Thinking Human Beings

~ Article written by Shawn Dwyer and L. Michael Hall PhD ~

Most people do not “think.”  Most of the time you are not thinking!  Does that strike you as shocking?  Or does it not shock you because you simply do not believe them?  Of course, it all depends on what I mean by the word “think,” doesn’t it?  So, here we go.


If you are entertaining thoughts in your mind that you have thought of before, is that “thinking?”  Or is that just rehearsing what you already know?  If you think something for the tenth time or the hundredth, are you thinking or just recalling?  If thinking is the mental effort involved in coming to understand and know something, then regurgitating former thoughts would not actually be thinking.  So merely have a thought in your mind does not necessarily mean that you are thinking.  Thinking involves more and different.

If we start with this definition of thinking, then thinking is not what you think it is.  It is not merely having a “thought” in your head.  Consider the experience of reading.  Typically when I read, most of the “thoughts” that I entertain in my mind are not my thoughts, but someone else’s.  In fact, that’s generally why I’m reading, I’m wanting to know or understand what someone else has thought and written about something.  So I’m not actually thinking, I am receiving.  I am typically in a passive state of mind, one of receiving thoughts and letting ideas run through my brain.

There’s very little mental effort.

Now true enough, from time to time the words that I’m reading stimulate me to actually think- that is, to think of things I had never thought of before.  In that moment I am thinking- I’m entertaining new ideas, ideas I have not thought of before.  Now my brain is working as it is representing, comprehending, organizing, considering, and “working over” those ideas.  In the end, I may or may not accept and agree with the ideas- yet regardless of that I have engaged in mental effort.  I have thought.

Using this definition to define real thinking- then the mental effort of thinking is considering, understanding, presenting and working on something that I don’t know.   If I already know something, then I’m just barely “thinking.”  I’m remembering, recalling, going over something already known.

This means that real thinking begins at the border of what you don’t know.

Ah, so “thinking” starts when you do not know something.  Now you have to think. This actually identifies seven categories of using your mind or brain that are aspects of mindlessness- of unthinking.  While the following are all forms of “thinking” in the most general terms, they are also forms of pseudo-thinking.  A “thought” is being processed, but the person is not using his or her full potential of thinking.

Reactionary – Toxic- Automatic – Aristotelian – Superficial – Agenda – Certainty

Several of these forms of thinking operate unconsciously- in

(1) reactionary thinking, you usually react without your mind being in gear!  So also in many forms of

(2) toxic thinking (limited beliefs, superstitions, childish thinking patterns, cognitive distortions).  And obviously with

(3) automatic thinking, whatever you previously thought and learned has dropped out of conscious awareness and is now operating outside-of-awareness. 

(4) Aristotelian thinking speaks to how we polarize things, create false dichotomizes and then live in an either-or world. 

(5) Superficial thinking is lazy thinking that is shallow, naive, and escapist.  It is usually borrowed thinking in that the actual ideas that you are thinking come from other people- they are the political or religious bullet points that you’ve heard and that you now repeat in pretty much a mindless way. 

(6) Agenda thinking seems like real thinking, but it is not.  Instead of entertaining an idea you might disagree with, you filter it out due to your ego-investment in a particular ideology, belief, understanding, political party, etc.  Your thinking is highly motivated to see things in a certain way and confirmation bias enables you to keep supporting it. 

(7) Categorical thinking shows up as certainty wherein you “know” something “for sure.”   And that’s the way it is.  Period.  No question.  Case closed. This seems like thinking, yet it is really the opposite of thinking- in the state of certainty the mind is closed.  The defenses are up.

Real thinking begin when you start considering something that is new to you, unknown to you, something that you are confused about, or what you do not know.  Now isn’t that interesting?  Thinking begins when you work an idea over in your mind- and this usually means an idea that you have not thought of before.  Thinking begins when you do not understand something.  Once you understand- you stop thinking.  (Well, most pepole do, I hope you are an exception to this generalization.)  And what are you experiencing when you do not understand something?  You are confused, perplexed, doubting, questioning, etc.

Now you know why I wrote, thinking is not what you think it is. And why most of us do not do a lot of actual thinking. And that brings up another fascinating factor about human beings- most people are highly motivated to bring an end of thinking as soon as possible. Why? We do not like feeling confused, perplexed, in doubt, struggling with questions in our minds!

Who does?  The answer is thinkers.  Scientists, explorers, researchers, and children. Ah children! Is that why they are also such passionate learners?

Is that why they never seem to be an end to their questions?  That is until we send them to school and the school knocks it out of them as they learn to “shut up, be still, don’t move, and don’t ask so many questions!”

Then they grow up un-curious, bored and depressed, unable to ask probing questions, poor learners, turned off to reading, un-creative, stuck, fearful of making mistakes, hate being confused, run away from perplexity and complexity, etc.  No wonder they need a Neuro-Semantic cognitive make-over.

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