More demonstrations of prerequisites for a discursive or contextual view of thinking: You can use two fluffy sloth toys

I am continuing with practical demonstrations of how we can understand a discursive or contextual view of thinking (see two previous blogs).  Here is one that worked in my class!

[Note: if you looked at and tried the last blog involving two carrots and a knife, you will know that ‘thoughts’ are small bits of fragmented conversations we have learned or have had with other people. They arise in the context of other people, and the thinker is NOT the audience or context for thinking. As opposed to Vygotsky, Mead and many others who confusingly wrote that we could talk-to-ourselves as thinking.  Who are these selves?]

For this you will need two people and two identical objects that are not common (but not really, really strange).  I used two smaller fluffy sloth toys which were almost the same.

[You can do this by yourself sequentially with the same object, however the impact is probably less than with two people doing it.]

Step 1.  Have two people and give different instructions.  They are both told that they will be given an object (a safe one) and they should try and follow these instructions:

  • one person should not move the object or manipulate it, but instead just talk whatever thoughts occur about the object, and keep doing that for five minutes or as long as they can.  They can say anything at all related to the object
  • the second person is told to say nothing at all, but try and do as many things as possible with the object

Step 2. You then give them the objects, one each. This step should be simple… Just check they are following instructions. If you can remember some of the things they say (Person 1) or do (Person 2) that is good.

Step 3. Stop them at five minutes or when Person 2 cannot do any more.

Step 4.  The main thing to notice is that (usually) Person 1 can continue almost indefinitely whereas Person 2 has problems after a while.

Step 4.   You can then ask contextual questions and maybe analyse who the different actions or speaking ‘were for’: who were the audience/shapers of that thought or action?  For example, with Person 2 some will do things to the object that their friends might think funny even if the audience at the present moment do not.  Most things they do will be context-generic, however.  Or Person 1 might say some learned/ knowledgeable things about the object for the University/ professor audience.

Step 5. This next bit does not always work well, but you can ask them both about the things they thought or ‘nearly did’ to the object but which were not said or not done.  What was edited? Or repressed? Or had previously been punished in the current sort of context (mine was in front of a university class so really dumb things were probably not said or done)?  Often these are rude or violent things done with the object (Peron 2) or risqué or rude things not said out loud about the object (Person 1).  So, there were probably more thoughts and things that could have been done with the object but which were not done in your immediate context.  Can you get them to tell you?

Step 6. For the overall point of this, try and probe for some likely things Person 1 ‘thought’ but did not say to you.  Things they did not say, and did not report afterwards either in Steps 4 & 5.  So for example, “Were there any thoughts you did not say but you ‘had’ that might be a little violent?” “Did you think of anything and did not say, which might have been for an audience not here? Possibly things you might have said out loud to your friends or family if they had been here?”  These are the murky thinklings!  Language responses which were possible (already learned) in this context but were not reported before or afterwards.  Can you prompt any of these (this improves when you have done this several time because you can guess better.)

Step 7.  Once you have all this material, you can do a discursive or contextual analysis on the thoughts produced (Person 1) or sometimes with the things done (Person 2, but these are often fewer and context-generic).  So, the discursive/ contextual questions are just the same as contextual analysis of ANY discourse or conversation, but applied here to thinking:

  • who and what contexts have shaped all these different thoughts (Person 1) said out loud?
  • who might they say those to in their real life?
  • were any said for an audience (friends?) not there?
  • were there thoughts not said that they might have normally said in conversation with other people such as friends present?
  • were the things done by Person 2 just generic-audience things?
  • were there things they could have done but did not because the present audience ‘was not right’?
  • were there things Person 1 or 2 might have said or done but they would only be understood (shaped or reciprocated) by a cultural group (when prior learning has been restricted to a specific group of people)?


And the point of all this?   What can be learned from this? What is this view?

  1. In any situation in life (here with a single object) we always have multiple things we can do and we have multiple thoughts (language responses) we might say. There are always more than one and usually a lot.
  2. These ‘exist’ or ‘are there’ even if we do not say or do them; we have learned them nonetheless, whether we do them or not. In context, they have been learned, and will be repeated in the exact context.
  3. I talk about this as ‘over-learned’; we have learned more than one thing to do and say in any context we encounter, and we have learned these over and over so they are all possible (meaning, learned already) in similar contexts.
  4. We have learned in life to SAY a lot more than we can do!
  5. We have totally over-learned in life to say things in many contexts: why is this?
  • because language responding is over-trained and intensively spread over 15-20 years minimum for 10-14 hours a day
  • because we have multiple language audiences for any situation and they can shape different things being said (and thoughts)
  • because language is social and therefore abstract and so we can multiply easily
  • because we spend less time training in doing things (such as football) versus training to say things
  • because objects and situations usually have less things we can do with them
  • because many modern objects are specifically only built for a single purpose and a single way of operating
  1. So in any context (like when given a fluffy sloth toy) we have many things we can do but… we have thousands of different things we can SAY
  2. Most of the latter do not get said (we can only say one thing at a time, or only squeeze a few into a ‘paragraph’ of conversation without boring our listeners)
  3. The others are what we commonly call our thoughts and our unconscious thoughts (unconscious thoughts are those we have learned in a similar context but are not even close to being said out loud)
  4. As Freud knew, we can only know about the ‘unsaid’ thoughts that were possible (previously learned) by questioning and probing; people then say things like: “Yes, I did sort of think that as well, but was not aware at the time or had ‘forgotten’ it until you asked me”
  5. These learned multiple responses are real events even when they are not said or done, but they are not INSIDE us, they are in the contexts
  6. Freud was particularly interested in those language responses which had been learned but which were not said out loud because they had previously been punished in that context (‘repressed’)
  7. Finally, in dreams we have no contexts so all these learned responses are rampant but probably (1) random or (2) depend on the importance of contexts in your life (you can respond during sleep to really bad life conflict situations even with no context, etc. This is just like you ruminating on a bad life situation even while out shopping)
  8. This idea of dreams and thinking means:
  • you do not remember dreams when you wake up because the waking-up context (bed, stinky mouth, need toilet, have to go to work) is not related to the dream responding
  • but we can train ‘reporting of dreams’ as part of the context for waking up and so remember dreams better
  • if people can remember dreams, then we can sometimes identify, by using contextual analysis of dream discourses, their important or worrying life events  (this was Freud’s approach, but…  not everything you dream about is related to bad life events, just as not everything you think while shopping is about bad life events either)

14. Since ‘mental health’ and therapy are hugely about language use and particularly thinking, all the above has huge ramifications for how we think about ‘mental health’ behaviours (more to come)

15. Finally, I am working on the same ideas but showing the ways we are influenced or affected by music! (more to come)


We have multiple language responses to any situation but only one or two get said out loud. The others are real but only appear in other contexts. These thoughts are all bits of conversations with other people, they are not ‘directed’ at the thinker.

We can analyse these thoughts, if we can get them said out loud, using the normal ways we analyse any discourses (Guerin, 2017), e.g .:



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