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Vladimir Babarykin SpatialNote Vladimir Babarykin

What thinking is & trends in thinking

Would you agree that for better understanding one needs to be able to construct own definitions, rather than being limited to definitions already formulated by others?  I invite you to walk a thinking path with me, in course of which we will try to construct a valid definition of thinking itself. I suggest we compare results at the end of the path: sharing and discussing contribute to better understanding as well. Let’s begin.


Wikipedia's definitions (here and in other parts of the article the definitions are as of February 2015) of the terms “thought” and “thinking” never fail at making me smile. They also put me into a tranquil meditative state, as if Milton Erickson himself, the father of Conversational Hypnosis, wrote these definitions. Take a look:


“Thought can refer to the ideas or arrangements of ideas that result from thinking, the act of producing thoughts, or the process of producing thoughts. Although thought is a fundamental human activity familiar to everyone, there is no generally accepted agreement as to what thought is or how it is created. Thoughts are the result or product of spontaneous acts of thinking.”


If we get rid of the irrelevant words from the definitions, we will get this: “Thought refers to ideas resulting from spontaneous acts or processes of producing thoughts.” Or, to make it even simpler - “Producing thoughts results in ideas that can be referred to as thoughts”. Basically, the definitions are: “Thoughts result from thinking” and “Thinking is the process of producing thoughts”.


Smile is a result of smiling. Smiling results in such configuration of lips that can be referred to as a smile.


Let’s have a look at the definition of “idea” from Wikipedia: 


“In philosophy, ideas are usually construed as mental representational images of some object. Ideas can also be abstract concepts that do not present as mental images...In a popular sense, an idea arises in a reflexive, spontaneous manner, even without thinking or serious reflection, for example, when we talk about the idea of a person or a place.”


Here we find out that ideas can arise “even without thinking”. This puts us into more absurd situation. “Thinking is the process of producing thoughts. And thoughts can refer to ideas that result from thinking. But ideas can arise without thinking”.


Well, I do not know what the people who wrote those definitions were thinking. But I guess they did not help the readers of Wikipedia to figure it out.


While the definitions of “thought” and “thinking” were almost useless, there is something in the definition of “idea” that could help us better understand these concepts.


Of course, I believe that it is possible to find more reasonable explanations in other sources, but I invite you to reconstruct the definitions from Wikipedia with me. There are multiple reasons for this. One is that Wikipedia is currently very popular and its results are first to show in search engines, people use it and trust it. Another reason is that popular sources, e.g. Webster and Oxford dictionaries do not do a much better job here as well. And what is also very important, I want you to “take part” in my thinking and see that it’s possible to create good enough definitions on your own by applying a little bit of critical thinking.


Ideas refer to mental representations that can be abstract or have some images. Here is a quote from Wikipedia’s definition of “mental representation”: 


“A mental representation (or cognitive representation) a hypothetical internal cognitive symbol that represents external reality...Mental representation is the mental imagery of things that are not currently seen or sensed by the sense organs. In our minds we often have images of objects, events and settings...Although visual imagery is more likely to be recalled, mental imagery may involve representations in any of the sensory modalities, such as, hearing, smell, or taste.”


Ok. Now we have something to reconstruct more valuable definitions. 


“Thought can refer to internal cognitive symbols that represent external reality. Most likely these symbols are perceived as visual images, though it may also happen in any of the sensory modalities such as hearing, smell, or taste”.


“Thinking is mostly spontaneous act or process of producing internal symbols that represent external reality using sensory modalities (primarily visual)”.


If we look at these two newly created definitions, we can notice a couple of phrases that suggest there are variations in how thinking works:


  • “Mostly spontaneous” suggests there could also be some type of controlled or voluntary type of thinking as well;
  • “Primarily visual”, but might be with the help of other modalities.


Popularity of various types of thinking among general public


Let’s have a look at how our guesses about the options are reflected in understanding and interests of people. We can get a good approximation of online search queries by using Google AdWords Keyword Planner tool. These are some terms related to thinking ordered from the most to the least popular: 


Detailed stats is available here.

Here is a summary:


  1. Search queries reveal an opposition of spontaneous/intuitive thinking and more rational types of thinking. In fact, Google predicts very low interest in intuitive thinking with only around 880 monthly searches vs. almost 120 thousand potential search in total for words that represent some form of rational thinking (e.g. critical, strategic, logical, rational, scientific thinking and reasoning). The most popular search phrase is “critical thinking” with predicted 90K+ searches. Less than 1% of people are interested in intuitive/spontaneous thinking.
  2. Slightly more than 8K people search for info on abstract thinking vs. slightly less than 2K interested in concrete thinking. 
  3. Next group of searches relates to modalities of thinking. 
    1. Even though our original definitions show that people primarily have ideas in visual form, search queries suggest that more people believe they think using language. Verbal reasoning and thinking accounts to more than 12K of potential monthly searches, while 5.4K monthly searches for “non-verbal” prove that people consider thinking to be primarily verbal, though trying to find alternatives. And even though the popular definitions suggest that ideas should be mostly visual, search queries show the definitions are missing something. How about the inner speech and dialogs people often have and even try to stop sometimes (proving that it really is spontaneous)? For sure, thinking has something to do with languages, especially for abstract ideas. 
    2. As for non-verbal modalities, 6,770 combined searches for “visual thinking” (also including “thinking in pictures”, “visual cognition” and “visual reasoning”) show that people do often have images when they think, or maybe want to be able to think using images more than they do now. “Musical thinking” gets only 70 monthly searches, while “embodied cognition” can boast of 4.4K searches. 
    3. There is also a blend of the verbal and sensory modalities type of thinking - conceptual thinking, which attracts around 1.6K people per month. 
    4. And there unexpectedly (judging by the definitions we’ve got) appears another important group of terms related to spatial (“spatial thinking”, “spatial reasoning”, “spatial cognition” and “3D thinking”) which are hard to attribute to a particular modality. These terms sum up to around 7.2K of searches per month, making it more popular than visual. Why wasn’t it mentioned at all in the definitions?




More definitions


The predicted interests of people show that we need to clarify several terms. First one is “critical thinking.” We will use the same source, Wikipedia, which we use not criticize it, but because of its popularity, and also to show that even editors of Wikipedia have hard times formulating difficult things.


“Critical thinking is the study of clear, reasoned thinking.”


It’s hard for me to understand why they wrote this. How can “thinking be the study of thinking”? I guess, they felt that they needed something more plausible. That is why they offer two more definitions right away:


“According to Beyer (1995) Critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgements. While in the process of critical thinking, your thoughts should be reasoned and well thought out/judged.”


“The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” 


These definitions require us to find out what “reasoning” is. Here is what our main source of definitions for this article says:


“Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, for establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information… The concept of reason is sometimes referred to as rationality and sometimes as discursive reason, in opposition to intuitive reason.”


This definition is actually good enough. Main qualities of reasoning are conscious and rational making sense of things and verifying something.


Thus, our own simple definition might be “Critical Thinking is a voluntary process of making sense of things and/or verifying facts or information to use as grounds for actions and beliefs”.


Now with all the definitions and information from the search, some things remain unsettled.


Thinking is primarily considered to be spontaneous, though most people try to search for more controlled and disciplined ways of thinking, e.g. critical thinking. Thoughts are believed to be primarily in form of images, though people look for verbal thinking more than two times more often. And our intuition and mundane experience suggest that our inner speech is something that we definitely have, both in deliberate and in spontaneous thinking acts. 


Why do we have these paradoxes? Maybe thinking has verbal,  visual, and other components simultaneously? And maybe both forms of thinking - spontaneous and disciplined - are something that we have and need? Let’s turn to opinions of those who are believed to be somewhat more educated than the average public - authors of books. Let’s check how the primary terms related to thinking that we found for the general audience correlate with mentioning in books. Google can help us here as well, now with their Ngram Viewer.


Popularity of various types of thinking in literature


I used the Ngram Viewer to compare popularity of the search queries we found before and mentions of the terms in books in English for the period of 1900-2008. Some results do not differ much from the ones that we observed before. Various types of rational, critical and other forms of disciplined and controlled thinking dominate the interests of book writers. Abstract thinking is also substantially more popular than the concrete one.


But there are distinct differences in interest of authors (with some being scientists) and the general public in the group of terms related to thinking using various modalities. Here is the Ngram for this set of terms:



Verbal reasoning and thinking are still quite popular, though not that much and their popularity is decreasing. Conceptual thinking, being combination of verbal and nonverbal forms of thinking, shares popularity with verbal thinking, showing a slight increase of popularity after some period of stagnation.

Musical thinking has higher significance among book authors than for the general public. Visual thinking is also about two times less popular than verbal types of thinking.


Spatial-related terms, which we unexpectedly discovered in general public searches, are of great interest to scholars. They mention these terms in books more than two times more often than verbal terms, and over four times more often than visual ones. What is even more important, if most other terms show decrease in mentioning in the recent years, spatial ones are in trend and on the rise along with “embodied cognition” which often relates to spatial as well. If we use a metaphor of promising markets, I would say that “spatial thinking” is the “market” that is most worth investing in, considering the fact that it is already the largest among modality-related terms and growing very fast, while the rest of them stagnate or lose their share.


Merging the lines


Now that we compared interests of general public and thought leaders (book authors) and have all our preliminary definitions and observations, we can finally voice several conclusions and questions for more detailed exploration.


Humans and their ancestors had to evolve and adapt to survive. Most of the situations early humans, as well as primates and other mammals faced, required very fast, almost automatic actions to escape a predator, prey, or win a fight, even without conscious control of their actions. 


To have higher chances for survival one needs to predict reality. One needs to slice it into some objects to observe their behaviors, qualities and interactions with other objects. These operations need to be mental - creating mental representations or cognitive symbols that represent reality. These symbols could be visual, like some kind of copies of the real objects, but in a way altered so that one could distinguish between real and mental objects.


Language became one of the greatest inventions of humans, providing a way to give some signs to the objects of reality and their interactions. And even though there is evidence that origins of languages are close to sign languages, verbal languages have multiple advantages for survival that helped them dominate and evolve with humans. Sign languages are hard to use on trees, when you have tools in your hands, at night, or when your friends are hidden in the forest. Also, verbal languages do not require one to look at the speakers, as would be the case with sign languages, freeing up eyes for observation of enemies or food.


What is even more important, languages helped to overcome the most significant human cognitive bottleneck - working memory that can hold a small amount of objects for a short period of time. Assigning a handle, a word, to an object in reality provides an easy way to name it, and it also provides a way to name some combination or interactions of objects. Substituting several objects and their interactions with one new name frees up place in working memory.


This combinatorial play of naming objects and their relationships provided humans with a way to describe substantial part of reality. And it even worked for more complex and non-concrete parts of reality, allowing us to describe abstract things.


However, for survival one needs not only the fast ways of thinking. Predictions of reality have to be correct, precise. Evidently, sometimes the fast and spontaneous ways to predict reality and act according to those predictions was leading to troubles. And evolution helped people get some control of the fast automatic actions. It created a way to impose disciplined and rigorous process of thinking to predict reality better. In fact, evolutionary this process is very new and still requires lots of mental effort. And it is very slow. Well-known winner of Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences Daniel Kahneman in one of his bestsellers names these two types of thinking “thinking fast and slow” providing multiple examples of how these two systems differ.


What do you think? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

I would choose other names of these systems, as people do not need a slow thinking system. The goals of thinking are to be correct and to be fast. In many instances when humans are fast, they make mistakes. And they need to use the rational, disciplined, critical thinking system that is unfortunately slow, but in some instances can provide more precise descriptions and prediction of reality. Currently both the general public and the book authors are very much interested in this rational type of thinking, try to understand it better and find ways to improve it. The extreme of this slow, though I would name it precise thinking, is scientific one.


Yet, can we say that these disciplined and rational activities are something that we are fully conscious of, even if voluntary initiate them? As modern cognitive scientists claim, most of the cognitive processes happen subconsciously, with only a tiny portion of them reaching our consciousness, often in the form of end results,. In other words, we are not aware of all the processes happening in various parts of the brain that are responsible for object recognition, or for speech production. We just “see images” and “hear words”.


And since we got to the modalities in which thinking happens, people employ verbal, visual, spatial, etc. thinking both in spontaneous and voluntary modes (or as they also say, task-negative and task-positive modes). Why is verbal thinking popular, why is visual declining and why is spatial gaining traction?


Even though we did find some interesting things related to thinking in this post, it would be too much to try to answer all the questions raised above in one blog article. That is why I want to stop here now and follow this post up with several others to cover the topic in more detail for those who are interested.



Vlad has a background in linguistics and IT, as well as over 13 years of running IT companies. He is passionate about learning, innovation, entrepreneurship and is ready to share some of his insights in this blog.


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Guest Tuesday, 31 March 2020