How do we notice our thoughts

Question to the brain

How does a thought arise?

Prof. Dr. med. Dr. phil. Henrik Walter:Answering this question requires that we first have to come to an understanding about what a thought actually is. A tricky question. A neuroscientist would probably simply say: A thought is a neural representation in the brain that shows up as a pattern of activity. He would also argue that in order to have the same thought, different people must have very similar activity patterns in the brain. But I think this view is not entirely correct. A thought is not so much a specific neuronal state in the head, but a process that extends over time, the content of which extends beyond the brain. The idea that at any given point in time we can identify a pattern of activity in the brain that is identical to a thought is misleading. Rather, we have to imagine that the brain is incessantly busy with helping its bearer, humans, to recognize existing things in the world and, above all, to recognize them in order to survive. As a rule, it is not about categories or abstract objects, but about specific individual things.

Let's think about what happens in that process. For example, when we think of a dog, we often think of a very specific dog, such as Ms. Müller's dachshund Waldi or a sheepdog as a prototype. There are also very different specific ways of thinking about a dog, depending on the context. So you can think of an organism with four legs and a soft fur, beaming with joy and licking your hand in greeting. Or a four-legged organism that walks around, barks and bites the postman. What one does not think of - at least in everyday life - is a category “dog”, which is defined by necessary and sufficient characteristics. When we think of dogs, we are exercising the ability to reliably re-identify specific things in the world.

Many philosophers in the philosophy of mind assume that mental states, like a thought, are characterized by two special properties: consciousness and intentionality. Since one can also have unconscious thoughts, we can neglect consciousness here for once. So what is intentionality? This technical term could be translated as “meaningfulness”, in our context as the property of a neural activity pattern to relate to something, to mean something. The ability to have a thought of something then corresponds to the ability to reliably recognize a dog in the world. My view that in everyday life we ​​are referring to specific individual things rather than categories or defining properties becomes clear when one examines how children start to think and speak. They do not recognize abstract terms, classes or categories, but the concrete individual things: the dachshund Waldi, the girl Fritzi, the elf Lillifee or the unicorn Onchao, everything that has a concrete meaning for them. And it is usually the same for us adults. Of course, we also have the ability to think in a disciplined manner in, on or with categories, concepts and abstracts, but if we are not doing logic or science, we deal with the linguistic designations, i.e. the words, for categories, concepts and abstracts in the same way like children with things in the world. In reality, our thoughts are often more unclear and confused than we ourselves like to believe.

In order to understand how meaning comes into the head, i.e. how a thought arises, we have to realize that the brain does not exist on its own, but always only as a component of an organism that interacts with its environment and must constantly ensure that not to lose sustainable contact with the inner milieu and external reality. Everything that has intellectual content in the brain ultimately derives it from past or current interactions with the environment - also linguistically composed - which also includes the evolutionary past. Put simply, the meaning of a thought and thus the thought itself arises from the active interaction of the brain with its body and the environment of the organism to which they belong.

Recorded by Maike Niet