Return to home page
Thinklens article

What Are Thoughts?

Sometimes I think thoughts matter.

thoughts matter

I can go for days inside my thoughts, with only little breaks in between.

It’s a little like building sand castles.

sand castle

When I come back to reality things can be pretty disappointing. I’m no longer married to the girl sitting across from me on the train. I didn’t write a poem that made everyone in the room cry. I forgot to stand up for myself when it counted.

where was i?

I used to think that thoughts were the secret to everything. I would think: “If I can change my thoughts, I can change who I am. I can become anyone I want to be.”

become anyone

These days, I think of thoughts more like water flowing through a landscape. Have you ever seen water travel on a flat surface like a driveway? It usually keeps going along one primary path over and over again, sometimes taking a detour that eventually meets resistance.

water detour

Thoughts are kind of like this. They usually travel along the same pathways over and over again, one thought leading to another, until major resistance is met. Then, however, they find a way around it.

thought leads to thought

Sometimes I try to pay attention to each thought as it comes up.

Have you ever listened closely to the tone of voice that a thought speaks in? Or, if you’re a visual thinker, the mood and character expressing an image or vision? Usually the voice or character will be one you identify as your own, but sometimes there’s a hint of someone else who influenced you at some point in your life. For example, an authoritative or reprimanding voice could sound like one of your parents or a school teacher, and a childlike voice could remind you of your own voice as a child.


I get the impression that it’s not often that someone will incorporate someone else’s voice or character into their own on purpose. Except, perhaps, when you’re an actor or an author, in which case it’s encouraged.

Thinking about how fluid our personalities can be makes me wonder how much they influence our thoughts. Does a personality determine the types of thoughts someone can have? Is it a determining factor in making decisions? And what is a personality, anyway?

My understanding is that a personality is not the river of thoughts and emotions that flows through your mind and body, but rather your emotional experiences and feelings about this river, as if you could stand outside of it and watch it go by.

see the flow

So you get this constantly changing idea of your personality, of who you are, but for the most part it stays the same because the river tends to follow the same paths, uses the same voice, and has the same character that it had before.

And when we want to imagine how other people are going to react to a situation, we can use our experience of their river to map out what they might say or do.

walk on the river

Sometimes when you’re around someone whom you know really well, it can feel like both of your emotional rivers merge into one river. When this happens I think it’s natural to not even be aware of the formation of this combined river of experience, but before you know it, you’ve become caught in a flow of perfectly natural interactions. This can even happen with someone you’ve just met, if a natural trust is built early on.

I think this kind of experience can be really exciting when the flow of a conversation keeps moving back and forth into areas and dimensions that neither person expected, using the power of the combined experience to chart new territory.

combined experience

This same kind of experience can happen when you’re reading a book or watching a movie. When you’re able to give yourself over to a piece of art, it can take you back into your past, help you explore old wounds or reawaken desires and ideas you forgot you had. When an author creates a world or a person that seems real, it can become possible to travel to another dimension of experience, one in which you forget that you exist. Your complete focus is given over to the story.

inside the book

You can also experience this flow, this loss of identity and immersion into a story, when you’re alone. One minute you’ll be driving or walking along and the next thing you know, you’ve just spent the last five minutes in your head, wrapped up in a story you’re telling yourself about your life or arguing with yourself over the implications of an exchange you just had.

One of the strangest things about this immersive experience is the feeling you get upon returning to yourself, the realization that you just suspended your connection to your identity for a bit, lost track of your bodily awareness, and forgot to pay attention to what was going on around you.

It’s a little like being under water, in that all of your senses are dulled and occupied by your thoughts (the water) and you can feel pretty disconnected from what’s going on in the real world (the shore above).

under water

Sometimes after going on one of these excursions, when you come back to your body you find yourself walking or driving faster, your body might be hunched over or tense, or you might be practicing a nervous habit. It almost feels like you literally traveled somewhere else and when you came back you realized your body was responding the whole time, expressing itself in different ways as you traveled through different thoughts.

I believe this same kind of experience can happen when you’re caught up in any kind of story, even one being played out in real life. If you’re comfortable with your role in a given situation and you have trust in the roles of the people around you, it can feel completely natural to get wrapped up in the idea of what’s happening and not pay attention to what you’re doing or saying. It all just seems to come automatically. It helps even more if you’ve participated in these same roles hundreds or thousands of times before.

establish a role

It’s difficult to say exactly what a role is.

There are the everyday roles that most of us participate in at one point or another: doctor and patient, boss and employee, parent and child, friend, and lover. For most of us these roles are pretty well-established in our consciousness. Even if someone in one of these roles stopped performing according to their normally expected behavior, we’d probably continue to think of them in the same way for a while. The way we think and feel about someone in a role tends to have some persistence.

And then there are the roles that are more subtle, which involve how we think of ourselves, how other people react to us, and how we respond to their reactions. There are many thoughts that go unspoken, feelings that go unacknowledged, imagined actions that aren’t performed, and desires that go unfulfilled, all because we felt like it wasn’t appropriate to travel into that territory in a given setting.

Roles can be looked at as the pathways through which our thoughts and emotions, indeed the very river of our personality, move through. This isn’t to say that we don’t have choices and options when it comes to shaping our personalities and the ways we interact; every role has many facets and each one of us is usually participating in more than one role at the same time.

roles are pathways

Roles are responsible for giving us options and freedom, while at the same time shaping us into the particular people that a situation requires. Many roles aren’t very well defined, so it can sometimes feel like you’re not participating in a role at all, as if no one is giving you any signals as to what is appropriate to do next. Sometimes it can feel like this when you’re at a casual gathering with friends, where you’re just expected to be yourself, and sometimes it can feel like this when you think about the grand scheme of your life: where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and all the uncertainty around what you hope to do and who you hope to become.

Sometimes when your role isn’t very well defined, the pressure to do or say the right thing can be overwhelming. It can be tempting to retreat into your thoughts over and over again in an effort to discover a way out. In an effort to measure a response to something you’ve never done before, you might run through scenarios in your head over and over again and try to predict what people will do or say in response. Such a process, if it becomes a habit, can lead to a constant tension between who you are and your impulse to act. You may find yourself spending a lot of your spare time thinking about who you could be, and when you come back to reality you could be quite shocked to realize the mismatch between how you imagined yourself and where you are now.

feeling different than you are

This is a unique power of thought, the ability to take you away from everyday reality and place you in an alternate experience of what’s happening and what’s important. You may find yourself, while reading a fictional story, responding to a character’s emotions and actions as if they were occurring in the moment, as if you could stop them from making a decision or comfort them when they’re suffering. When you’re playing a video game you can immerse your thoughts in this experience of feigned reality even more, imagining that you’re actually walking through a virtual world and melding your own personality with the personalities of the characters in the game. It can serve as both practice for real life and as an escape from real life.

In order for a personality to develop, in order for it to explore what’s possible and figure out the extent to which it can push the boundaries of the roles it occupies, it needs time to solidify as well as opportunities to experiment without judgment. Thoughts, which exist halfway between one reality and another, can provide that stepping stone. A personality is solidified as it encounters the same types of thoughts over and over again, and it is given reminders of the directions it wants to grow towards with its reactions to each thought. Without the tension between one idea of reality and another idea of reality, it’s possible that there would be very little motivation to change.

imagining a new door

Thoughts also have the power to provide us with a sense of context and a sense of reality. It’s our thoughts, fueled by our imagination, that give us a sense of place in relation to other people. We are constantly writing and revising our interpretation of the person we are, where we are in terms of our status and the strength of our relationships, and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Thoughts serve to give us balance and provide the feeling of a solid foundation among the multitude of emotions that we’re feeling in a given moment. If someone or something makes us feel like we don’t belong or that there’s something wrong with us, our emotions can betray us and destabilize the security of our thoughts. The idea that there is a greater context to our lives—one in which our friends and families love us and where we’re doing meaningful work—can work to stabilize our emotions and bring us back to ourselves.

Beyond just giving you an idea of what’s happening in the moment, I would guess that providing a greater context to one’s life is one of the main things people use thoughts for. Simply thinking about how one feels about current events, teammates, coworkers and family members can have a reinforcing effect on our sense of identity. These can serve as the banks of the river of our consciousness. At the same time, thoughts can fill in missing pieces to our stories or gaps in our knowledge. If something about ourselves, such as a recent habit or behavior that we just picked up, is disturbing to us, we can reason through what might be causing it and see if we can do anything about it. Similarly, if someone gets upset with us for no apparent reason, we can think about what they might be going through in other situations in their life that might explain their distress, instead of reacting directly to their feelings as if they’re only related to the present situation.

surround yourself with love