By Roland Watson

In this series, I intend to review what happens in our mind, in our brain, when we learn new things. I should add, if you have never spent much time thinking about how you actually think, a lot of this may appear strange.

To begin, our brain is simply incredible. Its own complexity, and the complexity of what it is able to accomplish, is astonishing.

At birth, our brain contains about one hundred billion neurons, and these connect to each other through some fifty trillion synapses. Also, all of these neurons and synapses are created and organized, into the right and left hemispheres, and the various lobes of the brain, through the efforts of approximately half of our genes.

What is an idea?

The brain itself generates ideas, or thoughts. This occurs when neural networks or circuits are formed. In these circuits, many neurons are connected electrochemically. The neurons at rest have a negative charge, but when they are chemically activated, or fired, this flips to positive.

The firing of one neuron can initiate the activity of thousands of others, each one of which in turn can activate thousands of additional neurons.

When a neural network is fired, you can say that all of the neurons of which it is composed are wired together. An electrical charge is flowing through them. These currents can even be measured, as with an EEG, and are otherwise known as "brain waves."

The conscious and unconscious minds

The brain can create a wide variety of neural circuits, which means it can generate a number of different types of thoughts. In general, these thoughts can be grouped according to whether they occur in your unconscious, or in your self-conscious mind.

The part of your mental processing of which you can say that you are directly aware, is your conscious mind. That processing of which you are not directly aware, we say occurs in the subconscious. This is your unconscious mind. The subconscious and unconscious are effectively the same thing.

The most basic function of the brain is to oversee the development of the body, of all the parts of the body, including itself, and to regulate their operation. In this way, your brain controls your heart, and lungs, and all of your bodily functions. Your brain also controls your sensory organs, which are your links to the world and experience.

In general, these sensory organs function autonomously. They are always at work, always turned on, processing sensory input in your unconscious. In this case, we can say that the mind is functioning reactively. It is simply responding to the environment.

On the other hand, through your consciousness, it is possible to take a more proactive approach to reality. You can direct your senses, concentrate them on only a small part of the environment, or concentrate on only part of their input; and, you can reflect on this input.

In an earlier article, I introduced the idea of our stream of consciousness: that we think a series of thoughts. However, this is only partially correct. Our unconscious mind is having its own series of thoughts, building, maintaining and regulating the body, all the time. And, our conscious mind is reacting to, and interpreting, external environmental conditions as they affect us, both physically and psychologically. Both of these series are in fact active at the same time, although it is difficult to ascertain if they themselves are sequential - meshed together - or simultaneous.

Categorizing different types of thoughts

What are these thoughts, either conscious or unconscious? Where do they come from? And, is it possible to categorize them in some other way, to gain a deeper understanding of them?

As a starting point, we can look to the different parts of the brain to see if there is a correlation, if one part is responsible for the conscious mind and another for the unconscious.

It turns out that such a correlation does exist. For instance, the thoughts that control your bodily functions, which are part of the unconscious mind, we now know mainly involve neurons located in the cerebellum and the brain stem. On the other hand, when we reason about our experiences this involves the conscious mind, and neurons in the cortex of the cerebrum.

But, this correlation is not perfect. As I just said, sensory perception can be both conscious and unconscious, and both are processed in the cortex. Also, reasoning can occur in the unconscious as well. However, this type of reasoning is non-symbolic. It has no connection to or need for language. Indeed, the same can be said for the thoughts that constitute sensory input.

Conscious thought

Our sensory perceptions are actually the first link to higher, or conscious, thought, since they are the first mental processes that can be remembered. A particular memory of a sensory input, such as your first exposure to a new smell, is again simply a firing of neurons, and for the most part in the cerebrum.

But, at this stage there is still no need for language. The need for language arises when we begin to reflect on our sensory inputs, in other words, our experiences and our memories of them.

This in fact is when we first start to think, since the ordinary usage of the word is of a mental process involving language. This is also when activity in the most advanced area of our brain, its pre-frontal cortex, begins to dominate.

It is further interesting that the same distinctions exist when we dream. Both our conscious and unconscious minds can be active when we are asleep, for the former, when we know we are dreaming - this is called lucid dreaming, and also when we hear or use language in a dream.

This raises an interesting question? Are dreams a category of consciousness separate from the conscious and unconscious minds, or are they part of the unconscious, to which the conscious mind can intrude, just as the unconscious mind regularly intrudes into our conscious awareness?

Thought complexity

Before reviewing the conscious mind in more detail, it is worth mentioning another aspect of thought, that of its complexity. Thoughts can be simple, calling on only a few areas of the brain, such as through concentrating on a particular sense, or they can be complex.

For example, through meditation it is possible to fill your mind, by calming your inner voice, and at the same time opening yourself to all of your sensory inputs. This in turn activates the different parts of the brain that are dedicated to these inputs. Indeed, through doing this, people who are advanced at meditation can create an original composite thought. They feel as if they are one with the world.

Conversely, some people are so skilled at concentration that they are able to block out the world around them, and achieve a state of pure self-focus. They drive their inner voices, and through doing this are able to have new insights, and make new intellectual discoveries.

Interestingly, this type of concentration is easiest to achieve when you are lying in bed, just before you fall asleep. The reason for this is that your drowsiness calms you attention to your sensory inputs. Also, I believe that at such a moment our conscious mind is somehow in closer contact with the unconscious. Communication between the two is facilitated.

Both of these processes, where you intensify your concentration, and where you do your best to eliminate your self-consciousness, generate complex, composite thoughts, and which use, or link together, different parts of the brain. Again, with the idea of the brain as a muscle, it is roughly analogous to heavy weightlifting versus long-distance running.

Reason and emotion

To close out this introduction to the brain, while there may be many different types of thoughts, in one way there is a clear distinction between two basic groups.

I started by saying that there is a difference between our conscious and unconscious minds. There is also a basic grouping of our thoughts, which, while not perfectly correlated to the conscious and unconscious distinction, clearly relates to it in some way.

The first group comprises thoughts that involve reason, or a logical process that guides the mind from one idea to the next. The second is of thoughts that do not involve logic, which progress from idea to idea using some other mechanism.

Within the grouping of reason, I would place the types of thoughts that we term analysis and synthesis, deduction and induction, memories of ideas, memories of events that bear on such a thought process, and also imagination, intuition and inspiration.

Within the second group would go feelings, emotions, irrational thoughts, their related memories and, to the extent that they do not follow a logical process, dreams.

In the next article, I will explore the development of ideas in more detail.

© Roland Watson 2014