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What is Thinking?


Explanations > Thinking > What is Thinking?

Recognizing | Remembering | Reasoning | Imagining | Deciding | So what?


Thinking is the ultimate cognitive activity, consciously using our brains to make sense of the world around us and decide how to respond to it. Unconsciously our brains are still 'thinking' and this is a part of the cognitive process, but is not what we normally call 'thinking'. Neurally, thinking is simply about chains of synaptic connections. Thinking as experienced is of 'thoughts' and 'reasoning' as we seek to connect what we sense with our inner world of understanding, and hence do and say things that will change the outer world.

Our ability to think develops naturally in early life. When we interact with others, it becomes directed, for example when we learn values from our parents and knowledge from our teachers. We learn that it is good to think in certain ways and bad to think in other ways. Indeed, to be accepted into a social group, we are expected to think and act in ways that are harmonious with the group culture.


At its most basic level, thinking answers the question 'What's that?' As the real-time stream of information from the outer world hits your senses, you have to very quickly identity what it is and what you need to do about it, particularly if it could be a threat.

This engages your remarkably powerful pattern recognition system that can recognize a friend standing behind a post. Pattern recognition can fail, which can be embarrassing when we greet strangers as friends, yet a few errors is a small price to pay for the ability to recognize obscured things with a mere glance.


Memory is an annoying thing and we sometimes have to put in extra effort to bring to mind even trivial knowledge. Curiously, we have a lot less problem in naming the things we see as compared to bringing to mind something we already have stored away. The 'tip of the tongue' effect happens where we feel we can almost recall something, but it is just out of cognitive reach.

Skill in recall can be enhanced significantly by using memory methods that deliberately put more effort into encoding.


Reasoning uses principles of argument to assess facts and causality to determine what actions may lead to what outcomes, and how probable success or failure might be for various strategies and tactics. It typically employs a great deal of 'if-then' thinking and hopefully leads to reliable plans, though the future is far from certain, no matter how confident we are. Indeed, we many biases which invade our reasoning and lead us to confidence when perhaps we should not be so certain.

A critical element of reasoning is relating, where two elements of knowledge are related in some way. It is often in this connection between things that new understanding is created. This includes relationships such as 'A is caused by B', 'A and B are similar in some way and different in others', or 'If A does X then B does Y'.


Another factor that distinguishes humanity is our ability to be creative and imagine possible futures. As an extension of reasoning, this becomes less certain but still lets us think about what may happen and how we can influence this. This includes achieving outlandish goals and avoiding potential disasters. Imagining is also a part of art and play where outcomes are not serious but may yet be life-changing.


The thought process is tied up with emotions, though not always as we wish, especially when the more primitive emotional process overrides the more reasoned thinking, leading us to rash actions that we may later regret. It can be very helpful to pay attention to emotions, both in ourselves and in those we wish to influence. If we can cognitively understand what is going on, then we have a far better chance of avoiding pure emotional reactions and choices.


Deciding is the last step before acting, where we consider various options and choose those that seem to be most advantageous. Even though we may be confident at the moment of decision, there are many well-understood decision errors and traps into which we regularly fall.

Decisions are based on an assumption of correct basic data. With false facts or theories, even 'reasonable choice' will come to the wrong conclusions. As computer people say, 'Garbage In, Garbage Out' (GIGO). This can be a trap when the truth of 'facts' cannot be tested. This is one reason why we pay close attention to the trustworthiness of sources. Academic journals, for example, are often trusted because they refuse to publish papers where methods or data seem weak.

So what?

Thinking makes what we are, yet it is a complex and deeply flawed process, even as we may be quite confident that we are correct in our thoughts, conclusions and consequent actions. Changing minds activity often needs to have a significant effect on how people think, yet it can be harder to change thoughts than we may hope. If we can understand how the other person is thinking, including when their reasoning is strong or weak, then we will have a far greater chance of persuading them.

See also

The SIFT Model, Memory, Decision errors


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