Every day, in so many ways, our brains produce lots of thoughts. Estimates vary as to the average number. When I asked Google, widely disparate answers popped up. None seemed to be based on solid scientific research.
Regardless, most people -- certainly me included -- feel that much, if not most, of the thinking that goes on inside their heads is unproductive, useless, unnecessary, and even unpleasant.
Yet the thought-beat goes on... boom, boom, boom, one after the other, much of the time with little rhyme or reason.
Often this is called "monkey mind," since left to its own devices the brain tends to jump around from one idea branch to another, not hanging onto any notion for very long unless something grabs our attention -- either involuntarily or via conscious effort.
Neuroscientist (and noted religion-basher) Sam Harris has some interesting thoughts about thinking in his response to a 2011 Edge question, "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"
In We are lost in thought, Harris starts off with:
I invite you to pay attention to anything — the sight of this text, the sensation of breathing, the feeling of your body resting against your chair — for a mere sixty seconds without getting distracted by discursive thought. It sounds simple enough: Just pay attention.
The truth, however, is that you will find the task impossible. If the lives of your children depended on it, you could not focus on anything — even the feeling of a knife at your throat — for more than a few seconds, before your awareness would be submerged again by the flow of thought.
This forced plunge into unreality is a problem. In fact, it is the problem from which every other problem in human life appears to be made.
Interesting thesis, that last statement. Harris might be right, but he doesn't elaborate on why an inability to pay attention to here-and-now reality is the cause of all of our other problems.
I suspect it has to do with the creation of a feeling of separate selfhood.
Thinking about the past, present, and future, as contrasted with simply paying attention to what is happening now, conjures up the illusion of a distinct "Me" who persists through time and is a free agent capable of manipulating reality to our own ego-centered ends.
This morning I was reading Kevin Nelson's book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience." He says:
The neurologist's world routinely strips away the illusion that self-identity is a seamless, integrated whole. Instead, neurologists are confronted with overwhelming spectacles of subjective experience often fragmented into contradictory components.
...the brain makes us who we are from a jumble of components that are fragmented and distributed through the cortex and thalamus in a way that is analogous to the way Picasso sometimes painted.
So it makes sense that if we could lessen the number of monkey-mind thoughts generated by our jumbled-up mind, life would seem more coherent, integrated, and balanced -- possibly even leading to a dimunition of the unsubstantiated belief that we are an isolated island of Self in the midst of a vast Other ocean.
Harris notes how almost every religion, spirtual path, and mystic tradition has its own way of focusing attention and controlling unwanted thoughts.
While most of us go through life feeling that we are the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experience, from the perspective of science we know that this is a distorted view. There is no discrete self or ego lurking like a minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain.
There is no region of cortex or pathway of neural processing that occupies a privileged position with respect to our personhood. There is no unchanging "center of narrative gravity" (to use Daniel Dennett's phrase). In subjective terms, however, there seems to be one — to most of us, most of the time.
Our contemplative traditions (Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc.) also suggest, to varying degrees and with greater or lesser precision, that we live in the grip of a cognitive illusion. But the alternative to our captivity is almost always viewed through the lens of religious dogma.
A Christian will recite the Lord's Prayer continuously over a weekend, experience a profound sense of clarity and peace, and judge this mental state to be fully corroborative of the doctrine of Christianity; A Hindu will spend an evening singing devotional songs to Krishna, feel suddenly free of his conventional sense of self, and conclude that his chosen deity has showered him with grace; a Sufi will spend hours whirling in circles, pierce the veil of thought for a time, and believe that he has established a direct connection to Allah.
This is like thinking that eating a steak is the only way to feel like one's stomach is full. Or that eating a fruit salad is. It's food that satiates our appetite, not any particular source of nutrition.
Yet religions erroneously believe that their own particular rituals, prayers, mantras, ceremonies, or whatever possess a unique ability to sooth the soul -- which more accurately should be called the mind/brain.
Thus Harris concludes with:
The universality of these phenomena refutes the sectarian claims of any one religion. And, given that contemplatives generally present their experiences of self-transcendence as inseparable from their associated theology, mythology, and metaphysics, it is no surprise that scientists and nonbelievers tend to view their reports as the product of disordered minds, or as exaggerated accounts of far more common mental states — like scientific awe, aesthetic enjoyment, artistic inspiration, etc.
Our religions are clearly false, even if certain classically religious experiences are worth having. If we want to actually understand the mind, and overcome some of the most dangerous and enduring sources of conflict in our world, we must begin thinking about the full spectrum of human experience in the context of science.
But we must first realize that we are lost in thought.