. Along the same lines, we evolved this imagination so we can plan future actions and imagine their impact. If an obstacle blocks my path, I can imagine various scenarios — climbing over, going around, digging through, punching the barrier, etc. — and also imagine the outcome of each in order to determine the best action. A critter who’s pre-programmed to always climb up, or always go left, or always dig under, will very often meet with a bad end. Those of us able to imagine can evaluate each obstacle and chose the correct path quickly. And I’ve observed this behavior in some animals, so I’m certain it’s not limited to humans.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Anderson Connors — December 18, 2017 @ 10:42 am | Reply

    • I am not certain. If they try digging in one place and it is not successful, they switch to another. Is that based upon imagination of trial and test?

      On Mon, Dec 18, 2017 at 10:42 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — December 18, 2017 @ 12:19 pm | Reply

      • In my experience (worked on a farm for a couple of summers), there are all kinds. The very simple-minded animals will do *one* thing over and over, whether it works or not. Other animals will try one thing first; if it doesn’t work, they’ll try a second thing. Smarter animals (dogs, or horses, for example) can be seen doing what we do — considering actions before trying them. They can remember that simply pushing on a door doesn’t work, but that jiggling the handle worked a couple of times. So they’ll go straight for the handle. Sometimes, you can *watch* them make up their minds. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Anderson Connors — December 18, 2017 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

        • I agree. I have seen dogs and, of all things, crows who were very adept at solving puzzles. There is something there … there.

          On Mon, Dec 18, 2017 at 12:58 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


          Liked by 2 people

          Comment by Steve Ruis — December 18, 2017 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

  2. Thoughts, seemingly original ones, are fascinating. I think it’s mostly finding new connections between existing things.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by john zande — December 18, 2017 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

    • That’s what dreams seem to be, but truly novel thoughts? I often put 2 + 2 together without effort, but occasionally I have fictional story ideas that come unbidden, and I recognize forces in my intellectual life but … I don’t know.

      On Mon, Dec 18, 2017 at 12:32 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — December 18, 2017 @ 12:40 pm | Reply

  3. This comment may not apply totally with your post, but what the heck. My late wife (why do we refer to our dead as late? I mean they will never be ‘on time’ again.) was an RN and she had this idea/hypothesis/whatever you wish to call it. She told me more than once that science and medicine knew a great deal about the human brain, BUT next to nothing about the human mind. She died from complications of glioblastoma in January 1999 and I have thought about her idea of this brain/mind deal off and on over the years. When she was alive and able to talk (her last week in this life was mostly silence from her) we’d talk about it every so often. I have zero clue where my thoughts come from. Hey, maybe it is aliens after all! That was a snarky poke at that garbage (my opinion) TV show “ancient aliens” on the former WW2/Hitler channel (yep, History channel).
    I do know I have come up with some very odd ball thoughts during my nearly 70 years in this life. I do wonder if she may have been on the right track though. We do have some understanding of how different parts/areas of the brain function, but we don’t have much, if any understanding of the mind and how it works or doesn’t as the case may be. Just my $0.02 worth; adjusted for inflation, now maybe worth $0.00000258143.


    Comment by Walter Kronkat — December 18, 2017 @ 11:58 pm | Reply

    • It has been only since the advent of brain scanners that we have gotten any significant clues as to what is going on. Prior to that, all such arguments involving “minds” were philosophical, that is non-reality based.

      Think about the whole field of psychiatry. Basically they are pill pushers and possible exist only because the pharmaceutical companies needed a distribution system. We haven’t yet arrived at an acceptable definition of what a mind is!

      On Mon, Dec 18, 2017 at 11:58 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — December 19, 2017 @ 8:47 am | Reply

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