“The word thinking is arguably the most problematic word in the exploration of pristine experience.” (Hurlburt and Heavey, 2015, p. 151).

University of Nevada Las Vegas psychologist Russell T. Hurlburt and his colleagues have been engaging in a series of studies involving beeping subjects randomly to have them jot down whatever they are experiencing at the moment of being beeped. This procedure has revealed five common features of everyday inner experience: inner speech, inner seeing, feelings, sensory awareness, and "feature 5." Feature 5 is hard to describe. It’s as if the concept of feature 5 doesn’t fit with our understanding of inner experience – even though we may all experience this feature. So what is feature 5? It’s something Hurlburt calls “unsymbolized thinking”, which he describes as follows:

Unsymbolized thinking is the experience of an explicit, differentiated thought that does not include the experience of words, images, or any other symbols. For example, if you had been beeped a moment ago, you might have experienced an unsymbolized thought which, if expressed in words, might have been something like I wonder what Feature 5 is. But if this was an unsymbolized thought, there would have been no experienced words--no experience of the word 'wonder' or of 'Feature 5.' There would have been no experienced images--no seeing of a beeper or of anything else.” - Russell T. Hurlburt Thinking Without Words https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pristine-inner-experience/201111/thinking-without-words accessed on 11/20/15 at 6;11pm

Not everyone agrees that unsymbolized thinking even exists. For some, this may be a matter of how thoughts are conceived: as verbally mediated mental processes (Shulman et al 1997). Others may be skeptical of the idea of unsymbolized thinking because the act of self-reflection in itself produces verbal versions of experiences that may not have originally involved words or other symbols. Poor research design may also contribute to the misimpression of thoughts as steeped in language. For instance, during experience sampling studies, how subjects are questioned about their experiences may bias their response, such as if asked what they were just “thinking” (Hurlburt et al 2015. It would be better for researchers to just ask what the subjects had been experiencing.

There are cognitive spaces between the words and images. These spaces aren’t empty, but unless their content is converted into a form that can be maintained in working memory, they will likely be forgotten in a matter of seconds. We tend to remember what we have reported to ourselves, which requires our experience be in reportable form – and for the most part, that means in words and images.


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

Hurlburt, R. T., and Heavey, C. L. (2015).Investigating pristine inner experience: implications for experience sampling and questionnaires. Conscious.Cogn. 31, 148–159. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2014.11.002  

Shulman, G. L., Fiez, J. A., Corbetta, M., Buckner, R. L., Miezin, F. M., Raichle, M. E., et al. (1997). Common blood flow changes across visual tasks: II. Decreases in cerebral cortex.