To truly observe a thought as it “unfolds” would disrupt its progression. As soon as we direct attention to the thought, it loses its vitality. It stops moving. The thought-process chokes. Observing a thought is more like hearing the echo of what just passed. An echo is a dead thing: it has no vitality. Observing a thought kills the thought. But our thoughts die and are reborn or die and are replaced by new thoughts all the time.
Hard attention stops thoughts in their tracks. But we can’t keep a hard focus for long; our focus becomes softer, more diffuse. Thinking happens in the interstices of hard attention.
Thoughts do appear to unfold as they are expressed, like with speaking or writing; hence the phrase “thinking out-loud” – the act of expression clears a path for the thought to move forward, towards a sort of clarification or realization. Of course, not all thoughts are worthy of expression or elaboration. The interesting thing about thinking out-loud is that it involves a relinquishing of control, a yielding to something else that is taking over. It can be embarrassing; we can regret it – and yet, the process of thinking out-loud (like typing away) can generate great insights and understandings. Or lead us down a thorny path we’d rather not go. Or both. Or neither.