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Alas, how love can trifle with itself! -- William Shakespeare, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"
.: On efficiency of thought | 2006-06-29 06:46AM :.

I've been thinking about thinking, and it seems that people are suffering a tremendous loss of both precision and efficiency of thought due to needless mental verbalization.

When you're thinking (setting aside daydreams and other explicit visualizations for the moment), there are words in your mind, right? Everybody I've asked agreed that "words in one's head" is basically the definition of a thought. But in my own experiments, I've come to realize that words are in fact not the essence of thought at all. The thought comes, and the words are a reaction to the thought itself. My thought process, and I suspect the process of nearly all adults, is:

  1. A thought comes into the mind fully formed. This seems to be the essential thought.
  2. Almost instantly, the mind begins selecting words to represent the thought. This proceeds rather quickly, but not necessarily all at once. Perhaps only so many words can be "buffered" at a time.
  3. A fraction of a second later, the mind begins verbalizing the thought and producing the "words in one's head". For complex thoughts, this continues in parallel with #2.
  4. The words are then interpreted according to their meanings.
  5. The thought is understood by the interpretation of the words.

That the essence of thought is not lingual is further evidenced by the fact that children, who have yet to learn a language, can nonetheless think.

One very interesting idea from George Orwell's book 1984 was that by altering the language, removing words and changing their meanings, the government could alter the thoughts of the citizens, and even prevent them from thinking thoughts deemed undesirable. I never really bought it completely, because you could still express dissent, even if you needed to use phrases as clunky as "Big Brother is doubleplus ungood." But that aside, certainly the ability of people to communicate their own thoughts is limited by their capacity to express them in symbols (typically words) -- limited by their command of language. And even their ability to understand their own thoughts would be limited.

Even if you have a reasonable command of language, and a good language to work with, some meaning is still lost in the conversion to words. Less articulate people would have an even muddier thought process, as would those trying to express things that are difficult to express in a given language (many emotional or spiritual concepts in English, technical concepts in Farsi, etc). Furthermore, the whole process of converting the thought into words and then understanding it based on the words is time-consuming.

Thus, language, although a very useful tool for interpersonal communication, seems a detriment when one is not engaged in communication. Given that the brain can almost instantly begin selecting the words to represent the thought, the thought in its raw form must be understandable at some level. The time-consuming selection and verbalization of words increases the total time to process the thought by a factor of what seems to be 10, 100, or more times. And without perfect command of a perfect language, meaning is lost. There's also the potentially disruptive effect of processing the thought in chunks rather than utilizing its fully formed essence. Finally, the tight coupling of one's understanding of his thoughts to his understanding of language would almost certainly decrease his overall comprehension.

It may be very worthwhile, then, to recover and strengthen one's ability to think nonverbally. Potential evidence of this can be seen if one examines autistic savants capable of performing unbelievable feats of mathematics, etc. They consistently (as far as I've read, and of those capable of explaining themselves) describe their thought processes as nonverbal and instantaneous. They don't actually calculate the results the way normal people do. But rather, after the problem is understood, the answer appears fully formed.

In my own experiments, I have tried nonverbal thought. After I developed the sensitivity to feel the separation of the thought process (described in the list above), I found it a rather simple task to excise steps three through five, and occasionally the second as well. I found no loss of ability to think most thoughts. To the contrary, my thoughts were crystal clear in a way that gave me a feeling of nostalgia and deja vu, as though I was stumbling upon something long lost. At the same time, though, my brain felt a sense of clumsiness, like one feels when learning a new skill or revisiting one after a long period. It's likely not something I'd done for two decades prior. There was a strong desire to verbalize, the motivation of which I felt to be mere habit. But when the urge was resisted, the thought process was far more passive of an activity, much more like listening and feeling, than doing. Everything was understood instantly without explicit cogitation. It was intuition.

I also attempted seemingly more complex things like performing arithmetic. I found them essentially impossible for me to do, because I know no other way than to follow the algorithms I was taught, and those algorithms rely on iteration, and symbols. Symbols and words are two of a kind -- the same thing, really. I suspected that attempting to shoehorn my existing methods into a wholly different paradigm of thought would be unsuccessful, but I know of no other way. I probably did not perform precise mathematics as a child, before I was immersed in language. Whatever method there may be to calculate nonverbally would have to be a new discovery on my part.

In conclusion, there may be much more (less?) to thinking than you think.

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