Thoughts About Thoughts

Thoughts  What are thoughts, anyway?

Synchronicity, again: two different things came together in the last few days that had me thinking about thoughts. What do they actually mean?

I just finished reading Freda Warrington’s breathtaking Elfland. In this book Aetherials, people born of a fantastical Otherworld, live in our world, indistinguishable from humans except to each other. I loved the intensely magical atmosphere in this novel, and was caught up in the wondering what has become of the Gateway between our world and the magical Spiral, and what the future holds for both worlds. I recommend this to anyone who is interested in contemporary fantasy. There was one thing, though, that rankled a bit. Almost every character was caught up in deeply destructive behavior because of persistent, uncontrollable thoughts that amounted to obsessions. Some of these were thoughts of love, particularly for the main character, Rosie, who spent decades pining for love of a boy she hardly spoke to and who never expressed the slightest interest in her. Others were thoughts of revenge, or of terrible guilt. These characters saw themselves as helpless before the strength of these thoughts, and it seems the author saw them that way as well.

I’m not a fan of this way of thinking about thought. Thoughts are important, of course. As a cognitive psychologist I know that we don’t actually respond to reality, but to how we think about or interpret reality. Still, we don’t have to be slaves to thoughts and ideas; we can change how we think about or interpret our experiences. I especially resist the romantic notion of love at first sight or the idea that we are helpless in the face of some mystic force of love. We are not destined to love one and only one person in the world for life. (The smart and outrageous Tim Minchin  expresses this view in his own way in the song If I didn’t Have You – go listen. Now.)  I can have sympathy for characters whose unhelpful thoughts overwhelm them, but only not when all the characters do so, and none of them seem to think there is any possible resistance. Even when Rosie tells herself she shouldn’t love the one who spurns her, she does it with a sense of helplessness: “I shouldn’t love him, but there’s nothing I can do.” Too much of this, and I want to slap people.

This is one half the the synchronicity I experienced. As I was reading Elfland and thinking of how much these folks were being driven by their thoughts, I finally discovered Invisibilia, a National Public Radio show that ran just 6 episodes before shutting down (temporarily, I hope). It “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” Through the miracle of podcasts I’ve started listening to the show from the beginning, and it is right up my alley. That first episode focuses on just the topic I’ve been thinking about: “The Secret History of Thoughts.” In this episode they investigate how psychology’s understanding of thoughts has changed in the last hundred years. We have gone from seeing thoughts as important reflections of our deepest reality, expressing who we really are, to seeing them as surface phenomena we can ignore or discount if we don’t like them. As I listened, I realized that this is what bothered me about Elfland. The story comes at thoughts from an older, Freudian perspective, while I take a more modern, cognitive or mindful view of thoughts.

Which of us is right? Well, naturally, I think I am. *smile* Whether that’s true or not, it helps me to understand why I wasn’t able to love Elfland as much as I otherwise would. Looking at the story with this better understanding, I can set aside my discomfort and become more open to the magic of the story.

See? We can change how we think about something. I just did.


3 thoughts on “Thoughts About Thoughts

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