The thinker or the listener?

Nov. 11, 2019, 12:58 p.m.

Stanford is, above all, a place to celebrate the life of the mind. We come here to acquire knowledge and to sharpen our ability to put that knowledge to intelligent and creative use. The goal is that we will leave Stanford knowing how to think and what to think about in our adult lives. 

However, for those of us not majoring in psychology, philosophy or perhaps religious studies, we don’t spend our college years learning much about what thinking is. We aren’t forced to introspect about the nature of our own minds and what relationship we have to our thoughts. As such, we also fail to understand who we really are as human beings and how to navigate the human condition. 

What does it mean to think? It means to produce thoughts, of course. But what is a thought? This is not a trick question; the answer is not obvious. Consider all the types of thoughts you might think: perhaps it is an internal monologue narrating a set of choices you have; maybe it is a mental movie replaying a conversation you had with a friend; it could be a wordless, imageless cognitive strain as you puzzle over a math problem. An emotion might even be classified as a wordless thought that affects other systems in the body. There is no one mental object that qualifies as a thought, nor are there many obvious necessary conditions of thoughts other than their appearance in consciousness (as opposed to being subconscious, although some people might count subconscious impulses as “unheard” thoughts). 

More important than the question of what constitutes a thought is this: who or what thinks the thoughts that fill our minds? We usually assume that we are the thinkers of our thoughts. But do we really create the thoughts in our minds? Do we really choose to think anything in particular? 

If this all seems terribly abstract, stop reading for a moment and clear your mind, then notice the first thought that appears. Notice, moreover, how that thought got into your head. Did you get to pick what to think, or did some thought spontaneously arise as you observed your mind? 

If you pay close enough attention to this process, you will probably find that your thoughts have a life of their own, entering consciousness without any decision process on your part. Rather than thinking your thoughts, you are more often listening to your thoughts as they come into consciousness. That is, you are the consciousness observing your thoughts, not the thinker creating them. 

Many profound insights can be drawn from this realization, many of which are explained in Eastern philosophical traditions, including the nature of the self, the existence of free will and other metaphysical issues. However, for the purpose of this article, I will focus on one important takeaway: you don’t have to take your thoughts so seriously. 

You probably have thousands of thoughts a day, many of which are garbage thoughts that only arise because your brain is a neurotic, insecure, confused product of evolution and culture. For example, the thought “I’m a failure.” Perhaps your brain creates this thought because it is feeling ashamed or comparing itself to other brains. In either case, it’s rubbish. Recognizing it as such — as an outburst by an irritated neural circuit rather than truth about you as a human being — allows you to let this thought pass, giving it no power over your self-conception. 

There is nothing wrong with thinking; as Stanford students, we are lucky to use our minds as tools to solve the world’s biggest problems. But we should also remember that our thoughts are just thoughts, and we don’t have to believe all of them. We can think of ourselves as the listener rather than the thinker of our thoughts, and maintain a sense of humor and detachment from the lesser angels of our brains. Not only is this neuroscientifically accurate, but it is the only way to truly live at peace with ourselves. 

Contact Avery Roger at averyr ‘at’

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