Where do thoughts come from? A thought experiment.

This snippet details a thought experiment I’ve been encouraging people to do for years. It’s simple, and should only take a few minutes of your time. The purpose of the thought experiment is to better understand where your thoughts come from.

There are just four steps in the experiment: (1) think thoughts, (2) remember those thoughts and write them down, (3) determine their causes, (4) categorize those causes.

Let me explain in more detail.

(1) To start the experiment, think thoughts for one minute. You can set a timer. During this minute, it’s okay for your mind to wander. It isn’t important what you think about. During this time you’re just thinking, not writing.

(2) Once the minute is over, try to remember all the thoughts you had during that minute; write them all down in a list. As much as possible, put that list in chronological order. It may take much more than a minute to remember and write down all those thoughts. This step can be difficult; try to be as thorough as possible. You may surprise yourself by at first not remembering thinking something, and then only after thinking hard trying to remember it finding it becoming clear as your recollection improves.

(3) Determine the causes of the thoughts. For each thought on the list, try to determine why that thought arose. What was the cause of that thought arising in your mind? For some thoughts the cause will be obvious. For others it may not be obvious at all; don’t give up. Really spend some time trying to determine why you thought all the things you thought. I believe there is always a reason.

(4) Finally, look over the complete list of reasons. Come up with categories for the reasons. Maybe one thought arose because something you saw or smelled triggered a memory. Maybe other thoughts arose because one word sounds like another. Be creative in how you categorize thoughts. There’s no right or wrong way to do this.

That’s all. This whole experiment can take less than half an hour, less or more depending on how into it you get and how detailed you are. While it doesn’t take that much time, it can be mentally draining. Have some water, relax, treat yourself when you’re done :).

As I mentioned, the purpose of the experiment is to better understand where thoughts come from. Individually, this experiment helps us better understand ourselves through introspection. Through sharing the results with each other, it can also help us better understand each other.

I would be absolutely delighted to hear from you if you do this experiment. You can reach me at david810+thinking@gmail.com. Feel free to send me your thoughts, causes, and categories from the experiment (or just a subset if any of that is too personal to share). And I would of course also love to hear your thoughts about the experiment too, or your thoughts on thinking. Really, don’t hesitate to get in touch.