What Makes a Thought

What Makes a Thought

May 04, 2018

Thinking is not something we think about. We just think – and poof! It happens.

What is thought? How does thinking happen? What influences our thoughts?

To start this off, let’s touch on how our brain, and specifically our cerebrum, works. In the past, researchers hypothesized that our brain is divided into two hemispheres. We have come a long way from that simple ideology. We know our brain has multiple lobes, and those lobes control and influence certain thought processes, sensations, and actions. Another fun fact about your brain is it has many folds that increase the amount of surface area, thereby increasing the amount of information it can process.

The brain communicates with itself and the rest of the body through neurons. Neurons send and receive chemical and electrical signals. There are roughly 100 billion neurons in your brain that exchange about 1000 signals a second, so there’s definitely a lot going on in there.

Let’s break down the lobes

  • The frontal lobes control thinking, planning, organizing, problem-solving, short-term memory and movement.
  • The parietal lobes interpret sensory information, such as taste, temperature, and touch.
  • The occipital lobes process images from your eyes and link that information with images stored in memory.
  • The temporal lobes process information from your senses of smell, taste, and sound. They also play a role in memory storage.

brain, mind, lobes, think

So, depending on what is going on around you and what you are doing, some parts of your brain are being used more than the others. You being in math class and your friend in culinary school will activate different parts of your brains.

What is a thought?

Every day, we hear someone say “I thought about X” or “this came to my mind”. It’s interesting how a thought can be a new idea, a picture, a memory, an event, a song, or even the future. These, thoughts, however, are not continuous, like your AC on a hot summer day or the engine noise in a car. These thoughts are short-lived, distinct events. Neuroscientists are still unsure what exactly creates thoughts or exactly how they pop into your mind, but they agree on that it has something to do with electrical patterns generated by neural activity in our brain, mostly in the frontal lobe. There is also a link to our external environment.


Thought vs Perception

What is interesting is that your thoughts are not necessarily perceptions. A perception can trigger a thought. For something to be a perception, you need a stimulus. Lots of our brainpower is used to perceive the environment and make sense of it. A thought does not need a stimulus. You can think of a bear or imagine how its fur feels without actually being beside the bear or touching its fur. Thoughts don’t even have to be perceptible at all. Can you think of dark matter, or a galaxy far, far away? A thought can literally be anything.

But where does a thought actually come from? Well, scientists are still working on it, scientists are still studying the brain and neural pathways to get to the conclusion of where thoughts are conceived.


Can thoughts be influenced?

Let us try an example; Try not thinking about a white fox. I guarantee most of you reading this will think of a white fox. How many times were you unable to get a thought out of your mind? If someone called you unattractive, or you see a tragic event those images and thoughts will be on your mind and sometimes they uninvitedly linger for days. We can agree that environment does play a role in our thinking. Without going too much into the nature vs nurture subject it is safe to say we are influenced by our surroundings.


Here’s some research:

A study done in San Francisco University titled External control of the stream of consciousness: Stimulus-based effects on involuntary thought sequences, examined if our thoughts were influenced by an external stimulus. In this study, they took 52 black and white images of familiar images that correspond to words -- basic drawings like a fox, bicycle, and heart. “Participants were instructed not to subvocalize (speak in the mind) each word or how many letters the word had. On average, 73 percent subvocalized a word, and 33 percent counted its letters.” Ultimately the researchers were able to trigger an unintentional thought in participants. It’s intriguing to think that the thoughts in our mind may not fully be our own.



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