Thinking and the Stream of Consciousness



‘Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.’ William James.

There are several subtly different interpretations of the phrase ‘stream of consciousness,’ coined by psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890. It is used both in psychology and literature. Those who have sought to clearly define and refine the term through formal research still appear not to have found consensus.

For example, in their paper The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness,’ the writers largely bracket these two functions together. In contrast, in his paper Focused Dreaming and Mind- Wandering, Dorsch regards mind-wandering and focussed daydreaming as different. He sees each of these functions as ‘segments’ or elements of the stream of consciousness and regards focussed daydreaming as having more agency and purpose than mind-wandering:

‘The other classical example of what we sometimes take to be daydreaming is mind- wandering. Just like focused daydreaming, mind-wandering involves sequences of connected mental episodes. But, this time, the connection is not—or not primarily— due to imaginative purposiveness and mental agency, but instead to association and similar causal factors.’

In actuality, the boundaries between focussed daydreaming, mind wandering and stream of consciousness are, across the research literature on the subject, rather fuzzy. They overlap. However, there is general agreement that, however they are classified or subdivided, in the right circumstances, all these activities can be creative.

They all involve the experience of a free-flowing, uninterrupted process of thought and feeling, unencumbered by concerns about convention, structure or explanation, whether in a psychotherapeutic or literary sense.

Psychotherapeutically, James’ stream of consciousness may be similar to, or include Freud’s term ‘free association,’   in which the patient is encouraged to verbalise any thoughts or feelings he experiences, without editing or censoring these. This enables previously repressed, hidden unconscious material to emerge into consciousness more naturally, as psychological defences are lowered.

Gestalt therapy also uses the stream of consciousness to help the patient be mindfully aware of what is happening ‘now,’ in the present moment. The concept of ‘flow’ is used here, as it is in the inspiring book by Barry Stevens entitled Don’t Push the River (it flows by itself.)


This book utilises the stream of consciousness both in a literary and therapeutic way, intimately revealing the author’s inner feelings as she experiences life and learning at the Gestalt Institute of Canada in 1969:

‘Light from the desk lamp is shining on my typewriter, the bluish color gleaming, fading into dull away from the lamp. The carriage handle shadow moves along this dullness, then slides away. The little square criss-crossed light which shows that the motor is running (as though I couldn’t hear it-and even if I had no eyes, I feel the vibrations) is steady orange, more sturdy than the machine itself. Hands touching keys. When I notice this touching, my hands become softer than they were, more gentle, using just enough pressure to move the keys, no more, and then there is no kickback against myself. It is more like music. I feel in harmony.’

In a literary context, the stream of consciousness is a flee-flowing narrative technique used in a novel, poem or other written work, that aims to create a sense of being inside the mind of the characters. It is a method of portraying a character’s inner world that aims to make them more familiar and more real as people. It produces a narrative that is less encumbered by what might be regarded as artificial strictures. Free from the imposition of punctuation, grammar or sentence structure, there is less to inhibit the natural flow of thought and feeling:

‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.’ (Virginia Woolf)

The writer might use reported speech, or create a direct interior monologue, with the character’s thoughts expressed in the first person.This technique was utilised by Modernist writers in the early twentieth century such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

The internal narratives Woolf creates reveal the private and secret thoughts of her characters, those thoughts that reside on ‘the floor of the mind’ :

‘For now she need not think about anybody . She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expensive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.’ (To The Lighthouse

David Lodge also uses the stream of consciousness technique in his  novel, Thinks, previously mentioned in an earlier post. This is a work of fiction, yet it sheds light on the reality and complexity of thinking. Lodge researched the whole area of thinking extensively for this book.

As we have seen, Lodge’s principal character records his own thoughts in a stream of consciousness, as a way of researching into the ‘structure of thought’. He questions the difference between being and thinking, and wonders, ‘against Descartes,’ whether one can ‘be without thinking:’

Can I just am without thinking? The verb to am…..meaning to merely be without thinking…. but is thinking the same as being conscious, no….’

This is an important point. Thinking is not the same as being conscious, but the stream of consciousness is surely different from consciousness itself. It is more active, it is more than merely being, more than having an awareness of one’s existence. It is sequential, fluid, dynamic, a moving procession of memories, ideas, sensations and impressions. The term is, as its originator first stated, referring to thought itself, in all its many forms.

A final thought: what might be happening in this digital age to our streams of consciousness? Will this concept of creative flow be relevant in the twenty-first century? Or will consciousness itself undergo a radical metamorphosis?

In the book Reframing Consciousness:Art, Mind and Technology, (edited by Roy Ascott) contributor Christiane Paul says:

‘In the age of the Internet, the notions of fragmentation, multiplicity and ‘streams of consciousness’ are revived in a different context and carried to further levels. The networked society has profoundly affected our concepts of self and identity. The on-line self is now commonly understood as a multiple, distributed, time-sharing system…..The computer age promises to open up new dimensions for consciousness: the ultimate (utopian and dystopian) dream is to download consciousness into the machine and stream it live over the network.’

The concept of consciousness, flow, and the digital age will be explored in more detail in a future post.


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The Importance of Early Experience and Social Relationships in the Development of Thinking.




‘The Bee sucks the sweets from wild thyme & marjoram; now it is honey & neither marjoram nor thyme.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The metaphor of the bee producing honey expresses much in relation to how human beings absorb and take in what they need from others. What we have learned from other people becomes our own through a psychological process called internalisation. It involves a kind of transformation of others’ ways of being, taken into the very fabric of ourselves. From our earliest beginnings, we have introjected, assimilated into our personalities, aspects of those around us. From this process we come to produce for ourselves authentic thoughts; these originate from the stimulation of others as we learn from their incentives and encouragement.

The psychoanalytic theory of object relations suggests that our early experiences of those who look after us are paramount in terms of future development. The term ‘object’ is a little misleading, as it actually refers to a person. For example, a parent is usually a ‘primary object.’ The perceptions we have of these early relationships and their internal representations, will colour and shape our future lives and relationships.

Ways of thinking about ourselves develop from early experience with our primary caregivers. The responsiveness of the other person to the child, the way in which the child’s image is mirrored and reflected in the mother’s eyes, crucially influence the child’s self image. A significant other who is not empathic, who cannot attune to the child’s needs, will not be able to help that child develop a sense of self that is cohesive and sustaining. The way the mother thinks about her child will form and affect the manner in which the child thinks about herself:

‘The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein… provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.’
D.W. Winnicott

Thoughts do not evolve out of seclusion; interaction with others is essential in relation to the formation of thoughts.  In Thinking in Literature, Anthony Uhlmann points that, according to Spinoza:

‘Thought itself involves, or is, the relation between elements; the ratios which measure and identify things as networks of relations.’

Thus the thinking process itself involves making links and connections; in etymological terms, the words relation, ratio, rationale, reckoning, reason, reasoning and thought are all connected, all come from the same root.

In his book The Cradle of Thought, Peter Hobson suggests that it was ‘social engagement’ that originally produced thought in early human beings and that the development of thought in the infant mirrors the beginnings of thought in the history of the human being:

‘Before language , there was something else – more basic, in a way more primitive, and with unequalled power in its formative potential, that propelled us into language. Something that could evolve in tiny steps, but suddenly gave rise to the thinking processes that revolutionised mental life. Something that (unfortunately) no fossil remains can show us. That something else was social engagement with each other. The links that can join one person’s mind with the mind of someone else – especially, to begin with emotional links – are the very links that draw us into thought. To put it crudely: the foundations of thinking were laid at the point when ancestral primates began to connect with each other emotionally in the same way that human babies connect with their caregivers.’


The importance of social relationships in relation to thinking is thus paramount; Hobson also describes how infants develop their thinking processes in response to others and he emphasizes the importance of what occurs ‘between people’:

‘The roots of thought are embedded here, in what happens by virtue of one individual’s experience of someone else.’

This connectedness with others is significant throughout our lives. As adults, we continue to be influenced by the thoughts and feelings of those around us. Indeed it is important that we are affected by other people, in terms of our own self-development.

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut developed the model of self-psychology, seeing significant others in early life as self-objects, who could provide empathic sustainment for the development of the self. Although the need to depend on others for one’s sense of self does decrease during adulthood , in his work The Restoration Of The Self, Kohut emphasised that fact that adults do continue to use others as self-objects throughout their lives.

As adults, we can continue our psychological development, then, through interactions with others who inspire us. Hopefully having internalised some good-enough self objects during childhood, we can continue to make new connections which stimulate and motivate us.

We can develop our thinking and continue to gain self-esteem from others in adulthood, such as our spouse, partner, therapist, work colleagues, friends, educators. What we need, throughout the life cycle, is other people who can respond to us with understanding and care:

‘Man can no more survive psychologically in a psychological milieu that does not respond empathetically to him, than he can survive physically in an atmosphere that contains no oxygen.’

Heinz Kohut.


Can We Ever Understand Another Person’s Thoughts?


‘The Nut Gatherers (1882) W.A. Bougereau


Last week’s post ended with the poet Tyutchev’s words: ‘A thought once spoken is a lie.’ Today’s post will develop this theme.

It would appear that the poet is saying that there is absolutely no way in which we can ever speak the truth of our thoughts; it is as though there is some mechanism in the uttering process which automatically gives the lie to our words.

Can this really be so? Should we resist sharing our thoughts because they can never really be communicated in their true and honest form? Is disclosing our thoughts, then, a futile act? Furthermore, if we were able to share our thoughts truthfully, would another person be able to really understand them?

This last question brings to mind the views of the writer Janet Malcolm in a book entitled Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

‘…we cannot know each other.  We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others. We cannot see each other plain.’

Malcolm categorically states that there is no hope of ever achieving a clear view of others, whilst the poet has warned us of the impossibility of ever sharing our thoughts in a real and true way, and of them being understood by others. These opinions leave us with an impossibility, for they abandon us, trapping us within a universal, self-created tragedy that condemns us to eternal solitude. Are we really so confined within our own minds, so isolated with our thoughts?

The answer is yes and no. These writers may ultimately be right in their assertions. Obviously, it is impossible to understand totally another’s thoughts and to speak the truth unconditionally. However, these gloomy outlooks might be mitigated a little if we accept that we cannot achieve absolute understanding of self and other. We can only try express our thoughts honestly, with due consideration and discretion. We can only attempt to understand another’s thoughts and being.

With open and flexible thinking, challenging our assumptions and our subjectivities, it is likely that we will move in the direction of perceiving reality about self and other. We can then value this extraordinary journey, whilst being fully aware that we will never reach its endpoint. (Although, in another, more spiritual dimension, it is possible to experience a sense of ‘becoming other.’ This intimate encounter with ‘the other’ will be further explored in a future blog post.)

In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie supports this more optimistic attitude through his character Jumpi Joshi, the poet. These views contrast strikingly with those of the afore-mentioned writers:

‘Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.’

Is  Jumpi Joshi, then, saying that the thoughts we give words to are the truth, not lies? I think that he is; however, in order to understand and interpret his comment, we need to examine what is meant by ‘truth’.

In an essay intriguingly entitled ‘“It was so it was not so:” The Clash of Language in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,’ Terri Beth Miller highlights the fact that there are many kinds of truth reflected in the book:

‘What emerges from this cacophony of cultural discourses–theological, nationalistic, sociological–is a theory of humanity, and of language, that embodies no singular attribute, neither purity nor evil, neither God nor Satan, neither truth nor lie, but rather contains all such attributes, all of the time. ‘

Truth is complex, not simple and this complexity is a part of the human condition. It differs from person to person. There is no absolute truth, there is a rich tapestry of many different truths. Perhaps understanding another’s thoughts involves being able to hold several different truths in mind at the same time.

Julian Baggini’s book A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World details the many different kinds of truth that exist. In this illuminating quotation, he speaks of ‘relative truth’ :

‘The relativist impulse is by and large a noble one. It is opposed to the ownership of truth by one, usually privileged group; the crowding out of alternative perspectives; the simplification of complex reality. But none of this requires us to give up on truth. Indeed, it should require us to treasure it even more, because if none of these different ways of seeing and knowing is true in anything more than a personal or parochial way, why care about any of them? If what is true for me is not true for you then either one of us is wrong, or both of us have only one hand on the truth and need each other’s help to see the whole of it. The panoply of legitimate perspectives should not therefore lead to the fragmentation of truth. Rather we should bring as many of these perspectives together as possible to create a fuller vision of reality.’


How might this ‘fuller version of reality’ be created? Perhaps through a combination of common sense, some judgement, intuition and clear vision?

There is definitely need, as Baggini says, to be open to the existence of many different kinds of truths : ‘One of the problems we face is not the absence of truth, but its overabundance. Competing eternal truths underpin many conflicts and divisions.’

William James supports this opinion when he says that ‘The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.’

Additionally, the statement of Marcus Aurelius provides considerable clarity: ‘Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.’ This view is echoed by Gustave Flaubert who said: ‘There is no truth. There is only perception.’

These views alert us to the fact that the concept of truth is complex and our understanding of others need to be informed by this. It surely provides us with a creative antidote to the view that we could never understand another’s thoughts. We might not, as Malcolm says, be able to ‘see each other plain.’ But what actually is ‘plain’?

In spite of the fact that we might never be able to completely experience another’s way of thinking and seeing the world, we may still strive to understand their thoughts in an empathic way. Speaking one’s thoughts and having their true meanings, in all their multifarious forms, understood by another, can be a creative and collaborative experience, leading to a real meeting of minds.

Thoughts and Secrecy




How important is it for us to have secret thought processes? Should we always reveal what we think? These are important questions, with powerful implications, which need thinking through.

Imagine for a moment what would be revealed to others, if there were no secrecy and no censorship of our innermost thoughts. What if all of our private our thoughts were displayed to those around us, if thought bubbles appeared above our heads? How might this affect our lives, our relationships, our world?

The philosopher Hanna Arendt felt that thought involves ‘that silent dialogue between me and myself which since Socrates and Plato we usually call thinking’ (“two-in-one”).  In an article entitled ‘Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship II ‘, Arendt underlines the importance of an inner dialogue between two parts of the self,  ‘me and myself’, in which issues can be thought through and discussed internally, The two parts need to have agreement, in order for the person to be clear and just in their dealings with others.

What is central to such thinking is the development of an integrated and ‘whole’ personality. In psychoanalytic terms, this means that aspects of the self are not split off, divided from our consciousness. If we are able to achieve this internal integration, then   the inner conversation will be an open one,  in that the inner arguments can be balanced, with thoughts and ideas freely accessed.

This internal dialogue is an important aspect of thinking with which we can all identify, but perhaps we may not have given it much of our attention. These silent whisperings are a part of everyday life. Sometimes they are not so silent; we have all sub-vocalised, or heard others whispering to themselves, as they work out their thought-processes.

This silent thinking is also powerfully explored in David Lodge’s fine novel Thinks . Lodge’s principal character, Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive science, is studying human consciousness. Messenger records his own thoughts in a ‘stream of consciousness,’ as a way of researching into ‘the structure of thought.’


In Lodge’s novel, Messenger believes that ‘we can never know for certain what another person is thinking’. We need the secrecy. Messenger’s lover, Helen, underlines the reasons why she will not allow him access to her own secret thoughts ostensibly for his research. She emphasises the importance of privacy and of concealing thoughts to ‘maintain our self-respect’, which she views as ‘essential to civilisation.’

It is interesting to consider just how central is this secrecy of our thoughts to the maintaining of civilised behaviour in the world. Arendt also regards this private, internal reasoning process as essential to the avoidance of committing evil deeds. Without it, we would act without consideration, without standards, without internally questioning our morality.

Shakespeare has characters in two of his plays utter the phrase that ‘Thought is free’ (The Tempest and Twelfth Night.) This is true. We are free to think whatever we choose. However, freedom of thought is different from freedom of speech. Speaking our thoughts without consideration can be dangerous and hurtful.

We cannot always say what we think if our thoughts are offensive or likely to imperil others. Internal, personal editing, and sometimes censoring the expression of some thoughts is essential. In democratic societies there are often laws that prevent dangerous and criminal thoughts and ideas from being expressed publicly, such as those that involve as racism and sexism. Whilst some people may harbour such thoughts, they cannot be expressed legally in public.

The Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, in a poem entitled Silentium, implies that thinking can be dangerous and he counsels us to keep our thoughts to ourselves:

Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.

We are urged to recognise the impossibility of a thought being expressed clearly and truthfully:

What heart can ever speak its mind?
How can some other understand
the hidden pole that turns your life?
A thought, once spoken, is a lie.

This last line is, indeed thought-provoking. Can we ever understand another’s thoughts, once they are spoken? Or is it better to keep silent, as the poet says?

This topic will be further explored in next week’s blog post.



Thinking and Acting




Are thinking and acting separate facilities and can they function independently? Does the one precede the other or are they interlinked, even blended? Should we think or act first?

Is thought in itself an action?

Some might say it is, for when we think, our minds are often described as ‘active.’ Asimov said ‘Writing, to me, is thinking with my fingers.’ Similarly, Michelangelo stated that ‘A man paints with his brains, not with his hands.’

However, some people, such as Goethe, regard thought and action as separate entities. He felt that ‘thinking is easy, acting is difficult and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.’ He obviously did not regard the two as part of a smooth continuum.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet thought similarly, although he regarded thought and conscience as negative manifestations of fear. For him, thinking robs him of the courage to act, leaving him a coward:

‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.’

(Hamlet, Act 3 scene 1 83-88)

This is not an uncommon way of seeing thinking, one which regards action as creative and heroic and thought as stultifying and weak:

‘Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.’
(Ray Bradbury)

‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’
(Samuel Beckett)

However, in an interesting paper called Creative Action in Mind, Peter Carruthers makes the point that thought may not always accompany, or indeed precede, action. For example, when a person mirrors another’s physical actions during a conversation, they often do so without conscious thought or planning.

The trumpeter Miles Davis said ‘I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.’
Carruthers highlights ‘act-first accounts of creativity,’ such as jazz improvisations. These sometimes surprise even their musical creator; Carruthers refers to the book by Berliner entitled Thinking in Jazz:The Infinite Art of Improvisation , which highlights the fact that there is often no planning or thought preceding spontaneous acts of musical creativity:

‘So when a jazz improviser is surprised by the sequence of notes that he hears himself play, that is evidence that he didn’t have a prior expectation (whether conscious or unconscious) that he would play a sequence of notes of that sort. And that means that he had not formulated a creative thought in advance of performing the creative action. ‘

I do take issue , though, with the above statement about ‘conscious or unconscious ‘expectation.’ Surely an expectation is, by its very nature ‘conscious’? The unconscious represents the part of our mind of which we are largely unaware; therefore I do not think we can actually have an ‘unconscious expectation,’ as Berliner implies.

What we can have is unconscious brain activity. This might involve us being surprised by what suddenly surfaces into consciousness, such as memories, dreams and, yes, musical improvisations. Thus the jazz improvisor mentioned above may, in fact, to my mind, have a store of unconscious musical sequences, garnered from a multiplicity of past experiences, that might pop out and surprise him at any moment. Berliner’s above-mentioned ‘evidence’ is therefore a little shaky.

It is possible to think and act simultaneously. This is amply illustrated in Donald Schon’s book  The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action .


He uses the term reflection-in-action to describe a process whereby people think and know about their work whilst they are actually doing it. He also calls it knowing-in practice. This is a considerable skill, honed through intelligence and experience.

It is something we all do, not only at work, but in our everyday lives:

Phrases like “thinking on your feet,” “keeping your wits about you,” and “learning by doing” suggest not only that we can think about doing, but we can think about doing something while doing it.

In fact, thought and action can be, and are, creative partners. Buddha said ‘with our thoughts we make the world,’ and ‘what we think, we become.’ He saw the creative power of thought as crucial to constructive action, a parts of the same process.

Many see thought as necessarily preceding action. Beethoven carried his thoughts in his head ‘ for a long time, often for a very long time, before writing them down.’ Freud said that ‘Thought is action in rehearsal.’

This ‘rehearsal’ time is regarded by others as crucial. Scientific research by Dr Stephen Fleming reveals that, often, the quick-fire decisions that are encouraged in our current society, do, in fact, mean that we might sometimes increase our chances of getting it wrong. In an article in Aeon in 2014 entitled ‘Hesitate!‘ he states:

‘The agonising feeling of conflict between two options is not necessarily a bad thing: it is the brain’s way of slowing things down….

When people do come to speedy conclusions, there is less opportunity to gather and assess the necessary evidence to form a good decision. The ‘neural flip-flopping’  between options is regarded as ‘the brain’s weighing of evidence for and against decision………..We should allow some indecision into our lives.’

It is a pity that Shakespeare’s Hamlet could not have known of these findings. Then he might have felt less cowardly in relation to his indecisiveness and he might have seen his hesitation as a constructive mechanism.

However, the play would have been far less attractive to the audience and much less of a tragedy.



The Relationship Between Thinking and Feeling and Its Importance In The Psychotherapy Setting.



‘But what then am I ? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, affirms, desires, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.’
Rene Descartes, Meditations II (1641)


In this post, I want to explore how thinking and feeling are intricately linked; I will then move on into how these two faculties crucially interact in the therapeutic situation.

Can we ever disentangle thinking and feeling? They are so intricately linked, both from a psychological and a neuroscientific point of view. There are so many differing views of the way in which these two human faculties relate to each other.


For example, Ken Robinson, in his excellent book Out of Our Minds regards them as more than linked, to the extent of being merged, or one and the same. He regards feelings as actually ’forms of perception,’ so that, for example, feeling grief at someone’s death is actually an ‘evaluation,’ revealing something about the quality our relationship with the dead person.

Piero Scaruffi, who has written on Consciousness in Volume 4 of  Thinking about Thought : The Structure of Life and the Meaning of Matter, sees the two faculties as less enmeshed, but nevertheless emphasises their crucial interdependence:

‘While the relationship between “feeling” and “thinking” is still unclear, it is generally agreed that all beings who think also feel. That makes feelings central to an understanding of thinking.’

Whilst it might be difficult at present to be more precise, what is known is that the interplay of these two functions is complex, an inextricably interwoven mass of finely-tuned connections, deep within areas of the brain and the psyche. The amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons deep within the brain, plays an important role in processing certain feelings, like fear and pleasure. The neocortex is involved in advanced level mental functions, such as consciousness and rational thought.

Daniel Goleman used the term Emotional Intelligence in his book of the same name to describe the combination of empathy and emotion with clear and rational thought. Emotion guides and informs the thinking and behavioural process:

‘the workings of the amygdala and its interplay with the neocortex are at the heart of emotional intelligence.’

Understanding our emotions helps us to control and manage them and to develop functional relationships with other people.

What of the term ‘cognition?’ The words ‘thinking’ and ‘cognition’ are often used interchangeably. However, cognition is more of an overall, inclusive term, representing general mental capacities, the tools and hardware of our mind, such as the ability to reason, to acquire language, to remember, judge – and to think. Scaruffi regards cognition as being ‘at the service of our primary inner life : thoughts and emotions.’

‘Emotions play the key role of being preconditions to cognition and therefore to thought. ‘

We need a harmonious blend of both thought and feeling to function in the world. Can we even contemplate being in a world without either of these crucial faculties?

Imagine for a moment: a lack of feeling would mean that we would be robotic, and relationships with others would be impossible. There would be no love, hatred, guilt, desire, sadness, anger. Stasis and immobility would be the result, for we would be unable to do anything at all.

Without feeling, there would be no conflict, no ambition or motivation. Emotions like discontent, envy, boredom, stimulate us to move forward; anger rouses us to action, desire makes us search, love makes us give, hatred makes us fight.

Charlotte Bronte said that is is ‘better to be without logic than without feeling.’ Yet what would happen if there were no thought, no logic ? Absence of thought would result in chaos; if we could not think, there would be no sense or meaning in anything, and we would all be like riderless horses, careering through life with no aims or intentions.

Patrick McGhee, in his book Thinking Psychologically, writes in a very enlightening way about the importance of developing our thinking capacities, as well as our feelings:

‘We would all, I think, consider ourselves substantially incomplete in some significant way if we did not develop our emotional maturity or achieve our full emotional potential (however defined). But is it not also the case with thinking? Should we not also reckon our time in life by the range of forms of thought we experience as well as the forms of feeling? And is not cognitive as well as emotional maturity a form of human potential worth developing?’

It is interesting that he mentions the phrase ‘forms of thought.’ A book that I have found very central to my work as a psychotherapist is the late Dr Robert Hobson’s Forms of Feeling. He describes the word ‘feeling’ in the book’s title as an integrated aspect of the human psyche:

‘When I speak of feeling, I do to mean a faculty of emotions plus a faculty of cognition. It is a kind of ‘emotional knowing…’’

He emphasises the importance of using different types of thinking in the therapeutic process and especially underlines the importance of imaginative thought:

‘A psychotherapist needs to observe scrupulously details of verbal and non-verbal interaction in the interview. At the same time he envisages, with feelings… possibilities, new forms, new patterns of meaning. He needs to use imagination, described by Coleridge as:

‘the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere and with it the depth and height the ideal world, around forms, incidents and situations of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dewdrops.’’

Psychotherapy is, in fact, ultimately about helping people to think, clearly and creatively. (I will highlight the words in the following paragraphs that all reference forms of thinking in order to illustrate how central is the thinking process to psychotherapy.)

Therapy helps patients to become acquainted with their inner and outer world, to find ways of thinking through their problems that could lead to greater knowledge of themselves and other people. As therapy progresses, there is encouragement to face what might have been forbidden to the conscious mind through fear and to decipher those uneasy murmurings from the depths of the unconscious.

It is, understandably, difficult to think clearly when one is beset by painful and disturbing feelings; clearing out the dead wood of a painful past can be a confusing, contradictory and labyrinthine process. Yet it is crucially important to work through these feelings in therapy, to recognise their links to the past and to begin to understand their power to affect the present. It is psychotherapy that aims to help the patient know feelings. It helps the patient to gain insight into themselves and the world around them.













What thinks can we all think up?



‘Pensive.’ Millais.


‘Think left and think right and think low and think high.
Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!’

(Dr Seuss, Oh The Things You Can Think )

“What are you writing about?” I’m asked , often.

My reply is invariably brief and a little cautious:

“Thinking. I’m writing about thinking.”

Silence. A look of puzzlement on the other’s face. Then, every time, a change of expression and a look of total understanding. Followed by an explanation of their ideas of what I’m writing about thinking.

Except I am not. Thus far, hardly anyone has got it, my way of thinking about thinking . Everyone, of course, answers from their own frame of reference. The thing is, none of their answers is ‘wrong’. They are all correct. For them.

Dr Seuss’s joyful rhyme above may be addressed to children, yet it captures perfectly the breadth of meaning in terms of the highly complex notion of thinking. It is this complexity that led me to want to write about thinking; the fact that there is so much to discover and to contemplate. In addition, this feels a very timely subject to explore, given that, in contemporary culture, there seems to be little space for real thinking.

Here’s how the idea developed. As I reflected on my career after I retired and, especially, on my own experience of psychotherapy, I realised that what I could now do was to think much more clearly. After years of focussing on feelings, I really had time to think about thinking. I could reap the benefits of years of work, training and experience to concentrate on this fascinating subject. I immersed myself in discovering and writing about thinking over several years.

Now, my intention in this blog is to present and share this work, reaching across professional disciplines, pooling resources, collecting ideas on thinking of those in the know and putting them together with my own thoughts.

This is not going to be a definitive guide to thinking. There are many such works, proclaiming the way to think, telling us how we should manage our lives. They are often delivered in a dogmatic and prescriptive style.

I certainly do not presume to have any answers. What my blog will offer instead is a thought-provoking contrast to the quick-fix, superficial, answer-rich society in which we find ourselves. This is a discourse on thinking about thinking that is an invitation to pause and contemplate, to stimulate new thoughts about thinking, but not in an all-inclusive, absolute way.

What is, I think, more useful, is a curious, open, questioning approach, one that empowers the reader, rather than an inflexible presentation of unequivocal ‘truths.’

A comprehensive enquiry into the whole area of thinking is beyond the capacity and limitations of any one specialism. Thus I will initiate a necessary pooling of resources, a gathering together of knowledge from different areas of expertise. The aim is to create an encounter, a bringing together, perhaps sometimes a discordant jarring of incompatibilities, an aggravation of thoughts and ideas about thinking that will ultimately produce an exceptionally distinct and original outcome.

Why is it now more important than ever to think about thinking? These are exciting times for thinking; new technologies are dramatically changing our world. At the same time, however, the internet, whilst enormously useful and helpful, can be a great obstruction to the thinking process. It distracts us from listening and attending to others, from focussing on our internal world, from being mindful and giving attention to our thinking.

How can we digitally detox, turning down the noise in our technology-driven life? How can we take back control of our lives again, given the addictive power of the internet for many us? How can we quieten things down so that we can ‘stand and stare,’ and re-connect with our thoughts?

Many would regard our society as sick, with people disconnected from self and other, addicted to the internet and, perhaps hardly aware of its sickness:

‘ It is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’

(J. Krishnamurti )

To add to this state of dis-ease, in a global context, our world is changing dramatically, becoming precarious and uncertain.

Zygmunt Bauman, in his book  Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty,  sees this as an insecure age, when all ‘social forms’ about us seem uncertain and short-term, when ‘interhuman bonds….become increasingly frail and admitted to be temporary.’  It is now more than ever, in this time of intense global flux, that we need to examine what is happening to our ways of thinking.

In my blog there will be space to face uncertainties and to decelerate our thinking, allowing for reflection and for a quiet meditative journey into the deeper reaches of our thinking selves. In the words of Pico Iyer, in his fascinating book The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere:

‘In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement nothing is more urgent than sitting still.’