Finding ways to discuss thinking and dysfunctional thinking within a natural social ecology, with some implications for therapy

[One of my longest blogs, sorry, and one that will need a lot of time and thought to digest]

  1. About thoughts

Words are a way of dealing with people, not a way of dealing with the world of things (except through people).  If you can begin to understand “thinking” as just your unspoken words and language responses, since we cannot say all of them out loud, then all the weirder stuff about humans and consciousness and dreams begins to fall in place.  But within a natural social ecology rather than by resorting to abstract metaphors, theory, or invented internal events and homunculi.

Whatever might be going on in the life of adult humans, we have been shaped to always have many different verbal ways of responding in any situation whatsoever, unlike more physical responses.  Thinking is therefore a natural part of your ways for dealing with people using language, but they are the words and conversations not blurted out loud.  There can be several reasons for not blurting out all the many  available responses, and some will be given below.

So your thoughts are just alternative verbal ways with which you can deal with people, might deal with people, have dealt with people, or could possibly deal with people, but because they are not out loud, they will not have any effect on anyone—they will have no consequences.

(And no! they do not have an effect on some fictitious ‘you’, which is itself just another of the ways in which you have been shaped to talk and think to help in your dealings with people).

And that is why thinking is important to analyse alongside the things you say out loud and the things you do. Thoughts tell us a lot about your dealings and strategies within your social relationship: the complexities and issues of how we get what we need through the people in our lives while maintaining those relationships.

  1. On not saying things out loud

We need therefore to examine the natural social ecology of both saying verbal responses and not saying verbal responses, a quest which started in earnest around the time of the early Freud but it got covered in unnecessary theories quite quickly.  For all the verbal responses we have been shaped to say in any situation, not saying them out loud can happen in the following ways, but there are probably many more:

  • There are too many learned verbal responses in that context  to ‘say’ them all (“What do you think about the Prime Minister?” Me: “How long have you got?”). You can even sometimes be unable to say anything because there are too many shaped verbal responses you could say and you get ‘tongue-tied’.
  • Not enough time (if a busy conversation and you cannot “get a word in edgewise”). This is one reason thoughts appear to occur more when alone, even though they occur whether or not you get to blurt them out loud.  You can just report them better if alone.
  • A verbal response has been learned in a very tight context (we are talking about fast cars but the one story I know will only make sense to my family and no one else, so I do not say it out loud because it will be punished. But I ‘think’ of it still (it has been shaped) and could report this afterwards if asked whether I was thinking of that story during the conversation)
  • There are no audiences present for the verbal responses to occur anyway (if I am alone perhaps). In such situations it can be suggested that the verbal responses which normally occur across a large range of my audiences will be the ones reported if suddenly asked “What are you thinking?”.  I can also, of course, talk out loud without an audience present if this has not been punished as sometimes occurs.
  • The verbal response has been punished in the immediate social context (but might be said out loud in another social context)
  • The verbal response has been punished in most contexts (“repressed”?) and I might need special forms of questioning to remember afterwards that I was even thinking it
  • This punishment of verbal responses (so they remain only as thoughts) often occurs when different audiences in your life have shaped contradictory verbal responses which you can say out loud in one group but not the other


  1. Some bits that follow about the social ecology of thinking and talking

So typically, in life, we can report (1) what we said out loud (without assuming this report is true because that also depends on the social context when reporting!), and (2) we can usually report some verbal responses which were not said out loud but which “occurred to us” nonetheless.  With some special forms of questioning we can also report (3) thoughts which “occurred to us” but which we could not immediately report .

Which of these occur does not depend upon the thoughts themselves, but on the whole social ecology of the other thoughts concurrently shaped and the consequences for saying those thoughts out loud.  So which verbal responses are said out loud depends equally on all the other verbal responses shaped and made possible in that same situation.

Thoughts (possible verbal responses) sometimes seem like they are being shaped internally or edited while on a ‘queue’ getting ready to be said (Freud’s “dreamwork”, dysfunctional cognitions, etc).  This is all shaped externally, however, by the full social ecology of what is going on at that time and previous consequences for what is said.  The ‘editing’ and ‘dreamwork’ do not get done ‘inside’ us.

So stretching this a little further, what we call our “consciousness” at any moment are those verbal responses most likely to be said at the time but which are not (for the many reasons given above). For example: (1) in conflict situations we will be thinking (“conscious of”) snippets of stories we might say about the conflict (excuses, condemnations, explanations for what we did, things we would yell at the other person if it were only safe to do so); (2) in very specific or unique social situations our conscious thoughts will be those shaped as specific to that social ecology (when you are your with family then most thoughts will be family-relevant material except for dire non-family matters which have become likely in all our contexts—or if you are bored); (3) in general social situations, our conscious thoughts will be more abstract, generally agreeable, easily said without punishment, or social relationship enhancing (which can be done with some disagreeable topics).

It is also important that what we report as our “conscious” thoughts are not single words but snippets of conversation about the ways you can deal with people, might deal with people, have dealt with people, or could possibly deal with people.  The method of free association should not be about saying the first word that you think of, but about the first bits of conversation you might blurt out given a chance.  The literary method of ‘stream of consciousness’ is perhaps a better metaphor, a narrative form.

And what we report as our thoughts from dreams is weird because they occur in no particular social context (since we are asleep).  This means:

  • They are useful for dredging up otherwise difficult-to-report thoughts which have been shaped but punished in most life contexts except dreaming
  • We usually cannot remember dreams upon awakening because there is no context for them once we are awake so they become irrelevant quickly afer waking
  • When we do remember dreams (or are prompted) they often appear unrelated to anything we can think of because the context is not there (without further prompting)— “I had this really weird dream, it didn’t make any sense”!

Finally, over our life we develop ‘typical’ thoughts, conversational patterns or narratives, but these are shaped by our social contexts not by something inside of us somewhere.  These can be referred to as our ‘core beliefs’, ‘attitudes and values’, schema (from schema therapy), dysfunctional cognitive patterns, obsessive thoughts, fixed ideas (Janet), and many other terms.  But more about this another day, another blog.


  1. Some bits about thoughts in therapy

From all the above there are important things to note about therapies, which, like our social relationships, are primarily about talking.

A. First, it is important to focus on all these three:

  • What we say
  • What we can report as our thoughts
  • What we report as our thoughts with some extra questioning and contextualizing

Around any problem issue in life there can be thoughts which we can easily report (conscious) and some which are difficult to report but once stated out loud we can agree that they had been thought at the time (unconscious).  The differences between these are not in the thoughts themselves but in their social conditions (whether they have been punished out loud or not, who was the audience when we were shaped to say this, etc.).

The important point is that all these are good clues in therapy for understanding people’s conflicts and issues in life around social relationships, which then can be addressed in many ways (changing the client’s verbal responses is only one way therapists can work to stop the suffering).

B. One role of a therapist, therefore, is to create those social contexts in which reporting thoughts of all kinds is easier, especially those thoughts which have been punished in many social situations. There are many ways of doing this—from psychoanalysis, Gestalt, DBT, ACT, etc.

C. There are interesting cases in which a thought will occur to someone or even be said out loud but in any or all situations in their life (obsessions, dysfunctional cognitions). We must look to observe the social contexts which make this happen, not the nature or content of those thoughts [which could actually be irrelevant, and a previous blog looked at word salad in this way].

D. In many therapies, questioning soon finishes with only the reporting of any out loud talk (“So when she said that I replied to her that…”). Better therapies get into the un-said verbal responses in difficult or conflict situations:

  • and what were you thinking at that point?
  • how were you feeling about that?
  • what were you thinking about that at the time?
  • what else were you thinking about at the time?
  • what would you have liked to have said at that point?

In the natural ecology way I am urging here, these merely ask for any or all of the verbal responses which have been shaped throughout the client’s life and which could be said in that situation.  And finding these out then gives us good clues about the problems or issues, depending upon whether  those life conditions have allowed these verbal responses to be said out loud or not.

E. The following is Freud (Breuer & Freud, 1895/1974) talking to a client, and tracing through questioning some of the context around her ‘belief’ that she loves her employer:

She answered in her usual laconic fashion: ‘Yes, I think that’s true.’—’But if you knew you loved your employer why didn’t you tell me!’ (SF that is)—’I didn’t know—or rather I didn’t want to know. I wanted to drive it out of my head and not think of it again; and I believe latterly I have succeeded.’ ‘Why was it that you were unwilling to admit this inclination? Were you ashamed of loving a man?’—’Oh no, I’m not unreasonably prudish. We’re not responsible for our feelings, anyhow. It was distressing to me only because he is my employer and I am in his service and live in his house. I don’t feel the same complete independence towards him that I could towards anyone else. And then I am only a poor girl and he is such a rich man of good family. People would laugh at me if they had any idea of it.’ (pp. 181–182)

So Freud managed to elicit un-said thoughts which she earlier could not even report to him, and while doing this he also dredged up some useful social, economic, and cultural contexts for her life problems.  He later added a lot of theoretical terms to “help explain” these natural events, which I think was unfortunate.

F. Some therapies spend more time questioning clients for the very, very un-said verbal responses which have been shaped in their clients’ lives but which are rarely spoken out loud by those clients and rarely able to be reported immediately:

  • dream analysis, trying to catch thoughts about a real life situation within their dream reports, which are ‘uncensored’ because they are not currently in context. But it is easy to begin interpreting too much with these analyses, and they need to be kept within the material social ecology of the real person.
  • use of ‘hypnotic’ methods to engage with and distract the main verbal responses (the ones typically said out loud) while probing for the other ones which typically are never said.
  • being able to guess very common ‘core belief’ or thoughts (e.g., RET, schema) and asking clients whether they have ever thought this. Therapists will often get this correct but it all depends upon the actual social context.  Doing such guessing is probably only successful because in modernity we all share a more similar social context made up of of strangers, so our ‘commonly shaped thoughts’ are similar.


G.  Another method from Freud, who experimented a lot with his clients before he became more rigid.  “There is a very convenient method by which we can sometimes obtain a piece of information we want about unconscious repressed material. ‘What’, we ask, ‘would you consider the most unlikely imaginable thing in that situation? What do you think was furthest from your mind at that time?’ If the patient falls into the trap and says what he thinks is the most incredible, he almost always makes the right admission [if you ignore the negation].” (Freud, 1925/1984, p. 437)


H. In general, some good questions to ask about thoughts are these:

  • Who are the audiences for those different thoughts?
  • What part in our strategies (of resources and populations) do those (or might those) thoughts play?
  • How many different thoughts occur and who are their audiences?
  • Which thoughts get said (perhaps later, though)?
  • What contexts determine which are eventually said out loud and which are not?
  • How are they edited “in rehearsal”? What gets left out?
  • What would be the most unlikely thing you would say in that situation?
  • What would you have really liked t have said in that situation?
  • What would you have said in that situation if the other person was not allowed to respond in any way?
  • Is there a narrative story to these thoughts or are they disjointed?
  • Who might be/have been the audiences for any stories?
  • Who is telling the stories; whose voice is it?
  • What would happen if they were said to the specific audiences?
  • Are they new or repetitive thoughts (hence repetitive contextual conditions)?
  • Are you able to argue against the thoughts?
  • What are the other many thoughts which you were not ‘aware of’ at any particular time?
  • Tell me a story about that thought
  • Make a fiction story; what is happening or what could happen?
  • Who are the characters in these thoughts and their situations?
  • What is behind the story of that thought?
  • Put that thought in this chair and talk to it; yell at it; plead with it; convince it (Gestalt)


A long read, and my apologies again, but I am trying to produce a more naturalistic account of thinking, since over centuries thinking has had the most bizarre and unnatural explanations made of what it is and how it works!



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