By Roland Watson

In the last article, I started to consider how we have new thoughts, and I also introduced the idea of memory. Now, I want to return to the issue of overlap, where some of the neurons that are involved in a particular thought stay active and serve as the seeds for our next thought. The question is, why do specific overlaps occur?

Purposeful thought

It would appear that a number of mechanisms are at work, and further that at least some of them are purposeful. In other words, they are the product of will. Our mind is able to hold on to a memory or an idea, and it is also able to explore the memory, or develop the idea, in more detail.

Since all thoughts, including feelings and dreams, are patterned firings of neurons, these mechanisms themselves must involve specific types of patterns. They also seem to be present both in the conscious and the unconscious.

For example, you can willfully hold on to a memory or an idea in your conscious mind, by concentrating on it. This implies that you can consciously cause the activation of this concentration mechanism, the firing of the type of pattern that serves, somehow, to keep the initial thought active - continuously charged.

But, this process, the ability to focus, can also occur unconsciously. In this type of occurrence you have a memory or an idea, and then a short while later, or the next day, you have it again, without consciously trying to remember it. It appears that your mind can keep an idea active, while you are not even thinking about it consciously, including while you are asleep.

Education as the creation of new ideas

This leads us to the question of how we develop new ideas, of how our creative flow occurs, and it is here that we return to the issue of education. Put simply, education is this development. It is the process by which we have, by which our mind creates, new ideas.

In some cases education is equivalent to the formation of memories, such as when you remember, when you learn, that "hot" burns. But in other cases education is more than this. It is more than what neuroscientists term the amplification of synapses.

Education is also the development of complex new thoughts, both the means by which your mind learns new subjects that are presented to you, which you are taught, and also the means by which you are able to have your own original ideas.

What is this mechanism, the mechanism by which we are able to bring about complex education, and creativity? Again, it appears to occur either consciously or unconsciously, but this time with a difference, meaning from the mechanism of concentration.

When you hold on to an idea, you usually do it consciously, but when you develop an idea, when your mind takes the next step, this normally occurs unconsciously. It does seem possible to concentrate on a new challenge, a challenge to which your mind has never been exposed, such as a math problem more difficult than any you have previously been able to solve, and then grasp, or understand, its solution. My question, though, is what really happens? I believe that at some moment your concentration wavers, and in the next the solution is revealed to you. It jumps into your conscious mind as an inspiration.

Indeed, this reasoning is why I linked such thoughts as deduction and imagination earlier, although they have traditionally been considered to be different. To me, they are simply new thoughts, perhaps of different varieties, agreed, but what I find most interesting and important about them is the general process by which either occurs, the fact that something new has been created.

The brain grows, too

If learning occurs in the unconscious, then again, what really happens? In the first article in this series, I said that a baby's brain, at birth, has about one hundred billion neurons and fifty trillion synapses. But, within a few months the brain grows dramatically. The number of synapses eventually increases to one quadrillion.

The brain, in response to life, to all of the stimulation of existence, grows - it creates new wiring - and it is this new wiring that represents learning. In other words, learning is not only the strengthening of pre-existing synapses. It is the formation of new synapses, and perhaps even of new neurons as well.

Moreover, this process, of the brain rewiring itself, continues throughout your entire life. Not only that, there is another feedback loop as well. The brain shapes our experience of life, and life in turn shapes the brain.

Actually, scientists traditionally believed that our number of neurons was constant. We only had the set that we were born with to use. It was the number of synapses, the set of connections between these neurons, which changed. Now, though, research has shown that the brain can continue to grow neurons, including perhaps throughout one's entire life. However, it is uncertain just how many new neurons are produced.

The question here is: How does the normal process of cell regeneration, where the body produces new cells to replace old cells that have matured and died, work with neurons? How are such neurons incorporated into established neural networks?

What I believe happens is that if you concentrate on a problem, and its solution comes to you, the solution represents a new pattern of firing of your neurons and preexisting synapses. However, if it takes some time for the solution to surface, for instance, if the answer pops into your head a few days later, what happens is that your brain actually grows. It makes more synapses, to be able to create a new pattern, which is the pattern that represents the solution.

In a few cases, though, particularly with young children, this growth may include the production of new neurons as well.

Even more, dreams, the chaotic ones, at least the ones not caused by spicy food, may be the mental imagery associated with this reprogramming process. Also, such a process, if this is what is happening with thought and learning, is truly amazing. But again, it requires this "development" mechanism, another type of thought, to stimulate it.

When you get a new thought, another thing that happens is that you are usually aware of it; that you have just thought of something new. The reason for this is that yet another thought immediately jumps into your consciousness, and tells you so. You have a set thought, a set neural circuit, which serves this purpose, which alerts you to new mental development. This thought is actually an example of a frequently activated neural network, as are the parallel thoughts associated with concentration and development.

Indeed, this sheds light on an issue I described earlier, with remembering new versus repetitive experiences, for the latter such as opening the main door to your house. Each time you do this, you trigger the "new thought" network. This means you can remember the latest door opening specifically. Earlier openings, though, no longer have the "new" association, hence they are harder or even impossible to recall.

As a partial summary, we can see that our stream of consciousness advances through at least three different mechanisms. First, there is a concentration network, which enables us to hold onto an idea. Second, there is a development mechanism, another network, which follows from concentration, through which our mind actually grows and creates new ideas. And third, there is yet another network, which recognizes that we have just thought something new.

The introduction of language

Indeed, when this last network is activated, when you get this signal, you think: "Aha! My mind has just reprogrammed itself." However, this new thought is likely tentative and unformed, without language. The mind's task is now to find out what it means, in language that makes sense.

The mind then proceeds to attach words to the thought, to find the set of symbolic elements that fit it best. It is through this process that one fully develops the new idea. But, to do this you must first have been exposed to the necessary words, such as by reading them in a book, even if you did not understand them at the time. If not, you will be unable to develop the idea completely.

This obviously underlies the importance of language, and of having a good vocabulary. By increasing your vocabulary you have more words at your disposal, to frame new ideas. The question is, how does the mind increase its vocabulary, other than for tangible objects to which it can easily add names? New words represent new ideas. Which comes first?

I would say that the first step must be exposure to the word, even if in many such cases you do not understand it. The point is that it has been registered by your mind, by the neural networks in the language processing areas of your brain. Then, when you are exposed to the education that comprises the idea, the word leaps out of this registry to describe it.

This also has implications for the form of language, for the specific language that you use. If you use the language of a traditional culture, many of which have limited vocabularies, this by definition will limit your range of possible thought. Expansive thought requires an expansive language.

I don't want to be an elitist here, though. Traditional cultures, while they may not have the words to understand modern conceptions such as science, nonetheless have knowledge that we in the modern world have lost. One obvious example is environmental understanding: perceiving the natural ecology in a deeper, and both more detailed and holistic way.

The interplay between the conscious and unconscious minds

Through all of this, we can see another example of the interplay of the conscious and unconscious minds. You have a conscious perception, and this yields a conscious idea. You then forget about it - consciously, but your unconscious does not. Your development mechanism generates new programming, a new "hard-wiring" of your neurons and synapses. Then the idea reenters your conscious mind in its new form, and you latch onto it again, and expand it with words. Then it goes back to the unconscious for further programming. Indeed, developing new ideas is the specific perturbative process that underlies education.

I don't know if we can ever understand this mechanism fully, or the gene or genes that presumably are responsible for it. Indeed, as I mentioned, it may be separate from the concentration mechanism, or an extension of it, but which only occurs in some cases. Of course, then we have to ask, why only those cases? Whatever precisely is going on, though, I think I can suggest its source. This mechanism is the life force itself. It is whatever we have inside us that makes us alive, and enables us to grow. Furthermore, this is its, and our, actual tangible purpose: the creation of new thought.

This is our most fundamental expression of will, conscious control of our unconscious mind, to create new thought. And this is also where the screening of behavioral form takes place. This is where our will rejects the ideas that the sources of form seek to impose on us. This is the way that we choose what to think: which ideas to pursue, and which to reject.

In the final article in the series, I will consider the limits of thought.

© Roland Watson 2014