The Science of Thoughts

I’ve been writing about thoughts for years now, a specific type of thought though; the ones that occur within obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and today I decided I should talk more about thoughts generally, as it is important to understand thought processes from the point of view of a psychologist, which is what I am. I shall talk about the cognitive processes behind thoughts, as I often talk about how our faulty cognitions affect OCD. I will talk about how they form, how some become sticky, and touch on the subconscious.

Cognitive Processes

Cognitive processes are the mental actions that allow us to interact with the world. My first proper encounter with thought processes was when I studied cognitive psychology as part of my first degree in psychology.

I find it helpful to think of these processes as the building blocks of our thoughts, setting a good foundation to help us make sense of the world around us and guide our responses and behaviours.

Cognitive processes include:

  • Perception: The process of interpreting sensory information.
  • Memory: The storage and retrieval of information.
  • Learning: The acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience or instruction.
  • Problem-solving: The process of finding solutions to complex issues.
  • Language: The use of structured symbols to communicate.

How do we form a thought?

Good question and an important one as the thoughts formed are unique to the individual and can be dependent on past experiences. Thoughts are the product of the cognitive processes I listed above. They are formed through the interaction of perception, memory, learning, and problem-solving.

For instance, when we encounter a new situation, our perception processes interpret the sensory information. Our memory then retrieves relevant past experiences to help us understand the situation. For example, Imagine you’re walking through a park, and you hear a loud bark. Your perception processes interpret the sound through your sense of hearing. Instantly, your memory retrieves past experiences with dogs barking. You remember that a loud bark often means there’s a dog nearby, and based on those memories, you might also recall whether loud barks you’ve heard before came from friendly dogs or aggressive ones. This combination of perception and memory helps you understand the current situation: there’s a dog nearby, and you can prepare yourself accordingly, whether that’s to pet a friendly dog or to be cautious around an aggressive one.

Through learning and problem-solving, we then generate thoughts about how to respond to the situation. One person may approach the dog, and another may avoid it.

Why Some Thoughts Stick

Some thoughts persist longer than others. These ‘sticky’ thoughts often have a strong emotional component or are related to unresolved issues.

Cognitive biases can also make certain thoughts stick. These biases can cause us to overemphasize negative experiences or overlook positive ones.

Understanding why some thoughts persist can help us manage our thought patterns more effectively.

The subconscious mind plays a crucial role in our cognitive processes. It operates outside of our conscious awareness, influencing our thoughts and behaviours.

For example, the subconscious mind can process complex information and solve problems while we sleep. It also stores memories and experiences that can subtly influence our conscious thoughts.

Understanding the role of the subconscious mind can provide valuable insights into our thought processes and behaviours.

Thoughts can change.

Cognitive processes are not static. They evolve over time and are influenced by a variety of factors.

These changes can significantly impact our behaviours. For instance, as we learn and gain new experiences, our cognitive processes adapt, leading to changes in how we perceive and respond to the world. In the example I used about the dog, someone may take classes to help them not to be so afraid of dogs, and the opportunity of interacting with friendly dogs gives them new different experiences from which new thoughts can form. Very useful from the point of view of people like myself, psychologists, as the cornerstone of many therapy models and built of the ability of thoughts being able to change.

The factors influencing changes in cognitive processes include:

  • Aging: Cognitive processes can change as we age, affecting memory, attention, and problem-solving abilities.
  • Experience: Our experiences shape our cognitive processes, influencing how we interpret and respond to situations.
  • Environment: Our environment, from the cultural context to the physical surroundings, can impact our cognitive processes.

Experience and environment play a crucial role in shaping our cognitive processes. Our experiences, both positive and negative, influence how we perceive and interpret the world.

The Interplay Between Conscious and Subconscious Processes

Our cognitive processes operate on both conscious and subconscious levels, and the interaction between these two levels significantly influences our thoughts and behaviours. I alluded to this interplay in this post about cognitive biases but I really recommend reading Daniel Kahneman’s best seller, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow to get a complete grasp of how bias can occur.

The conscious mind handles tasks that require active attention and decision-making. In contrast, the subconscious mind processes information outside of our conscious awareness, influencing our thoughts and behaviours in subtle ways.

Understanding the interplay between conscious and subconscious processes can provide valuable insights into human cognition and behaviour.

Strategies for Understanding and Influencing Our Cognitive Processes

Understanding and influencing our cognitive processes can be a powerful tool for personal growth and self-improvement. There are several strategies that can help us achieve this goal.

  • Mindfulness practices can help us become more aware of our thought patterns.
  • Cognitive training exercises can enhance our cognitive flexibility and problem-solving skills.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help us modify unhelpful thought patterns.

Cognitive Behavioral Techniques

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a widely used technique for modifying unhelpful thought patterns. It involves identifying and challenging irrational or negative thoughts.

CBT can lead to significant changes in behavior and emotional responses by replacing these thoughts with more rational and positive ones.

Enhancing Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility refers to our ability to adapt our cognitive processes to new information and situations. Enhancing cognitive flexibility can improve our problem-solving skills and our ability to cope with change.

This can be achieved through cognitive training exercises, such as brain games, puzzles, and learning new skills.

Conclusion: The Future of Cognitive Process Research

The field of cognitive process research continues to evolve, offering new insights into the workings of the human mind. As we deepen our understanding, we open up new possibilities for enhancing cognitive function and improving mental health.

The future holds exciting prospects, from artificial intelligence’s potential to mimic human cognitive processes to the development of more effective cognitive therapies. The journey to unravel the mysteries of our cognitive processes is far from over.

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