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The thoughts running through our heads are more varied than we might suppose (bbc.com)
138 points by hhs 55 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

Practice meditation long enough and you will know what a shitshow the mind is at any given second. Go even further, and you'll start to pick up on the shit-tornado the subconscious mind is.

Fulltext of the 2013 article about rates varying 0-100%: https://www.gwern.net/docs/psychology/2013-hurlburt.pdf

In my opinion, the conscious thoughts you have are just echoes of your mind. When you "talk to yourself" you already know what you are going to say, you might as well just stop as soon as you notice doing that.

I am not sure this holds. Many of your thoughts are formed as you speak, there is even evidence that talking to yourself in third-person helps you stay more calmer and objective.


>Many of your thoughts are formed as you speak, there is even evidence that talking to yourself in third-person helps you stay more calmer and objective.

Talking to yourself in third-person means having switched into thinking of yourself as some third party which can itself affect subsequent thoughts/talking, so this doesn't contradict what the parent says.

If the exact "thought" already existed before consciously running through them, it should not change with the language you use, but I don't believe that is the case, not only talking about yourself in third-person affects your thought, the link between language and thought goes much deeper, even if the specific of it is fairly contentious.


This does not contradict what I said. If you use conscious thought as a tool, like deliberately using third person, this can change your perception of your self.

I am talking about the usual thoughts you have that are unprompted.

I feel like the article is not disagreeing with me on that necessarily.

There are also experiments that support that idea:


When you formulate a thought or a sentence you compress vast amounts of data into something that's understandable in more general context. Once you've done that compression, you interpret that generalization once again as you vocalize it. This reinterpretation is powerful and may trigger some ideas that you haven't had before.

Besides, try doing math or debugging some code without any conscious thoughts.

I agree most of the time it may be a broken record and useless, especially if you repeat the same patterns over and over again, but I'm quite certain you don't know what you are going to say until you've said it (out loud or not).

Sure, discursive thinking is useful, but doing it as an unconscious habit is problematic. That's what meditation seeks to help address, for example, and cease the endless 'chatter in your skull'. Like, when you're thirsty and see a bottle of water on the counter, why think to yourself "I'm thirsty. There's some water there I can drink." Who are you talking to? You know you are thirsty, and you know you can drink it. The discursive thinking to echo it to yourself is just a bad, clutter-some habit.

> Like, when you're thirsty and see a bottle of water on the counter, why think to yourself "I'm thirsty. There's some water there I can drink." Who are you talking to?

There is probably some miscommunication happening here. Do people regularly turn every intended action into a sentence in their mind? Like some kind of play-by-play sports commentary about their full life? I certainly do not do this, and I would expect most people do not.

The Fine Article says that some people do have a voice in their heads 100% of the time, or at least report that they do at 100% of sampled moments.

I haven't introspected enough to know where I fall on that scale, but your example doesn't sound weird to me. If I'm home alone I'd probably say it out loud.

That's not really what I was trying to get at.

Putting your thoughts into words so that they can be understood by someone other than yourself or working through a problem are both deliberate ways of thinking that have clear benefits.

I do disagree with your last part. It's quite hard to test though. But let's say I'd ask you to just talk about any topic you want without preparing what you are going to say and right when you start a sentence I will randomly create some signal/noise which you should understand as the signal to stop talking immediately. I'd say you will know exactly what you were about to say.

I agree my consciousness may be lagging behind your test equipment. I have no idea how much impact this sentence that I did not finish formulating would have on me, but clearly finishing it, is providing me with some experience that I didn't have before (unless it's something that I've said before, but even then the context is already different).

For me, that's never been true at all. Imagine your thoughts being like a barrel full of fish. Vocalizing your thoughts is then akin to reaching down into that barrel and plucking out the exact fish you were looking for.

Now if you wanted to describe the the color and species of said fish, it's easier when you're holding it rather than attempting to do so while it's swimming around with every other fish.

I'd say it's more like one fish jumped in your arms and you start descriping it when it was the thought coming into your focus and and not your focus choosing the thought.

You can of course reiterate and sort your knowledge by thinking about it if there is a reason.

If you just think around when you are not trying to solve a problem you are just playing with your mind without any or much of a result.

Paradoxically, if you want to find something, it helps if you say it, so its easier to find the fish if you're already talking about it.


Makes sense. Our brain is an interconnected mess that self activates different path of neurons. So if you try to remember where you put your keys, saying the word, looking at an image of keys or hearing junbling keys might lead to the memory of where you put your keys.

I regularly feel similar to OP. It's like I think the "concept" very quickly/immediately, and then a split second later I vocalise it. I then usually think something like "I know, I already thought that" or "I don't need to say it", as a kind of automatic criticism of my own thought process.

This seems incredibly dubious if not completely factually false. Neuroscience doesn't support this claim whatsoever (especially the "you already know what you are going to say" part) There is a reason the most brilliant minds engaged in thought experiments, which consisted of internal dialogues with themselves.

Psychologists recommend against this because ‘talking to yourself’ is connected to a lot of positive mental health.

Notice young children talking to themselves in their own little world as they start to grasp and build their ego.

There is quite a difference between talking to yourself out loud and constant mental chattering.

Psychologist also encourage mindfulness/meditation to calm your mind, which is more what I'm trying to get at.

There seems to be a transition in the young between when they talk out loud to themselves and then when they bring the voice inside.

Interestingly, some people do not have an inner voice...

It's conceivable that this really is how it works for you. Because we can't compare how our minds work the way we can compare how say, our mouths work, the variations surprise us. Still, if this is your experience it's unusual.

I didn't always thought like that. I only recognized this after I had a "dark night of the soul" / ego death.

Since then I've managed to not see my my thoughts as beeing all I am, losing most of my anxiety (which was on a normal level) and generally being more happy and motivated to work on myself.

I have had the same thought many times. I find it annoying that part of my mind insists on sub-vocalising the words when I know what it is I am thinking already. But as others have said sometimes it is useful as you re-analyse the words once they are formed. Yeah, but most of the time it's an annoying waste of time.

It's like there is a big mess of interconnected thoughts, intuitions, sensations clustering into a thought, fumbling along nicely on it's own... and then the apparatus in my mind responsible for flattening it all into words jumps in, totally unrequested

> When you "talk to yourself" you already know what you are going to say, you might as well just stop as soon as you notice doing that.

Why? I'm good company.

> you might as well just stop as soon as you notice doing that

I don't believe my mind will benefit from being passed through a buggy optimizing compiler.

But putting it into words would help solidify those thoughts into concepts you can grasp and then later articulate.

I watched a youtube video where a passerby was being vox-popped for tv about football. He says something to the interviewer and you can see a lightbulb go on in his head and he then looks at the camera and says "that's actually a good point". The interview went viral because it was such a funny moment.

In case anyone else is confused by the term "Vox-Popped"

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/vox-pop "a broadcast for radio or television in which people going past in a public place are asked their opinion on a particular subject"

Do you have a link?

maybe this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEz5GfZUnBU went viral in ireland for the accent and the novelty of seeing a city centre addict being interviewed about football on tv. The point where he strats realizing he is making a coherent point starts around 50 seconds in.

Yes that's the one, well done for finding it!


That's a pretty judgemental comment all the same.

>unsymbolised thinking, a trickier concept to get your head around, but essentially a thought that doesn’t manifest as words or images, but is undoubtedly present in your mind.

I've always been good at producing mental white noise (or TV static), for lack of a better term. I wonder if it's actually unsymbolised thinking. When I'm not actively thinking, there's just a massive wall of static. In these moments, I'm not thinking of nothing but I'm also not thinking of something.

I've noticed this effect after a really good movie or book. I can almost "feel" my brain thinking, ticking over and assembling meaning from what I've just seen (and can even sense "eureka!" moments), despite having no conscious awareness of the thoughts themselves (just TV static).

It also seems to happen more with foreign films, perhaps as they require an extra layer of subconscious analysis to parse the message by separating it from its cultural shell.

Might be interesting to build a mobile app similar to the beeper mentioned in the article—maybe add a notes tab for users to write down their thoughts. I could see possible benefits including increased mindfulness and ability to live in the moment.

Because nothing says living in the moment than writing down what you are thinking into your smartphone for later!

I feel like this article is trying too hard. I've kept a journal with thoughts from the day for years.

The best thing to take away from that article is just how much difference there is in type and frequency of how people think.

We all assume that our inner lifes are similiar and it's always interesting to me to discover new facets of personal differences.

I see. I didn't really think about that, my line of thought has always been that there's no one like me so of course there's deep differences between how people think.

Is this where the "millennial snowflake" idea comes in?

Did you really think that the fundamental way your mind works must be different or just what you think and/or how you approach a topic?

If it's the first, yeah, that's a pretty entitled snowflake perception of yourself.

It's not that I think I'm specifically different, I think that everyone "thinks" differently, and I incorrectly assumed everyone thinks like that.

Sometimes it seems as if everybody thinks differently, but then popular trends (or politics) seem to show the opposite, and personal interactions with some people suggest very little thinking at all.

It would be to build the habit of recursive thinking, not for the thoughts themselves

For anyone wanting to understand thought and the way we acquire knowledge, I would highly recommend the book The Tree of Knowledge (https://www.amazon.com/Tree-Knowledge-Biological-Roots-Under...)

I have a fairly consistent meditation practice, and sometimes when I'm tired, my "inner voice" contains, in addition to random snippets of half-formed thoughts, snippets of languages that I don't speak. Usually Spanish. Has anyone else experienced this? What's up with that?

Reflecting on my own though it, it’s mostly wordless—images, wordless but coherent brain states, even physical money Harrie states, all anchored by a key frame word here and there.

there are two types of thoughts: active and passive

passive thought probably makes up 80% of our day

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