Understanding Thought – Part 3

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

Dual Systems

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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [3]. Subconscious emotional stimuli can modulate our attention before we are aware of their perception [4].

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.” [5]

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.” [6] 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.” [6]

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.” [7] 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. [6]

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.” [8]

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 [9].

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 [10]. It is also characterized by a metacognitive level – we have “thinking about thinking” [1, 11], and we have “awareness of awareness” [12].

Yet there are still many neurological functions that are confused with thoughts.

Brain activity

“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 [2]. 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.” [12]


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.


  1. Fletcher, L. and Carruthers, P., Metacognition and reasoning. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2012. 367(1594): 1366-78 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0413
  2. Tamietto, M. and de Gelder, B., Neural bases of the non-conscious perception of emotional signals. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2010. 11(10): 697-709 doi: 10.1038/nrn2889
  3. Jolij, J. and Lamme, V.A., Repression of unconscious information by conscious processing: evidence from affective blindsight induced by transcranial magnetic stimulation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2005. 102(30): 10747-51 doi: 10.1073/pnas.0500834102
  4. Ohman, A., et al., Emotion drives attention: detecting the snake in the grass. J Exp Psychol Gen, 2001. 130(3): 466-78 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11561921
  5. Meehan, T.P. and Bressler, S.L., Neurocognitive networks: findings, models, and theory. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 2012. 36(10): 2232-47 doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.08.002
  6. Hayes, S.C., et al., Acceptance and commitment therapy and contextual behavioral science: examining the progress of a distinctive model of behavioral and cognitive therapy. Behav Ther, 2013. 44(2): 180-98 doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2009.08.002
  7. Shakespeare, W., Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2.
  8. Harris, R., Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Psychotherapy In Australia, 2006. 12(6): 1-8 http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Dr_Russ_Harris_-_A_Non-technical_Overview_of_ACT.pdf
  9. Franklin, S., et al., Conceptual Commitments of the LIDA Model of Cognition. Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, 2013. 4(2): 1-22
  10. Bonn, G.B., Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Front Psychol, 2013. 4: 920 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00920
  11. Scott, B.M., Levy, M. G., Metacognition: Examining the components of a fuzzy concept. Educational Research eJournal, 2013. 2(2): 120-31 doi: 10.5838/erej.2013.22.04
  12. Hobson, J.A., REM sleep and dreaming: towards a theory of protoconsciousness. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2009. 10(11): 803-13 doi: 10.1038/nrn2716

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Profound Simplicity Paradox

It was a guy called Charles Bukowski that said once, ‘Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way’. It always grabs our attention when something is said that’s easy to understand, yet deeply meaningful. The simple yet profound juxtaposition draws our attention and exercises our cognition in a way that nothing else seems to match. Those that are able to utter pervasive truth in a few syllables are elevated to gurus, and their pearls of wisdom are endlessly reposted on Pinterest and Facebook.

Of course, for something to be profound, it doesn’t just need to be deep, but also true.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her social media feeds are littered with Pinterest profundities, and she adds her own sometimes for good measure. Today, she shared something which I’m sure she thinks is one of those strokes of genius that Charles Bukowski was talking about,

“What we say and do is based on what we have already built into our minds.”

Well, her statement is simple, but it’s certainly not profound. It’s a paint-by-numbers version of the neuroscience of behaviour, based on her underlying assumption that we are in full control of every thought and action that we ever have or do.

It’s nice story to tell. It seems to fit with our experience of our thoughts and of the attribution of every action we take with our feeling of conscious volition. It’s just that it’s not what real neuroscientists actually tell us is going on in our brain.

Our thoughts and our actions are based on a number of things, mostly beyond our conscious control. This is because our perception, physiological responses, and personalities are all strongly genetically determined, our memory systems are predominantly subconscious, and so is the vast majority of the processing our brain does on a second-by-second basis. Our thoughts and our feeling of our conscious ‘free will’ are the subconscious brain simply projecting a small sliver of that information stream to a wider area of the cerebral cortex for fine-tuning (I discuss this in much more detail in chapters 1, 2 and 6 of my book).

So what we say and do is not based on just based on what we have already built into our minds, because our actions are largely built on our genetics and our subconscious memories, which we don’t necessarily have control over either.

There will be some people who think that this sounds like a cop-out, just an excuse to avoid responsibility for our own actions. I would argue that this actually refines our responsibility to that which we can change, taking the focus away from those things that we cannot change. For example, there’s no point in suggesting that I’m a bad father because I can’t breastfeed my children. This is an extreme example of course, but chiding someone for not doing something that they can’t do because of their genetic predisposition is no different.

Rather than focusing unnecessary effort on trying to change what cannot be changed, we should look to work on the things that can be changed. Even then, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people will take a long time to learn something that another person might pick up straight away.

It’s also important for people to understand that not everything you struggle with is related to your poor choices. There’s no point in wrestling with something that isn’t going to move. All you do is tire yourself, sapping you of energy that you could be using to effect change on the things you do have power over.

So on the surface, Dr Leaf’s statement may be simple, but it’s ultimately erroneous. Instead of being liberating, it can actually be oppressing. Those who are looking for something profound would be better served looking somewhere else on Pinterest.

Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of Mind Domination

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“You control your brain … your brain does not control you!”

So says Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist.

You’d hope that Dr Leaf would know. She says on her website that “Since the early 1980‘s she has studied and researched the Mind-Brain connection.” And if you take what she says at face value, it sure sounds right. Of course we’re in control. My brain does what I tell it to do. Except that it actually doesn’t. Our brain has a lot more control over us than we realize.

First of all, our “free” will isn’t actually free at all, but constrained by a number of unseen, subconscious processes that are entirely dependent on our brain. It may seem like we’re in complete control of our choices, but our subconscious brain has already done most of the work for us. Even if we had complete freedom over our choices, our “free” will would still require an intact brain in order to carry out its wishes.

The “control” of our brain is very similar to our “control” when we drive a car. When we say that we’re “controlling” the car, what we actually mean is that we are controlling the speed and direction of the car. But there are thousands of electrical and mechanical actions that take place each second that are vital for the running of the car, and that we have absolutely no direct control over. It just takes one loose nut or faulty fuse to make the car steer wildly out of control, or stop functioning entirely, and then we’re not in control at all.

In the same way, various diseases or lesions in the brain show that brain is really in control. The fact we don’t see all of the underlying processes in a fully functional brain simply provides the illusion of control.

For example, there are a number of lesions of the parietal lobes within the brain that give rise to some unusual but intriguing conditions. One of which is a condition called “Alien Hand Syndrome”. Wegner describes two patients with Alien Hand Syndrome, a lady whose “left hand would tenaciously grope for and grasp any nearby object, pick and pull at her clothes, and even grasp her throat during sleep … She slept with the arm tied to prevent nocturnal misbehavior”, and a man who, “While playing checkers on one occasion, the left hand made a move he did not wish to make, and he corrected the move with the right hand; however, the left hand, to the patient’s frustration, repeated the false move. On other occasions, he turned the pages of the book with one hand while the other tried to close it; he shaved with the right hand while the left one unzipped his jacket” [1]. Alien Hand Syndrome demonstrates that our decision-making and our action sequences are controlled by two separate systems in our brains.

There are other conditions that also show that our brains control us more than we control them. A more common example are the tic disorders, such as simple motor tics (sudden involuntary movements) and complex tic disorders, such as Tourette’s (best known for the involuntary tendencies to utter obscenities). Even more common are parasomnias – a group of disorders in which people perform complex behaviours during their sleep – sleep talking, sleep walking, sleep eating. One of my patients once drove her car while asleep (Honestly, that’s no exaggeration!).

So at best, we only have partial control of our brain. Our brain is driving, our mind just steers it a little, but it doesn’t take much for that veneer of control that we think we possess.

The other way in which we appear to have control over our brain is through free will. Free will has been debated for years on philosophical grounds, but over three decades ago, Libet performed an experiment that demonstrated measurable and predictable brain activity occurring up to a full second before a test subject was consciously aware of the intention to act [2]. More recently, a study by Soon et al showed that predictable brain activity occurred up to eight seconds before a person was aware of their intention to act [3]. As Bonn says, “the gist of these findings is that our feeling of having consciously willed an act is illusory in many ways. It seems that the conscious awareness of intention that we place so much weight upon, that we naively think of as causal, is, in fact, a narrative construction that is formed well after the train of causation has been set in motion.” [4]

The Oracle explained it to Neo, “… you didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.” (Matrix Reloaded, 2003)

Haggard concludes, “Modern neuroscience rejects the traditional dualist view of volition as a causal chain from the conscious mind or ‘soul’ to the brain and body. Rather, volition involves brain networks making a series of complex, open decisions between alternative actions.” [5]

This does not eliminate our capacity to choose, but frames it in a more realistic fashion. As Bonn points out, “Although we are not consciously aware of what is going on at every stage of the chain of neural events leading to action, there is room for a degree of conscious involvement if only to pull the emergency brake before it is too late. Thus, although it may not be the initial source of motivations and behavioral impulses, the part of the mind that is self-reflective; that can envision the self in causal and narrative contexts, may serve important monitoring and control functions.” [4]

Again, we have less control over our brain than we realize. We feel like we have made a choice, but more often than not, our brain already made the choice for us up to eight seconds beforehand, and the feeling of intention that we have is simply our conscious mind catching up – not making the choice, but finding a reason for why we made the choice.

It’s always nice when people who call themselves neuroscientists tell us what feels intuitively correct. In the cold, hard light of day, actual neuroscientists don’t tell us what’s intuitively correct, but what’s actually correct. It may seem like our mind is in control of our brain, but modern neuroscience confirms that our brain is the dominant force, while our mind just helps to steer a little.


  1. Wegner, D.M., Precis of the illusion of conscious will. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2004. 27(5): 649-59
  2. Libet, B., et al., Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 1983. 106 (Pt 3): 623-42 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6640273
  3. Soon, C.S., et al., Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci, 2008. 11(5): 543-5 doi: 10.1038/nn.2112
  4. Bonn, G.B., Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Front Psychol, 2013. 4: 920 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00920
  5. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497