Have you ever thought about thinking?
Thoughts are simply ideas that we are conscious of. Thinking is the flow of thoughts. Thinking can be automatic (passive, habitual, effortless) or deliberate (active, volitional, effortful). Thoughts can remain private in our mind or be shared with others as speech or writing. There is much we don’t understand about what goes on under the hood – how pre-conscious brain activity generates thinking.
Movement, which we know more about, may provide a template for what underlies thinking. There are separate but parallel circuits in the brain, one that mediates thinking and one that initiates and controls movement. Problems within the movement circuit can result in symptoms such as slowness, rigidity and tremor. The movement circuit may provide a useful analogy for better understanding our thinking.
For movement to occur, the vectors for it, in 3-dimensional space and time, have to be calculated. These calculations are performed in a specific module in the brain. They are transmitted to the centers that signal various muscle groups to contract or relax, so the muscles can be synchronized and movement can occur. Movement has characteristics, such as pace (slow or fast), tension (rigid versus flexible), balance (smooth flow versus turbulent) and control (even versus jerky, fragmented).
Similarly, vectors calculated in other specific modules of the brain are the basis of thinking. Thinking can thus be fast or slow, smoothly flowing from one idea to the next, or fragmented and unproductive. Thinking produced from bottom-up processing is responsive to perceptions and emotions, while top-down, executively driven thinking, is deliberate, strategic and influenced by social norms and moral foundations.
Training improves the control of movement – whether it is fine motor control used in computer games, coordinated movement used in basketball or stamina used in long-distance running. Similarly, training in the different aspects of thinking improves the quality of thinking. This gives you, the owner of your thoughts, better control and makes deliberate thinking easier.