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wundayatta's avatar

Where do thoughts come from?

Asked by wundayatta (58349 points ) March 13th, 2011

Think about it. Ok, where did that thought come from? It pops into your head, right? But from where?

Some people probably believe we can control our thoughts, but how can we do that if we don’t know where they come from. How do they come into existence? Why is it so sudden?

My experience of the process is that think along, and I have no idea what I’m going to say next, but there’s always another word or another thought that follows on, without even thinking about it. I might struggle for a word, but the thought is always there, and I know not from where.

It doesn’t feel like I’m doing any work. The thoughts are just there. Gratis. Like pretzels in the bar during happy hour.

I’m sure we could go into some scientific explanation, and that’s fine, but I want to go into other places—like what does thinking feel like? How do you experience it? Is it an effort? Do you feel like you are doing something? Or is it nothing—like received wisdom from God?

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14 Answers

Hobbes's avatar

At the moment, I’m working on a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Farfetched Fables”. Here is an excerpt from the last Fable:

“TEACHER. Order, order! Let us have no more whys. They only set you chasing your own tails, like cats. Let us get to work. I call for questions beginning with how.

MAIDEN 5. How do thoughts come into our heads? I don’t have a lot of thoughts like Number Four here. She is a highbrow; but I was born quite empty headed. Yet I get thoughts that nobody ever suggested to me. Where did they come from?

TEACHER. As to that, there are many theories. Have you none of your own, any of you?

YOUTH 2. My grandfather lectured about the theory of the Disembodied Thoughts. I picked it up from him when I was a kid. Of course the old man is now out-of-date: I don’t take him seriously; but the theory sticks in my head because I’ve never thought of anything better.

YOUTH 1. Our biology professor in the fifth swore by it. But I cannot quite stomach it.

TEACHER. Can you give me a reason for that?

YOUTH 1. Well, I was brought up to consider that we are the vanguard of civilization, the last step in creative evolution. But according to the theory we are only a survival of the sort of mankind that existed in the twentieth century, no better than black beetles compared to the super- men who evolved into the disembodied. I am not a black beetle.

YOUTH 3. Rot! If we were black beetles, the supermen would have tramped on us and killed us, or poisoned us with phosphorus.

YOUTH 1. They may be keeping us for their amusement, as we keep our pets. I told you the universe is a joke. That is my theory.

MAIDEN 5. But where do our thoughts come from? They must be flying about in the air. My father never said “I think.” He always said “It strikes me.” When I was a child I thought that something in the air had hit him.

YOUTH 1 What is the use of talking such utter nonsense? How could people get rid of their bodies?

TEACHER. People actually did get rid of their bodies. They got rid of their tails, of their fur, of their teeth. They acquired thumbs and enlarged their brains. They seem to have done what they liked with their bodies.

YOUTH 2. Anyhow, they had to eat and drink. They couldn’t have done so without stomachs and bowels.

TEACHER. Yes they could: at least so the histories say. They found they could live on air, and that eating and drinking caused diseases of which their bodies died.

YOUTH 2. You believe that!!!

TEACHER. I believe nothing. But there is the same evidence for it as for anything else that happened millions of years before we were born. It is so written and recorded. As I can neither witness the past nor foresee the future I must take such history as there is as part of my framework of thought. Without such a framework I cannot think any more than a carpenter can cut wood without a saw.

YOUTH 2. Now you are getting beyond me, Teacher. I don’t understand.

TEACHER. Do not try to understand. You must be content with such brains as you have until more understanding comes to you. Your question is where our thoughts come from and how they strike us, as Number Five’s father put it. The theory is that the Disembodied Thoughts still exist as Vortexes, and are penetrating our thick skulls in their continual pursuit of knowledge and power, since they need our hands and brains as tools in that pursuit.

MAIDEN 4. Some of our thoughts are damnably mischievous. We slaughter one another and destroy the cities we build. What puts that into our heads? Not the pursuit of knowledge and power.

TEACHER. Yes; for the pursuit of knowledge and power involves the slaughter and destruction of everything that opposes it. The disembodied must inspire the soldier and the hunter as well as the pacifist and philanthropist.

YOUTH 1. But why should anybody oppose it if all thoughts come from well meaning vortexes?

TEACHER. Because even the vortexes have to do their work by trial and error. They have to learn by mistakes as well as by successes. We have to destroy the locust and the hook worm and the Colorado beetle because, if we did not, they would destroy us. We have to execute criminals who have no conscience and are incorrigible. They are old experiments of the Life Force. They were well intentioned and perhaps necessary at the time. But they are no longer either useful or necessary, and must now be exterminated. They cannot be exterminated by disembodied thought. The mongoose must be inspired to kill the cobra, the chemist to distill poisons, the physicist to make nuclear bombs, others to be big game hunters, judges, executioners, and killers of all sorts, often the most amiable of mortals outside their specific functions as destroyers of vermin. The ruthless fox hunter loves dogs: the physicists and chemists adore their children and keep animals as pets.

YOUTH 2. Look here, Teacher. Talk sense. Do these disembodied thoughts die when their number is up, as we do? If not, there can hardly be room for them in the universe after all these millions of centuries.

MAIDEN 5. Yes: that is what I want to know. How old is the world?

TEACHER. We do not know. We lost count in the dark ages that followed the twentieth century. There are traces of many civilizations that followed; and we may yet discover traces of many more. Some of them were atavistic.

MAIDEN 5. At a what?

TEACHER. Atavistic. Not an advance on the civilization before it, but a throw-back to an earlier one. Like those children of ours who cannot get beyond the First Form, and grow up to be idiots or savages. We kill them. But we are ourselves a throw-back to the twentieth century, and may be killed as idiots and savages if we meet a later and higher civilization.

YOUTH 1. I don’t believe it. We are the highest form of life and the most advanced civilization yet evolved.

YOUTH 2. Same here. Who can believe this fairy tale about disembodied thoughts? There is not a scrap of evidence for it. Nobody can believe it.

MAIDEN 4. Steady, Number Two: steady. Lots of us can believe it and do believe it. Our schoolfellows who have never got beyond the third or fourth form believe in what they call the immortality of the soul.

YOUTH 1 [contemptuously] Yes, because they are afraid to die.

TEACHER. That makes no difference. What is an Immortal soul but a disembodied thought?”

YARNLADY's avatar

The 64 million dollar question. In reality, no one has the foggiest idea.

Rarebear's avatar

I don’t know the answer off hand, but I do know that fMRI scanners can map active brain processes and this has been studied.

CaptainHarley's avatar

From a variety of places: experience, education, what we have been taught by parents and others we are around constantly, reading, observing, etc.

Our minds take all these various inputs and stir them as if in a large, electric field. The results are our thoughts. : )

ette_'s avatar

I don’t know, but I wish I knew so that I could turn them on and off at will…

crazydreams's avatar

@Hobbes Atavistic. Not an advance on the civilization before it, but a throw-back to an earlier one.-This I have no genuine proof of to believe but I’ve always thought it to be true, especially when considering the egyptians.

my take on thoughts from birth- (metaphorically speaking) like an empty hard drive waiting for it’s knowledge and files to be added- depending on the spec of the machine to process these files of knowledge, the speed and capacity and so on…this then becomes the ingredients for the computers mind, the available knowledge is then stored and used accordingly.

However- we as humans have something else above computers(for the time being anyway) which are feelings, love, pain, anger whatever the emotion, which I believe is hidden in the subconsciousness of our minds even in the womb which can become available once it’s activated, mixed along with the knowledge we recieve on our journey throughout life. I feel it is our emotional soul (that maybe is carried from another soul to a new one-but thats another story) that creates the random thinking and instant thoughts we have, something computers do not have unless they are infected. so- the closest form of free thinking a computer can have up to now in which we encounter at times is a virus behaviour but still man made and put there. But- the random thoughts behaviour we have are triggered by our emotional commands, example- we feel happy, we open the file in our brains that relate to all the things that made or make us happy, we feel sad- we open up this file and so on…forgetting at times what we put there and sometimes quite surprised!
Because it’s our emotions involved in the process, it can be extremely random as we are emotional beings and very much affected by them.

Deeper thinking and thought patterns I theorise on are another thing altogether which I believe come from some place else, kind of like a sixth sense that some have picked up on whilst others are still learning it. A deeper electical energy that can jump in unexpected inbetween our own thoughts.

I hope some of that makes sence, sorry for the waffle but it got me on a mission lol

mattbrowne's avatar

Thoughts are triggered by our 5 senses and our memories. So even when we sleep our unconscious mind keeps listening, letting us sleep as long as it decides there’s nothing of importance. During the day neurons in different parts of our brain keep firing depending on what we see, hear, taste, smell or touch. And neurons that fire together wire together. Suppose you had seafood pizza three weeks ago and your girlfriend really loved it. After the meal you had phenomenal sex with her.

Today you’re driving by a billboard with a huge picture with a colorful seafood pizza on it.

You’re looking at it. A tiny smile develops on your face.

Sex.

Oh, here’s a thought.

So that’s where thoughts come from. It’s not that complicated actually.

thorninmud's avatar

They come from Nothing and Nowhere.

This is akin to the question of what existed before the Big Bang, or what is the universe expanding into. There was no “before” the Big Bang and there is no “what” outside the Universe. In a similar way, the premises of the question of where our thoughts come from lie within the realm of thoughts themselves.

Thoughts, in other words, create the conceptual framework within which the question has meaning. But take away thought and the thought of any condition before thought also vanishes. What is in that thoughtless space? The unthinkable. This is why when you look for the source of your thoughts, you can’t find it.

YARNLADY's avatar

So does the unborn fetus develop thoughts or not?

CaptainHarley's avatar

@YARNLADY

I don’t think anyone has an aswer for that.

Tastentier's avatar

Thoughts are neurological processes that are triggered by the environment in one way or another, usually through sensory input.

Hobbes's avatar

By the way, tonight was the opening night of the play I quoted from above.

bushra's avatar

thought comes from your mind

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