How Thought Tricks us


Civilization used to value thought—it helped us build cities, created science and technology, and contributed greatly to medicine. Everything we see is the product of thought. But a certain way of thinking also produces destruction—when we break things into fragments and take each piece as if it were independent.

Like smashing an object into fragments instead of taking it apart to find each part—parts belong to a whole, fragments are arbitrary bits. Thought goes wrong when things that should be together are taken as separate. “There's something we don't understand about how thought works,” says physicist David Bohm in On Dialogue.

He suggests that to get to the root of the problem, we need to figure out what is polluting it and the best way to do that is by examining what happens with thinking and knowledge.

How thought works

Bohm says thought is a process and as such we should pay attention to what happens as we would with a normal external process, as in things we can see. We should be aware that thought is a process and that it's collective rather than individual. Information and knowledge are amplified by television, computers, and radio—that is how thought spreads.

We hardly notice its effects on us because we each contribute to nourish what we absorb. So rather than trying to point to a source outside, when we begin to recognize and acknowledge that we are part of the source we begin to see its collective nature—thought is a current of culture.

Our social environment is fertile ground. From a tender age we absorb the thinking of our parents, friends, school pals, the media, and books. The small changes we make as individuals are not enough to stray from this collective influence and source. We're the product of centuries of knowledge.

But we're not aware of our own thinking. “I am not responsible for any of these problems. I'm just here for you to use,” says our knowledge. Yet this knowledge comes from somewhere.

How we build knowledge

This is what happens—we acquire knowledge through experience and practice, then we think about it and organize it, then send it to memory. It's like the process Pixar describes in Inside Out, we're not aware of the conversation happening.

Hungarian-British polymath Michael Polanyi called it tacit knowledge—it's there, we just can't explain how it happens. Like riding a bicycle, we have no idea of the mathematical formula that allows us to turn and not fall to the ground.

There's also the distinction between thinking, something we do in the moment, the now, and thought, which is the product of our thinking. Thought goes into memory for retrieval. The same thing happens with feeling and “felts”—the feelings recorded into memory.

Thoughts and felts go into our memory and are not separate, as our culture would have us believe. They are part of the same process:

when memory acts, you cannot separate the intellectual function, the emotional function, the chemical function, the muscular function—because this tacit knowledge is also a kind of memory—they're all there.

It's all in our memory, but in two different areas of the brain connected by a thick bundle of nerves.

How we get stressed out

From brain scans we know that thought comes from the outer cortex while the emotional centers are deeper down to regulate whether we should run or freeze.

In a situation where we're angry with our boss because he's mistreating us, for example, we may need to stay put—we can't fight the boos, nor can we just freeze and do nothing. But our brain is pouring neurochemicals into our system, “as if we were being attacked in the jungle.”

Something happens to us, something physical that prevents us from thinking straight. Rational thought wants a quiet brain… the kind of thought we get in this kind of situation is emotionally charged. The images and words that come at us constantly in social networks and 24/7 media cycles produce this same effect on us.

Our old brain didn't need to tell reality from images—we had a direct, physical experience of what was happening around us. When an image produces the same effects as the real thing, we get confused. The modern version of nature is the new brain—we filter nature through images and thought. 

Contributing to stress are the many thoughts of society with its rules and authority bodies. Every culture also has its myths, many of which become perceived realities. We're not aware of all the factors that influence our perceptions, how we remember experiences, make judgements, and act. In Subliminal neuroscientist Leonard Mlodinow says:

we are aware only of our conscious influences, and so have only partial information. As a result, our view of ourselves and our motivations, and our society, is like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. We fill in blanks and make guesses, but the truth about us is far more complex and subtle that than which can be understood as the straightforward calculation of conscious and rational minds.

How the map is not the territory

Bohm says thought helps us re-present what we experience by pulling a number of concepts together, but it's not reality. It's more like a map, which represents the territory but it's not one and the same. A map helps us see what is essential to our purposes without bogging us down with details.

For example, when we listen to a speech, our mind forms a representation of what the speaker means. Since we can only listen once, we rely on the product of our imagination to record to memory what we think we heard, even as we take notes. This is how we constantly form re-presentations.

Part of the process is that we fuse the idea we form of something in our imagination with the perception and the experience. So the way we experience something depends on how we re-represent it. 

For example, if we have a re-presentation of ourselves as honest, reliable, and capable, that becomes our perception. If someone else gives us another representation—that we're incapable and stupid, as in the case of the boss above, this affects our perception and shakes our system. Our thought is under pressure to provide a better representation, which is the seed of self-deception.

Though we're not aware this two-way conversation between representation and presentation is happening, we need this connection between the two to take action. Representing something in the imagination and thought is not enough—to have it present in our perception, we must also feel it.

The lumberman sees a forest as fresh lumber, the artist as a source of inspiration, a walker as a place to take long walks. Each is a representation that presents the forest for different actions. Anything that is not represented holds no interest and gets no action because there's no concrete presentation of it.

We're not aware of this process:

if someone says, “people in this category are bad,” and you accept that, then the representation of thought enters the presentation of perception. Once you've accepted that, it goes into implicit, tacit thought. The next moment when you see a person of that kind, it comes up as a presentation. The “badness” is perceived as inhering in him. It is not that you say, “I know that somebody has told me that these people are bad, and they may be bad or may be good. I'd better look and see.” But rather, what they “are” is apparently right “there.”

From there on, you think about that as if it were entirely an independent fact—independent of thought.

To be coherent with ourselves we then use thought to prove itself and we fabricate facts. From its Latin root, “fact” means “what has been made” as in “manufacture.” We mix thought into something without being aware of it, and we call it fact.

How we manufacture value

The power of representation comes from its collective nature. When everyone agrees on something, we take it as evidence it's right. This in turn creates pressure on us to conform—we need to accept a particular representation.

Many of our collective representations—a country, a set of beliefs, a specific company, the ego—are like the droplets of water that form a rainbow. What we see is the colors from the reflection of the sun on the water, each of us forms a different perception of “rainbow.” Facts therefore have little value, yet we value them very highly.

The question of representation is crucial in communication. When things go smoothly we have no idea anything is wrong because we've made assumptions that we're independent from thought. This is why we have a hard time understanding the common pitfalls in arguments. The only time we pay attention to what is outside the representation is when we're in trouble.

In a crisis things don't quite work, but we don't see it as a problem because we have no idea how to solve it. Maybe we begin to see the disconnect in facts, that what we take as fact is not a fact, that it's an assumption. If we become aware that we see the world according to the general representation of it by society and culture, then we may begin to change.

How thought tricks us

“Any real change in presentation is a change of being,” says Bohm. It produces an internal change as  response. When it's not genuine, it's mis-representation and we should approach the people who are under its spell as victims. Unfortunately mis-representation is accepted:

if we could learn to see thought actually producing presentations from representations, we would no longer be fooled by it—it would be like seeing the rick of a magician.

Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. It could change everything.