Awkward questions about thinking.


A few years ago, someone asked me what I had been thinking at a certain point in time, and nothing true that I said seemed to satisfy him.

I described what was happening at the time.

“But what were you thinking?”

“That is what I was thinking.”

“Really, what were you thinking?”

“Well I was uncomfortable with being touched…”

“That’s a feeling. What were you thinking?”

“The dark behind my eyelids. The sensation of pressure on my arms. The sound of rustling.”

And eventually I gave up and he was never satisfied.

The thing is, most of the time I’d give similar answers. As far as I’m concerned, processing sensory input, including emotional responses from inside my body, are part of thinking. They are the main part of my thinking, at that. Yes, I do have the kind of thoughts that everyone calls thinking, but not all the time. Not most of the time. Sometimes it pops up automatically and sometimes I push my way into it. That kind of thought takes work and work takes energy. Even locating touch as on my arm takes energy, but it takes less, especially if I’ve had time afterward to work it out.

So that’s yet another common assumption: That everyone uses that standard kind of thinking1. So much so that many people (including many people like me) decide that my predominant way of thinking isn’t thinking.

1 When I say standard thinking I mean a wide variety of kinds of thought. It doesn’t matter if it’s in words, pictures, abstract ideas, or what. And it’s not a matter of being “NT”. What makes it “standard” for these purposes is that it goes beyond taking in your environment in realtime. I’m sorry I couldn’t come up with a better term for it.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

9 responses »

  1. I think (that is to say I have an opinion, nevermind my use of the T word there) that “thinking” is just another of those creatice fictions.

    It may have suited Descartes, though he was on a hiding to nowhere rather than know where.

    I suppose that thinking is an illusion caused by selective attention. There is a lot of brain activity going on, only some of it ever gets to be called thinking.

    Oh well I opined today, that trees don’t exist until they get to be called trees, that means they can’t really fall in forests making no sound, because there are no forests and there is no sound but that it comes only into being when considered as such.

    So even Dr Johnson the man of words was wrong in refuting Berkeley with a swift kick upon a stone, because the stone only was when his toe met it, or to be more precise when his brain noticed his toe making the connection, and made him conscious of that sensation above all others.

    So really I don’t think at all, I only think I do :)

  2. Most of the time when people ask what I’m thinking about, I don’t have a good answer either. The honest answer is usually something like “I was replaying the last few minutes in my head”. Or on a bad day, “I was thinking about everything I’ve ever done wrong in my life”. But those aren’t the answers people are looking for when they ask “What are you thinking?”, and if I give those answers, they will be misinterpreted. The only acceptable answer seems to be not a regular thought, but a thought that I had put into words and was getting ready to say anyway.

  3. Laurentius Rex, as per usual you’ve given a thought provoking entry that waxes toward the poetic with just a hint of wry humor. It reminds me I need to visit your site again.

    Amanda, I think many people in today’s world have very busy minds that don’t turn off easily and they have to be trained not to think and just allow the senses to process. You come from another angle entirely and your writing this allows us to understand that better.

  4. Here again is the issue of people not respecting your ability to determine for yourself whether you are thinking or not. Or whether you are doing WHATEVER it is you are doing (or not doing), for that matter.

    “Well I was uncomfortable with being touched.” is not thinking? Seriously?????? Say it ain’t so, Joe! (reference to Sarah Palin debating Joe Biden during the VP candidate debate in 2008)

    You discussed/described this very issue brilliantly in your video “In My Language”

    but I’m very curious about one thing concerning that video….it’s not entirely relevant to this post but… were you able to bang on the door or strike objects against surfaces and tolerate the sound? Was the sound “turned off” for you at that point?

    We had to turn the volume way down for that part of the video….but it was brilliant nonetheless.

    Mom- thank you for your part in bringing Amanda into the world, so she can share this knowledge with us!

  5. As usual, a wonderfully insightful analysis of a highly complex topic… and, in this case, a rather humorous example of the sort of dialogue that often occurs when I try to talk with philosophers about my beliefs.

  6. I’ve had similar experiences when seeing counsellors or psychologists – although it tends to be the other way round. They ask “how did you feel about that” and I’ll say “well the person’s voice was really loud and their perfume wad so pungent!”

    And then I’ll get told “You’re just telling me things you noticed. I want to know how you FEEL”.

    I’ve even been discharged by counsellors for being ‘uncooperative’ when the real issue was that I wasn’t able to give a truthful answer that was what they wanted to hear or were conditioned to expect.

  7. Most “NT’s” are incapable of understanding their own thoughts, let alone the thoughts of someone with a different mode of thinking. They seem to consider structured language “real thoughts” and everything else and intuitions- “feelings”, which is a ridiculous and very inaccurate way to describe a mind. Since they do not have to struggle with their consciousness, they are not aware of the many subtle processes that are happening. So when somebody else speaks of them, they are foreign.

  8. As far as what you described that isn’t thinking. You define that there is such a thing as normative or standard thinking. There isn’t. Plain and true.

    But a physical sensation is NOT thinking. When you look up the definition of thinking, none of what you said pertains to the definition of ‘thought’, ‘thinking’ or otherwise. So more or less it’s you misjudging the definition of thinking. The person probably wasn’t looking for something complex or simple. Just whatever.
    ” I felt (physical sensation.” Is not thinking. It is a response to a stimuli.
    However if you weren’t thinking, you probably should have said that. As often as people think, there are times when we just completely shut and rely on instinct rather than contemplate and think of what’s going to a sudden movement, activity. etc.
    “I shut down. I wasn’t thinking.” is probably a response they might have expected although if they expect you to be thinking in certain situations such as rape or whatever similar punch them in the face because most people don’t think at that point. They simply rely on physical stimuli and instinct.
    Some people just don’t think all the time. And thinking is often not done in words or even sound-most of the time there isn’t even color. It’s an abstract sort of thing that occurs in our brains when we examine or contemplate things, but the average healthy human brain is normally able to translate this into the known human language within milliseconds and it tumbles out the mouth in words as opposed to the abstract way it was originally done in the brain so that this thought can be communicated.

  9. If sensory perceptions aren’t thinking then for the most part I don’t think. The vast majority of the time, sensory perceptions are all I’m aware of, and when it’s more than that, it’s generally just the patterns those perceptions form, not anything remotely abstract. (And yes, that’s how I learned to handle language as well — sensory information and concrete patterns thereof.) As for usage of “standard”, see this.

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