THE LIMITS OF THOUGHT
By Roland Watson
In the last article, I explored how our stream of consciousness advances from one thought to the next. I examined a number of mechanisms for this, including how we concentrate, how we create new ideas, and how our mind then recognizes that we have had them. But, our consciousness is even more complex than this. There are other mechanisms at work as well.
Other stream of consciousness mechanisms
To begin, another purposeful mechanism for the development of our stream of consciousness occurs when our mental pursuit of an idea ends. Also, this action can represent the flip side of using our will power, meaning that we choose to stop concentrating. In any case, at some point - barring a sensory distraction - we do everything we can with an idea, and then the neural circuit that is associated with it shuts down.
In physical terms, the electrical charge for the circuit becomes "inhibitory," and ends right there, rather than remain "excitatory," and proceed to the next neuron. At this point, then, our mind is blank, seemingly inactive. The question is: what happens next?
At any given time, we have a number of things that are of concern to us. It would appear that another mechanism, another neural network, maintains this "priority queue," and further that this is on all the time. Therefore, when one line of thought ends the overlap links into this network, and then through it to the line of thought that has the next highest priority, which then immediately jumps into our consciousness.
I can add that this will generally have an emotional link. Ideas that are associated with strong feelings are given a higher priority. This in turn means that the priority neural network extends to the areas of the brain that are responsible for emotion.
Also, there is one other purposeful mechanism - or consequence - that is associated with neural circuitry overlap, and this is that we make mistakes! Sometimes our brain latches onto the wrong overlap. This occurs most often when we attempt to develop a string of ideas quickly. Our conscious mind does not allow the unconscious enough time to do accurate processing. As a result, we may say the wrong thing, even have a Freudian slip.
The reemergence of chance
Unfortunately - or maybe not, there is one other mechanism as well. In addition to the reactive mechanism managing our senses and body functions, and the various premeditated forms of overlap, there is also chance. We can never forget universal unpredictability. It exists, it is active, at all levels. It is quite possible that some of our thoughts, maybe even all of them, have an unpredictable element.
As a new thought, a new network of neurons, fires up, chance intercedes and affects the final pattern. Neurotransmitters jump across one synapse, but not another. The pattern forms, guided by our life force, by our will - or by our social conditioning, but also as a result of this chance element. Indeed, this mechanism could be the reason why it is so difficult to control our mind. To overcome this physical manifestation of uncertainty requires the greatest exertion of will.
Another cause of this lack of control, though, is the relative strength of the pattern. Strong patterns repeat themselves frequently, even if you do not want to think them. For example, if you hear an advertising jingle or a song many times, it will imprint itself onto your brain, get physically encoded into it, and then play itself again and again.
The actual process of this encoding is extremely important. As we have seen, strong memories and complex ideas have strengthened neuron-synapse networks. But, how are these networks strengthened? Why do repeating patterns continue to repeat?
The electrical impulses that constitute thoughts are carried by neurotransmitter chemicals across the synapses from neuron to neuron. And they, the neurotransmitters, enter each neuron through what are called receptors. Certain factors, including genetic and environmental, and perhaps even will, promote the production of neurotransmitters and the functioning of these receptors. In other words, they enable the processing of more electrical charge - the transmission of more energy - and this is what increases the frequency of the circuitry firing.
How to learn better
To return to learning, you should strive, as a basic educational goal, to strengthen certain neural networks, to cause them to be frequently activated, and to minimize or eliminate others. By proactively seeking to learn, by regularly exposing yourself to new experiences, and by studying new subjects, you will strengthen the neural networks that enable you to concentrate, to develop new ideas, and to recognize when you have had a new idea. You will also increase your vocabulary. And, by rejecting behavioral form, you will bar from your mind the networks that the sources of the form are trying to create.
Moreover, this illustrates why repeating what someone says to you is not the same thing as thinking it. Repeating something only requires that you use the parts of your brain that are necessary to remember words. To think, or really learn, to understand the words, you must activate all of the parts of your brain that are needed to frame fully, to create, the new idea.
This in turn is why making mistakes is one of the most effective ways to learn. By making a mistake, you force your mind to pay close attention, you engage all of it, and it is compelled to learn. Therefore, learning in such a way that you make a lot of mistakes, such as by pushing yourself hard, is not necessarily a bad thing.
In summary, the study of our thought, of our consciousness, involves the unraveling of a complex puzzle. We must make sense of a number of distinctions, including conscious thoughts and unconscious; rational ideas and emotions; fast thoughts and slow; and memories and the creation of something new. And, we must understand the mechanisms that underlie our stream of consciousness, the embedded patterns that guide it along, and all of the bio-mechanical and electrochemical processes, starting with in our genes, which are responsible for this.
Our breadth of thought
To continue, I want to reiterate that a thought represents a patterned firing of neurons across synapses, and that a mind, your mind, has approximately one quadrillion of the latter. This means that the number of thoughts that you can have, depending on the minimum number of neurons and synapses that must be fired at any one time to create a thought - and more complex thoughts require more neurons and synapses - is simply astronomical.
One way to grasp this is through the mathematical concept of "factorials," which are used to calculate the possible number of combinations in a system. If the range of our thought was one quadrillion factorial, or the theoretical maximum number of ways that our synapses could be linked, we would be able to have more thoughts than there are atoms in the universe, a lot more.
Of course, this would mean that any synapse could connect directly to any other, which is not the case. A better measure would be neuron factorials, since any neuron can connect to any other, although this necessarily must occur through many intermediate neurons and synapses. And, this would affect the result.
How many total thoughts are possible cannot be calculated with a simple factorial. But this, for my purposes, is not significant. My point is that regardless of the complexity of the statistics, the magnitude of the number of possible thoughts that we can have is truly awesome.
Our mind can think about anything. It can create a thought about anything we can do, or sense, including any possible reflection thereon.
This extends to anything required to run our body - any physical, chemical or electrical process - to get it to do anything that it is possible for it to do.
It extends to anything our body can sense and experience, and anywhere - in any possible setting or environment.
And, it extends to anything that we can think and say about any and all such processes and experiences.
Moreover, I wouldn't be surprised if our brain stores as memories literally everything that has ever happened to us, at least everything that has happened while we are awake.
We know there is an unconscious mind, which runs the body and autonomously processes sensory stimuli, including their effects on us both physical and psychological. And, there is a conscious mind, where we reflect on ourselves and our reactions to these stimuli, with reason and emotion.
But, the unconscious can have a role here as well, by spontaneously initiating emotions, even irrational behavior, and also through providing new, rational ideas. For instance, sometimes you are able to respond to inquiries, complicated questions, without any conscious mental processing at all. The unconscious does all of the thinking itself, and seemingly instantaneously provides the answer.
Even more, when the unconscious provides a new mental development to your conscious mind, it may do this using a geometric image: a shape or structure that contains the entire solution to a problem that you have been thinking about. Indeed, the reason the unconscious is so fast is that it does not need to make a symbolic interpretation, other than shape. Words slow it down.
You then need to find the words to fit the form. The image is instantaneous, including your recognition that it contains the entire solution, but finding the right words takes time.
If you are extremely alert to your stream of consciousness, it is possible to learn to sense this process: the arrival in your consciousness of such a form, and its subsequent interpretation.
This type of thinking, with shapes, is geometrical thought, or topological. It is the means to the comprehension of the most complex and abstract aspects of existence.
You should strive to develop this ability, and if you have children to help them do so as well. When they are young, play them classical music, and give them piano lessons and geometrical puzzles and games.
As an aside, please take note that I just introduced the word topological. This word embodies some of the deepest secrets that we have ever unearthed. I will use it repeatedly in the fourth part of the website.
Our mental limits
In conclusion, the roles and responsibilities of the conscious and unconscious parts of our mind are not always that clear, and sometimes they even appear to shift back and forth between themselves. Furthermore, the brain's capability seems to be so great that it raises the question whether it can have thoughts, or ideas, which transcend conscious-unconscious distinctions.
We may even be able to have thoughts that cannot be expressed in - which are beyond the boundaries of - language.
It may be the case that we have a "higher" unconscious, that our mind is somehow able to react to, act as part of and stay in personal communication with, the universe as a whole.
Our mind, in and of itself, may function as a sensory and communications organ. It may maintain a system of organization whereby we form an inseparable part of the universe, in a way or ways of which we are consciously unaware, that are inaccessible to our conscious understanding.
What else does our unconscious mind know? And, is it really the case that there is no way for us to gain access to this knowledge?
In the next series, the final series in Part 2, I will examine how you can guide your personal behavior.
© Roland Watson 2014