Where Do Thoughts Come From?

When my friends and I were growing up in the 1950s, one way to keep ourselves entertained on rainy days was to ask questions of a Magic 8-Ball. It looked like a black billiard ball, only bigger, about the size of a grapefruit, with a small window on one side. You would ask it a yes-or-no question, then shake the ball, and an answer would appear in the window. The message was imprinted on a multisided die that would turn when the ball was shaken. There were 20 possible responses in all, not just “yes” or “no” but also: “It is decidedly so,” “Outlook not so good,” “Ask again later” and so forth. As an oracle, the Magic 8-Ball ranked somewhere above a Chinese fortune cookie and below a Ouija board. The fun was in telling yourself that the ball had clairvoyant powers, even though you knew perfectly well it did not — or did it?

The Magic 8-Ball came to mind when I was thinking of ways to picture the workings of the human mind. In fact, the Magic 8-Ball came to my mind in much the same way that messages appear in its window, as if by magic. Where did the thought come from? Of course, with the Magic 8-Ball, you know where the messages come from and how the mechanism works. If you didn’t already know, you could crack open the plastic ball and see for yourself — an option not available to philosophers and neuroscientists seeking to understand how we think.

There are various theories on the origin of thoughts, ranging from the strictly scientific to the frankly psychotic. The easy answer is to say we just think them up, as if we did all the work ourselves. But the truth is our thoughts seem to arrive spontaneously and fully formed in the small widow of our conscious awareness, much like the messages in the Magic 8-Ball. “We never have direct access to our thoughts,” neuroscientist Alex Rosenberg has said. “As Peter Carruthers first argued, self-consciousness is just mind reading turned inward.” He added, “Self-consciousness has nothing else to work with but the same sensory data we use to figure out what other people are doing and are going to do….There is no first-person point of view.”

Since the thoughts that pop into our heads are normally expressed in the first-person singular, Rosenberg’s assertion may seem counterintuitive. The issue really boils down to one of ownership. A thought is planted in my head and no one else’s, so I do not hesitate to call it mine. But in what way is it mine? If a bird alights in the Japanese maple outside my study window, is it mine just because it landed on my property? Even if the bird builds a nest in my gutter, as birds have tended to do, would that make it any more mine? Suppose I found an old painting of a bird iin my attic. An appraiser would naturally want to know its provenance before assessing its value, and this I would be unable to provide.

If you are still inclined to believe you can control your thoughts, try this simple thought experiment: Do not think of a pink elephant. If, as I suspect, you immediately pictured a pink elephant, you need to ask yourself, where did that pink pachyderm come from? When we say things like, “The thought just popped into my head,” or, “The thought came to me,” we are in effect acknowledging that we are on the receiving end of thought, not its originator. "Put simply, we don't consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we become aware of them,” say a pair of British neuroscientists, David Oakley and Peter Halligan.

So if my thoughts aren’t actually mine, what is the source? Leaving aside those poor benighted souls who believe aliens are beaming thoughts into their heads, the usual response is that at least some thoughts arise from the unconscious. By the late 19th century, most psychologists recognized the importance of unconscious drives in shaping human behavior. Sigmund Freud’s contribution was to transform the word “unconscious” from an adjective to a noun (das Unbewusste in the original German). The unconscious thereby became a place, a nether region of the mind, although not necessarily something that would show up on a brain scan. Without an anatomical structure we can point to, we are reduced to metaphor: most notably the mind as an iceberg with the unconscious -- its largest portion -- lying below the surface of awareness.

Although Freud’s concept has gained broad currency, it is not without its detractors, even among fellow psychoanalysts. “There is no such thing as the unconscious,” insisted Eric Fromm, “there are only experiences of which we are aware, and others of which we are not aware, that is, of which we are unconscious.” In other words, the phenomenon should be regarded as an adjective, not as a noun. If there is no region of the mind that corresponds to the unconscious, then we are back to square one. The source of thinking is a black box, not much different from a Magic 8-Ball, except a black box is rectilinear rather than spherical.

The Princeton experimental psychologist Julian Jaynes put forward an intriguing theory about the workings inside the black box. He theorized that before the brains of anatomically modern humans had fully integrated, they assumed the voices they heard in the right hemisphere of the brain were gods or ancestors giving them orders. Once the left and right hemispheres became fully integrated, the cognitive center in the left hemisphere took ownership of thoughts arising in the right right hemisphere. As a result, intimate conversations with the gods largely disappeared — except among a few stray mystics and poets.

As it happens, Jaynes had personal experience with a seemingly disembodied voice arising from the nether reaches of his own brain. In the book he wrote on his theory, he described an incident in which he drifted off to sleep while grappling with the epistemological question of “how we can know anything at all.” During the brief twilight between wakefulness and sleep, he heard a voice commanding, “Include the knower with the known!” Startled, Jaynes got up to see where the voice was coming from. Had he been a poet or a mystic, rather than a scientific researcher, he might have been accustomed to messages coming from the depths of his own being. He did not believe this “nebulous profundity” was divinely inspired, but he now understood how our ancestors might have thought so.

Jaynes’ highly speculative theory of the “bicameral mind” has gained a certain cult following, if not widespread acceptance within the scientific community. However, just because the dominant cognitive center in the left hemisphere of the brain has claimed ownership of the thoughts arising in the right hemisphere doesn’t necessarily mean they originated there. Jaynes didn’t think the disembodied voice that came to him when he was dozing off was divinely inspired, but neither did he recognize it as his own. As a man of science, Jaynes must have known that admitting he heard voices other than his own was almost a guarantee that his work would be marginalized. To his credit, he approached the phenomenon scientifically rather than keep quiet about it or leap off into the wild blue yonder.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung faced a similar dilemma when he was confronted with his “psychagogue,” a kind of spirit-guide who first came to him in a dream in 1913. He called the figure “Philemon,” and pictured him as a winged old man with horns. Was Philemon real? Jung wrote: “Philemon represented a force which was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I. He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air, and added, “If you should see people in a room, you would not think that you had made those people, or that you were responsible for them.”

I have never, so far as a know, been on a first-name basis with any winged old man with horns. But if a thought comes to me that tells me something I don’t know, I realize I needn’t be concerned about where it comes from or who it belongs to. Ownership is really not the issue; the thought is neither mine nor not mine. I can treat it is a fact, like that bird alighting in the Japanese Maple outside my window. If I am merely talking to myself, I might be able to safely ignore it. But if not, I would be wise to pay attention. There is always the risk of madness, I suppose. But as with Jaynes and Jung and so many other thinkers and artists, this is the pathway to discovery.

David A. Oakley and Peter W. Halligan, “Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious Nature of Being,” Frontiers in Psychology (November 14, 2017)
Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976)

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