What is thought? It depends, of course, on what you mean by thought. One might use “thought” in the sense of, say, one of three major categories of mental activity: thought, perception, and feeling. Or maybe willing makes it four and perhaps something else makes it five. Whatever. But if you mean thought in that deep and fundamental sense, then it’s a difficult question and I’ll pass on it.
What I have in mind is something less rigorous. I’m interested in the commonsense notion of thought and that, I believe, is more or less inner speech. As such, it’s something that humans do but animals do not. We have language, they do not, hence they cannot have inner speech. On the other hand, animals might well think in the deeper sense I alluded to in the first paragraph.
It’s this common sense notion of thought as inner speech that interests me. I trace my position on this to Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist from the first half of the 20th Century. For a contemporary account in that tradition, see Sydney Lamb’s Pathways of the Brain (1998, pp. 181 ff.).
The rest of this post consists of an account of inner speech that I gave in Beethoven’s Anvil (Basic Books, pp. 151-153). I’m interested in inner speech because it’s a vehicle that allows us to take command of our actions.
* * * * *
What does it mean to say that you cease to think? It means, I believe, that inner speech ceases to play a role in directing your activities. I am thus identifying the commonsense notion of “thinking” with inner speech. Your brain certainly does not shut down when you stop thinking yet remain fully awake, attentive, and performing music. All that ceases is one process.
That process was investigated by Lev Semenovich Vygotsky during the 20s and 30s in the Soviet Union and published in 1934 in his classic Thought and Language. The book was suppressed in 1936 and was not readily available until a decade after WWII. Vygotsky’s general idea is that as others direct the child's actions and perceptions through language, so the child comes to use language in directing her own activities.
Vygotsky asks us to consider a very young child, in the second year of life, interacting with an adult. This child has some capacity to understand the speech of others but has little or no speech of her own. When you speak to he the linguistic system in her brain analyzes the acoustic input and activates the appropriate cognitive and perceptual circuits. The command "come here" will activate a plan for locomotion and the child will approach you, provided, of course, that she knows and trusts you and is not otherwise preoccupied. The command "look at the bunny" will direct her gaze at the bunny.
In time the child’s own language capacity grows. During the third and fourth years her grasp of language is firm enough that she can use language to direct her own actions in the way that others use language to direct her activity. She is not, of course, obligated to direct her actions in this way, but she can, for example, use speech to plan a sequence of actions or focus her attention on some task. The child will talk to herself as she thinks things through.
As such self-directed speech becomes ever more fluent, Vygotsky maintains, it becomes silent and internal. The inner tongue can now communicate directly with the inner ear, bypassing the need to speak aloud. Given that this process starts with language that others direct to the growing child and involves mental structures for coordinating language and social interaction, inner speech is thus an inner dialog between virtual persons. It is thus not surprising that, in his investigation of the metaphor system governing folk conceptions of the self, George Lakoff found that we conceive the self to be a multiplicity of agents.
The point is that we have a capacity for self-scrutiny and self-direction that is critically dependent on language. A musician who reports that the music just flowed, that he no longer had to think about it, is simply saying that the inner voice no longer played any role in the music-making. Even in more ordinary circumstances, the inner voice doesn't play much of a role in fluid performance; hands and lips and lungs just go about their business. The inner voice does speak—perhaps looking ahead and preparing, noting a mistake, or expressing annoyance at the loud bore chatting away in the front row. But when you are completely swept up in the music, the little voice disappears.
It should be obvious that this inner voice, no matter what it may say, is not some master controller. Infants are able to act without it and so are the rest of us. It is one of the brain’s creatures, not its director.