amoebaAre there units of thought? An interesting conversation here between Asifa Majid and Jon Sutton. There are a number of interesting points, but the one that I found most thought-provoking was the reference to searching for those tantalising units. I think I had been lazily assuming that any such search had been abandoned long ago – if not quite with the search for perpetual motion and the universal solvent, then at least a while back.

I may, though, have been mixing up two or more distinct ideas here. In looking for the units of thought we might be assuming that there is some ultimate set of simplest thought items, a kind of periodic table, with all thoughts necessarily built out of combinations of these elements. This sort of thinking has a bit of a history in connection with language. People (I think Leibniz was one) used to hope that if one took all the words in the dictionary and defined them in terms of other words, you would eventually get down to the basic set of ideas, the ‘primitives’ which were really fundamental. So you might start with library, define it as ‘book building’, define building as ‘enterable structure’, define structure as ‘thing made of parts’ and feel that maybe with ‘thing’, ‘made’, and ‘parts’ you were getting close to some primitives. You weren’t really, though. You could move on to define ‘made’ as ‘assembled or created’, ‘assembled’ as ‘brought or fixed together’… Sooner or later your definitions become circular and as you will have noticed, alternative meanings and distinctions keep slipping through the net of your definitions.

The idea was seductive, however; linked with the idea that there was a real ‘Adamitic’ language which truly captured the essence of things and of which all real languages were corruptions, generated at the fall of the Tower of Babel. It is still possible to argue that there must be some fundamental underpinning of this kind, some kind of breaking down to a set of common elements, or languages would not all be mutually translatable. Masjid gestures towards another idea of this kind in speaking of ‘mentalese’, the hypothetical language in which all our brains basically work, translating into real world languages for purposes of communication. Mentalese is a large and controversial subject which I can’t do justice to here; my own view is that the underpinnings of language, whether common or unique to each individual, are not likely to be another language.

Could there in fact be untranslatable languages? We’ve never found one; although capturing the nuances of another language is notoriously difficult, we’ve never come across a language that couldn’t be matched up with ‘good enough’ equivalents in English. Could it be that alien beings somewhere use a language that just carves the world up in ways that can’t be rendered across into normal Earth languages? I think not, but it’s not because there is any universal set of units of thought underneath all languages and all thoughts. Rather, it is first because all languages address the same reality, which guarantees a certain commonality, and second because language is infinitely flexible and extensible. If we encountered an entirely new phenomenon tomorrow, we should not have any real difficulty in describing it – or at least, it wouldn’t be the constraints of language that made things difficult. Equally we might have difficulty working out the unfamiliar concepts of an alien language, but surely we should be able to devise and borrow whatever words we needed (at this point I can feel Wittgenstein’s ghost breathing impatiently down my neck and insisting that we could not understand a lion, never mind an alien, but I’m going to ignore him for now).

So perhaps the search for the units of thought is not to be understood as a search for any kind of periodic table, but something much more flexible. Masjid refers to George Miller’s famous suggestion that short term memory can accommodate only seven items, plus or minus two depending on circumstances. This idea that there is a limit to how many items of a ‘one-dimensional’ set we can accommodate is appealingly tidy and intuitive, but it obviously works best with simple items; single tones or single digits. Even when we go so far as to make the numbers a little larger questions arise as to whether ‘102’ is one, two, or three items, and it only gets worse as we try to deal with complex entities. If one of the items in memory is ‘the first World War’ is it really one item which we can then decode into many or an inherently complex item?

So perhaps it’s more like asking how many arms an amoeba has. There is, in fact, no fixed set of arms, but for a given size of amoeba there may well be a limit on many pseudopodia it can extend at any one time. That feels more like it, though we should have to accept that the answer might be a bit vague; it’s not always clear whether a particular bit of amoeba counts as one, two, or no pseudopodia.

Or put it another way: how many images can a digital screen show? If we insist on a set of basic items we can break it down to pixel values; but the number of things whose picture can be displayed is large and amorphous. Perhaps it’s the same with the brain; we can analyse it down to the firing of neurons if we want, but the number of thoughts those neurons underpin is a much larger and woollier business (in spite of the awkward fact that the number of different images a digital screen can display is in fact finite – yet another thorny issue I’m going to glide past).

And surely the flexibility of an amoeba is going a bit too far, isn’t it? Masjid points out some evidence that our choice of thought items is not altogether unconstrained. Different languages have different numbers of colours, but there is a clear order of preference; if two languages have the same number of colour words, there’s an excellent chance that they will name more or less the same colours. Different languages address the human forelimb differently, some using words that include the hand while others insist that the two main halves are spoken of separately, never the arm as a whole. Yet no languages seem to define a body part composed of the thumb and first half of the forearm.

Clearly there are two things going on here; one is that our own sensory apparatus predisposes us to see things in certain ways – not insurmountable ones that would prevent us understanding aliens with different biases, but universal among humans. Second, and perhaps stranger, reality itself seems to have some inherent or salient forms that it is most convenient for us to recognise. Some of these look to be physical –  a forearm just makes more sense than a ‘thumb plus some arm’; others are mathematical or even logical. The hunt for items of thought loosely defined by our sensory or mental apparatus is an interesting and impeccably psychological one; the second kind of constraint looks to raise tough issues of philosophy. Either way I was quite wrong to have thought the hunt was over or abandoned.


  1. 1. Richard Kennaway says:

    Do you know the work of Anna Wierzbicka ( on semantic primitives? She claims there are indeed language-independent primitive units of meaning with which all others can be defined. I don’t know how her work is regarded by other linguists, and she isn’t mentioned in the article you linked, but there it is.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Thanks, Richard; looks interesting.

  3. 3. Jayarava says:

    Dividing thought up into units was a preoccupation in ancient Indian philosophy, particular of the Buddhist “Abhidharma” variety. One of the key experiences of intensely concentrated meditation, in which one is completely withdrawn from sensory experience, is that mental activity seems to come in slow-moving units. Extensive taxonomies of such units and their relations were constructed and passed down through the centuries and still form an element of modern Buddhism. These Abhidharma taxonomies are exactly like a periodic table of thought.

    While the value of the taxonomies themselves is dubious, the experience in meditation is one that I have yet to see accounted for in theories of how the mind works.

  4. 4. Hunt says:

    Using a language centric approach to thought decomposition ignores the fact that if thought is decomposable, it’s no doubt so for animals that have no or limited use of language.

    One possibility is analogous to the “semantic network” idea of meaning, though it’s not necessarily the same thing. What gives things meaning? Other meanings and their relationship to the meaning under question. What are thoughts made of? Other thoughts. More than likely, this is a simplification, since thoughts also include feelings, perceptions, automatically elicited memories, and other things. But let’s take it as an approximation.

    So then the question becomes are thoughts ultimately composed of other primitive thoughts, and what are those? Or are thoughts really defined irreducibly by other complex thoughts in a free-floating manner?

    OR, All of this may as well be wrong and thought is composed of non-thought.

  5. 5. VicP says:

    Interestingly science is differentiating or dis-integrating or de-integrating structures to come to better understanding while neurons under normal conditions are doing the exact opposite.

  6. 6. Peter says:

    Jayarava – are there any good sources on those taxonomies online that you would recommend?

  7. 7. Hunt says:

    Interestingly science is differentiating or dis-integrating or de-integrating structures to come to better understanding while neurons under normal conditions are doing the exact opposite.

    The focus on neurons in brain science is a little strange when you consider it in comparison to other “organs” (if you want to call a brain an organ). It would be a little like focusing on heart muscle cells when studying cardiac systems. It’s pertinent, but hardly the whole picture. That’s why I don’t consider higher level consideration wrt the brain a waste of time. What does the “brain organ” do? Part of it is thinking. So while considering what thoughts are made of might strike some as unscientific a speculation as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, it’s really no less scientific than realizing that the heart ultimately functions to distribute nutrients to the cells of the body.

  8. 8. VicP says:

    Like reducing rain down to water droplets and the molecular dipole effect, thoughts may yield an eliminativist account of certain neuronal interactions and binding with subsequent interactions of different brain structures etc. Like a modified description of Leibniz Mill, imagine the gears made of soft rubber, well such gears could not grind wheat because it is really the forces of nature transmitted through the gear inner structure. Same apply to neurons where the outer structures are originating inside as well, somehow harnessing or utilizing the forces of nature. Brains perceive larger environments, hence my Theory of Supercells wrt neuronal interactions and structures.

  9. 9. Jochen says:

    I wonder if we’re not overstating the idea that thought is like a language. After all, as Hunt noted, there are non-linguistic animals (and humans, such as pre-verbal children) that one shouldn’t deny the ability to think (in some form) by fiat. And indeed, if thought were simply verbal, shouldn’t we essentially experience no trouble expressing what we think—after all, we’d just have to say out loud what we say to ourselves? Yet I find myself often searching for the words to express my thoughts.

    Perhaps it’s the case that language really is just an after-the-fact gloss on our thoughts, a pretty wrapping slapped onto pieces of thought to make them readily transferable, but not itself intrinsic to thought; in such a case, analyzing thought like language would be unlikely to really lead anywhere.

    Perhaps language even, to some extent, constrains thought—since there’s already some Buddhism in this thread, one might point to the language-skepticism especially the Chan/Zen tradition inherits from Daoism, where language (very roughly) is viewed rather as a falsifying agent—what you talk about are not the things as they are; those can never be talked about. So perhaps our language-centeredness in fact forces our thoughts (or their expression) into some discursive framework that at best imperfectly and approximately reflects the real state of affairs.

  10. 10. Callan S. says:

    Thinking language based thoughts may simply be a series of audio recalls like people can envision a visual image.

    Might be an interesting experiment to attempt to spend a week or a month attempting to think only in images from image cards (so as to be able to assemble the cards for others to see/to communicate without having to sit down and draw it all)

  11. 11. Hunt says:

    A question to ask those who are bilingual or more (as I assume Jochen is), do you think in natural language? Do you think in German, in English, in other languages? I could ask myself this for English; unfortunately I’m not versed enough in other languages give a comparison. For some reason I think it would be interesting for bilinguists to answer this.

    For myself I would say, sometimes I think in English, sometimes not. It always seems a deliberate, forced effort to “talking to oneself.” I can almost sense the language centers of my brain tapping the fluid streams of thought. Actual thinking in a fluid sense is non-lingual.

    This view obviously supports the idea that language is really a veneer that obscures fundamental thought.

  12. 12. VicP says:

    Whether we are talking thoughts or language, it is all neural activity. We may think in abstract concepts but the language we pass between each other is scrubbed for some type of clarity, packaged,then passed to others who unpack it. I would say it all involves the brain observing the brain or the mammals with advanced language have the larger frontal lobes. At the bottom would be our more fundamental drives and emotions etc. Storytelling which is the unique human ability to recall events and metaevents starts can be everything from folklore, religion, history to science explaining human and cosmic origins. Article says there are 6 arcs to literature:

  13. 13. Sean C says:

    That is a lovely post, thank you.

  14. 14. Jochen says:


    A question to ask those who are bilingual or more (as I assume Jochen is), do you think in natural language? Do you think in German, in English, in other languages?

    It depends on the occasion. As I’m composing this post, and thinking about the attendant issues, I think in English; otherwise, say in conversations with my wife, I’d probably think in German. (Although since I read lots of texts in English every day, sometimes that comes easier to me, and I struggle to find the right words in my native language…)

    Most of my thinking, at least, conscious, deliberate, reflective thought, tends to be linguistic—often in terms of conversations, in fact, sometimes with an imaginary partner, sometimes with myself. (I win lots of arguments in my head. Doesn’t always transfer so well to the real world…)

    I’ve heard people say that they think mostly in terms of pictures, without a linguistic component—to me, that’s nearly unimaginable. I’ve usually got some sort of narrative running somewhere in my head. (Although when I work on a mathematical problem, I guess my thought process is closer to something image based—I visualize equations and manipulate them, or visualize the next step in some derivation; the same thing goes for things like playing chess, not that I’m terribly good at that.)

    I’ve observed, though, that I can stop the narrative process without losing anything—so, if I’m in the process of formulating a thought in my head, I can stop at a half-sentence and still know what it’s about. So it seems that, for me at least, there is some non-narrative forerunner to my thoughts.

  15. 15. Hunt says:

    I think that captures the way it seems to me pretty closely as well, but I separate the narrative from actual thought, and I suggest this is universal. That is, there really isn’t anything such as “thinking in English”, or your language of choice, it’s just that the narrative appears so seamlessly with the silent process of thought that that seems to be the case. You might think of it as subtitles to thought.

    To me, actual thought, behind the words, is only partially deliberate. You might repeat the words “So where does the blue wire go?” several times, and the realization comes to you more or less involuntarily. I think we kind of “herd” thought, but we don’t control them.

  16. 16. Hunt says:

    And of course, keeping with the Eastern motif of the post, this gets into the meditative process of monitoring thought, which I’ve experimented with in a limited way. First experiences with meditation are like entering a cacophonous hall of voices, which you realize is your normal mind. Gradually just by a process of observation the hall begins the quiet a little. By “gradually” I mean it may take several days or weeks of regular practice. If you observe closely enough you can discern a slight delay between thought and verbalization.

  17. 17. VicPanzica says:

    They are sitting there in the dark like different parts of our brains interacting. Initially they recall their childhood experiences and fascinations with science and thought, a fascination which they never lose and it all begins with a mention of the evolutionary narrative. Significantly they are eating throughout the discussions.

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