What is thought?
We’re all familiar with thought, to be sure, just like we’re familiar with our own bodies. But just because we know our own bodies doesn’t make us all doctors. In the same way, we might know our own thoughts well, but that doesn’t make us experts in the science of thought.
But understanding thought is important. If we don’t know what thoughts are, then it’s very easy to be conned into believing the myriad of myths about thought perpetuated about them by every pop-psychologist and B-grade life coach.
This series of blogs is taken from my book Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf. We’ve looked at some basic neurobiology and the neurobiology of thought itself. Today we’ll discuss some psychological models of our thought processing, and the common brain states and functions that are usually confused with thought.
Other cognitive frameworks of thought
A number of models of thought use a dual systems approach, explaining our cognitive process in terms of two systems.
System 1 involves a set of different subsystems that operate in parallel, delivering swift and intuitive judgments and decisions in response to our perceptions. System 1 is unconscious, automatic and guided by principles that are, to a significant extent, innately fixed and universal among humans.
System 2 is the system that involves “thought” as people typically think about it. It is both conscious and reflective in character, and proceeds in a slow, serial manner, according to principles that vary among both individuals and cultures . This system is in harmony with the Global Workspace/LIDA concept of the cognitive cycle.
System 2 is generally held to be subject to intentional control, hence why thoughts can be volitional. System 2 can be guided by normative beliefs about proper reasoning methods. In other words, we can learn ways of thinking about our thoughts to handle them better. And one of the principal roles often attributed to system 2 is to override the unreflective responses that are issued automatically by system 1 in reasoning tasks, when these fall short of appropriate standards of rationality. We can use thought to modulate or suppress our intuitive responses, the concept of “think before you act”.
Neuroscience research confirms the neural networks involved with the dual systems, and have taken the theory further . Not only can stimuli that are emotionally significant activate the lower, emotional parts of our brain, they can do so without us ever being consciously aware they were detected. For example, when test subjects had their visual cortex temporarily stunned by a transcranial magnetic stimulator, they could detect whether a face was happy or sad and even where it was on a grid without consciously sensing that they had “seen” a face . Subconscious emotional stimuli can modulate our attention before we are aware of their perception .
Relational Frame Theory / Acceptance And Commitment Therapy
Relational frame theory, and the clinical approach based on it called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, sees thoughts as contextual. This is interesting, as new neurobiological approaches such as neurocognitive networks are also girded by the developing view of cognition which is that cognition “is marked by both dynamic flexibility and context sensitivity.” 
Relational frame theory posits that “the core of human language and cognition is learning to relate events mutually and in combination not simply on the basis of their formal properties (e.g., size, shape) but also on the basis of arbitrary cues.”  Basically, we understand things in both concrete and abstract ways. “The gold coin is small” is referring to the tangible properties of the gold coin. “The gold coin is very valuable” is referring to the arbitrary properties of the gold coin, which are values that we define in our minds.
Hayes states, “A key RFT insight of clinical importance is that relational framing is regulated by two distinguishable features: the relational context and the functional context … The relational context determines what you think; the functional context determines the psychological impact of what you think.” 
So in terms of thought, what we think isn’t necessarily reliable. It’s contextual, and often abstract and arbitrary. The meanings and values that are placed on our thoughts are related to the context in which they came to us, and the impact is also arbitrary, a function of our minds and our language.
As William Shakespeare wrote, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  Thoughts are just that – thoughts. So while there is a mountain of published literature on “negative” or “positive” thoughts, such distinctions are subjective, arbitrary, and often entirely unhelpful.
We often become fused to the meaning of our thoughts. We begin to take them literally, without noticing the process of thinking itself. When the thoughts become painful, we don’t know how to handle them, and we run from them, or try to suppress them. But in fighting with the thoughts, we actually draw attention to them and make them more powerful. This makes them even more painful, and makes the avoidance worse. We then lose flexible contact with the present moment, as we become more and more consumed with the internal battle with our painful thoughts and subsequent emotions. Rather than looking around us, all we can do is focus on the pain or be anywhere else where difficult events are not occurring. 
The key in this battle is not to engage with the “negative” thoughts by pushing them away or trying to change them. Pushing the painful thoughts away makes them go away for a while, but it takes a lot of effort. The thoughts return as we tire, but we have less energy to resist them.
Try holding a fully inflated basketball under water. It’s possible, but the basketball wants to get back to the surface. Holding it down is hard work. You usually can’t do it for long. Fighting our thoughts is the same.
Harris describes the focus of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, “around two main processes: developing acceptance of unwanted private experiences which are out of personal control, commitment and action towards living a valued life … In ACT, there is no attempt to try to reduce, change, avoid, suppress, or control these private experiences. Instead, clients learn to reduce the impact and influence of unwanted thoughts and feelings, through the effective use of mindfulness.” 
The first principle of ACT is to start treating thoughts as what they really are … just thoughts. This is simply done by learning to observe the process of thinking again, to realise that the words going through our minds are just words. They only have the meaning that we give to them. They only have the power that we allow them to have.
The key to overcoming thought patterns we don’t want isn’t to change them, it’s to remove their power. Trying to change them means engaging with them, which only makes them stronger. Disempowering them means seeing them for what they are. They may sound like Rottweiler’s but when you actually look, they’re more like Chihuahua’s with megaphones. When you understand that your thoughts are not in control, you can move forward into the actions that really bring change. If you want to know more about ACT, or you would like to use ACT to help stop fighting your thoughts, there are a number of free resources that are a great starting point = http://www.actmindfully.com.au/free_resources
What is, and is not, a thought?
Thought, therefore, is simply a broadcast of one part of a deeper flow of information. Thought is not a controlling force. It’s not a case of, “I think, therefore, I am”, but, “I am, therefore, I think.”
Thoughts are often described in the peer-reviewed publications as the “stream of thought” or the “stream of consciousness”. According to Baars and Franklin, thoughts arise from the broadcast step of multiple cognitive cycles, but the conscious broadcast of our thought stream is limited to a single cognitive cycle at any given instant. Thus, even though it is considered a “stream”, our awareness of our thought is in a serial, sometimes disparate, sequence of frames .
There are some features of our stream of thought that differentiate it from other brain activity. We have a level of voluntary control over our stream of thought, even if it’s not direct . It is also characterized by a metacognitive level – we have “thinking about thinking” [1, 11], and we have “awareness of awareness” .
Yet there are still many neurological functions that are confused with thoughts.
“Thoughts” are often confused for any brain activity. The stream of thought is sometimes referred to as the “stream of consciousness” but that’s a misnomer.
Consciousness has varying levels (coma, deep sleep, lucid dreaming, awake, and alert). Only some of these levels of consciousness allow thought. Therefore, it would be fair to say that thoughts are a form of activity of the brain, just like Toyotas are a form of car.
Brain activity is largely subconscious. It carries on in the background without our awareness . There are multiple simultaneous streams of data being perceived all the time – sensation from our ears, skin, eyes and internal organs – that our brain filters out before it reaches our awareness. Background traffic noise, the pressure of your clothes on your skin, joint position, heart rate and breathing, for example. It’s not that these sensations are not present, but you only become aware of them when your attention is drawn to them. Those data streams are not thoughts in and of themselves because we lack awareness of them. They only become part of our thoughts when attention is paid to them. Since thoughts are characterized by metacognition, “awareness of awareness”, then neural activity we aren’t aware of cannot be considered thoughts.
The other problem with defining all brain activity as “thought” is that such as definition would also mean that seizures were thoughts, or brainstem reflexes were thoughts. We intuitively know that’s not the case.
So what about dreams? We’re aware of dreams, aren’t we? Could dreams be considered thoughts?
Dreams are awareness of perception and emotion, similar to our state of awareness when we’re awake. But dreams occur in an altered state of consciousness (that is, we are asleep). Dreams also lack self-awareness. When you dream, you don’t realise that you’re dreaming. Secondary consciousness, the level of consciousness that we possess when we are awake, is defined in part as having awareness of awareness. It is more than just having awareness of perception and emotion. It is “self-reflection, insight, judgment or abstract thought that constitute secondary consciousness.” 
As I wrote earlier, memories aren’t just simple recall, but a complex system involving both conscious and unconscious elements. The conscious elements of memory are simply stored representations of events and experiences. They may become part of a thought broadcast, but they are not thoughts per se.
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- Shakespeare, W., Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2.
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