How thinking works: A practical exercise in which you will need two carrots, someone to talk with, and a knife

Previously, on this blog, I tried to get you to think about thinking differently (outside the box, so to speak) by using the idea of sympathetic vibrations—action at a distance.

Thinking as Sympathetic Resonance with External Contexts (a metaphor)

Now you can try a new practice exercise to give you a gut feeling for:

  • Thinking is not ‘in’ you
  • You do not ‘possess’ or own your thoughts
  • You are not your thinking
  • Thinking is social
  • You are not responsible for your thoughts
  • We are not individuals because even our thinking is social
  • Thinking is just an action we do in special contexts
  • Thinking is the same as talking but the audiences are not there and this changes the properties of such talking so it seems different to actually talking to someone even though it is not
  • Thinking is not built out of words but consists of phrases, conversational ‘snippets’, short stories and narratives, and all other forms of discourse


Here it is, but, as always, observe what you are doing and the contexts involved in making these things happen the way they do.

Step 1.  Take the first carrot and knife.  Chop the carrot into slices (thick or thin does not matter).

Step 2.  Take the other carrot but put the knife down. Now go through exactly the same motions with both hands, pretending that you still have the knife in your hands.  Keep your hands just as they were, when moving and doing things in Step 1.  [You obviously will not chop the carrot with your fingers but pretend there is a knife cutting and chopping just the same.]

Step 3.  Start thinking about what was different in Step 2 than Step 1 (apart from the missing knife…)

Step 4.  Now do the same movements and actions for a third time, but with neither a carrot nor a knife.  Observe what is going on and think about: what are the contexts now shaping what you are doing?  How have they changed from Steps 1 & 2?  Are they shorter chops?  Does the whole thing take less time?  Are you less thorough?

Step 5.  No, we are not doing the knife without a carrot permutation because that is too dangerous and liable to go horribly wrong.

Step 6a.  Time to bring in someone you can talk with.  Just sit them down, with tea, coffee or appropriate drink, and just chat.  Make sure you are both doing about half the talking, like a good friend conversation.  And it really does not matter at all what you talk about.  Chopping carrots?

Step 6b.  While doing Step 6a, think about what is shaping you each time you say something.  What did they say just before? What impressions are you trying to give? What coherence are you trying to bring to the talking? Are you trying to steer the conversation to some topics? Why those topics?  Why those topics in relation to this friend?

Step 7.  Now ask your friendly conversant to keep quiet.  Ask them not to move much.  They do not have to act catatonic, but they should try not to respond by voice or by movement when you talk. They should not react to your talking.

Step 8.  Now try to have another conversation with your friend just like before, once they have mastered Step 7.  It will be awkward and difficult but try to keep up a conversation from your side. [Obviously, all the while observing what is now shaping your talking.] How does the conversation go?  Less fluent?  Awkward? Shorter sentences?  Not as thorough?  How are you directing the conversation?

Step 9.  Reminiscent of the carrot in Step 2, now send your friend away but you stay facing the chair they were in, exactly as you were placed in Steps 6 & 8.  Once again, try to have a conversation with your friend out loud, even though they are not there.  And once again also, all the while, observe what is now shaping your talking.  How does the conversation go? Fluent? Awkward?  Make sense?  Long sentences or are they more like phrases and ‘snippets’?  More like sound bites?

Step 10.  Now go outside your house or wherever you happen to be chopping carrots and talking.  I want you to have another conversation with your friend out loud still (maybe don’t let the neighbours see you). And once yet again, all the while, observe what is now shaping your talking.  How does the conversation go? Fluent? Awkward?  Make sense?  Long sentences or are they more like phrases and ‘snippets’?

Step 11.  Now, next is the crunch—we reach thinking at last!  Now have a conversation with your friend (who is absent) but do not speak out loud.  Just do the same as Step 10 but no noises.  This is thinking… No different to conversation except that the people are not there so the thinking comes about from different contexts to conversation, and because of this it has some different properties to conversation done with a person out loud.  But it is not that different in principle to talking out loud being shaped by the person in front of you.  The differences between talking and thinking come about because of the contexts or occasions upon which they happen—they get shaped differently.

.Step 12: Addendum.  This is more difficult to arrange.  During the next week or so, observe any time you start “thinking about” your same friend. What brings this up?  Anything immediate in the context or not?  How does the thinking go? Fluent? Awkward?  Make sense?  Long sentences, or are they more like phrases and ‘snippets’?  Is it still at all anything like a conversation or is it more like the Steps 9 or perhaps 10?


The point of all this is that we learn many ways to behave in contexts during our life.  We can do those same (similar?) behaviours without the original situation but the properties are always going be different so they are never quite the same as the original.  But the behaviours still rely on those original contexts and need those original contexts.   They do not become self-contained ‘inside you’ as it were.

So, the carrot and knife are still controlling and shaping your behaviour in Step 2 even though there is no knife.  And not even a carrot in Step 3.  You know this because if you keep doing this over and over and never with a knife or carrot, the behaviour will change drastically.  So, the behaviours are not stored away inside you, but they are still engaging with the contexts even if those contexts are not present.

Using language is just a behaviour (like chopping carrots) which depends on the contexts in which it is learned.  In the case of using language, these are always social contexts because language only works or does something with outcomes with people (chopping also works similarly with zucchini, language use only works with people who have learned the same language as you).  Chopping does things to carrots; language use does things to people.

The point for today is that you can also converse and talk without the people actually there–and this is called thinking–but the contexts for doing this are different to talking with a person.  A lot of talking is shaped by the behaviours of the person you are talking with. But thinking only appears different because it is not started because of someone in front of you, nor is it then shaped by them.  So, it comes across to us as a different behaviour even when it is not.

Final point about modern life and mental health… Our thinking does not just reverberate with snippets from all the talking we have heard in our friendship conversations, our eavesdropping, and our communities of discourses.  It also reverberates with all the junk we hear (and read) on the media, television, advertisements, news, etc.  When the only people you talked to or heard talking were your relatives, this was ok even if not always profound.  Your thinking was of this material.

Now our thinking is made up of all the reverberating junk… Wonder where the disturbed thinking comes from now that leads to ‘mental health’ problems…



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