Let’s assume that the subjects in a recent experience sampling study* were fairly typical: that is, resting-state experience – the default mode we’re in when not performing tasks – usually doesn’t involve words. The content of our resting states is mostly something else, like a sensory impressions, visual imagery, waves of emotion, or unsymbolized thinking (wordless and imageless, but there doing something – like wondering or questioning or realizing – but without words).
So if our “task-independent” experience doesn’t involve words most of the time, what does it mean to “observe thoughts as they unfold”? What are we observing when the mental activity does not include words? And when they do, how do we mark the boundary between one “thought” and another? For that matter, even when the words are a-flowing in our heads, where does one word-chunk start and another begin? When we listen to someone, we constantly update our understanding of their meaning and intention. How is it different when we observe our inner speech? If it’s not all that different, why does it sound weird to “observe” someone’s speech “unfold” but less so when we observe our “thoughts” unfold? For that matter, what’s the difference between observing someone talk and listening to them? And what would be the difference between “observing” our thoughts and listening to them?
Are we merely “aware-ing” – that is, performing the brain function of tracking attention? Attention goes all sorts of places: to our task, to verbal content of inner speech, to what we’re looking at or hearing (in our heads or in the world).
It may be that our sense of discrete thoughts is a product of working memory capacity: a thought is what we can behold as a thought the few seconds it reverberates in our awareness. Since humans extend working memory capacity by chunking things into meaningful units, we experience thoughts as meaningful units. When meaningful units have verbal content, that means whole words, complete phrases, and sentences. And even when they don’t, we tend to remember them that way, because word combinations are just so chunkable.
Wait! I’m making it sound like being aware of thoughts is remembering thoughts. That’s right.
*What goes on in the resting-state? A qualitative glimpse into resting-state experience in the scanner Hurlburt, R. T., Alderson-Day, B., Fernyhough, C.s and Kühn, S. Frontiers in Psychology www.frontiersin.org October 2015 Volume6 Article1535 http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01535