Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Speed of Thought

Last month, when I posted The Genius of Pac Man, I didn't realize that Pac Man's 30th anniversary was only a month away, else I'd have saved it for yesterday. No matter. If you haven't already read it, feel free to click the link above in honor of the anniversary.

Do you think in sentences? I sometimes like to take a walk in the early morning, before work. The weather is nice this time of year, and it's quiet, and it gives me a chance to reflect on "things". As I allow my thoughts to roam where they will, I find myself thinking in sentences.

"I should wash the car this weekend."

"What can I blog about this weekend?"

"Get a load of me! After being unemployed for five months, I've only been back at work for four weeks, and I'm already obsessing about the weekend!"

As I mentally formulated these sentences in my mind during recent walk, I suddenly realized that this is a redundant mental activity. I had already finished the thought long before I'd finished mentally assembling it into words.

I believe that we think in concepts, not in language. Language is a tool for communicating the concepts to others. The concepts themselves don't take nearly as long to formulate as it takes to communicate them.

Before Firefox became an alternative web browser, it was a fictional fighter jet that Clint Eastwood stole from the Russians. Remember that movie? If you saw it, you may also remember that one of the features of this cutting-edge Russian weapon was thought-control. No cumbersome pushing of buttons or pulling of control sticks. The pilot merely had to think what he wanted to do, and the plane would do it. The only problem was that, as it was a Russian aircraft, the pilot had to think in Russian. At one point, Eastwood's character couldn't seem to launch any defensive missiles because he was thinking about launching them in English. Realizing his mistake, he repeated the thought in Russian and launched the missiles just in time to avoid certain disaster.

How ridiculous! We don't think in words! As anyone who has ever looked at an E.E.G. readout will tell you, we think in little squiggly lines! A mental image of an airplane launching missiles would be neither Russian nor English.

The advantage of this advanced thought-control technology was supposedly speed. A pilot could launch a missile much more quickly by just thinking about it as opposed to having to think about launching the missile, then remembering what control makes that happen, and then physically activating that control. I could see this advantage backfiring, though. It may well be that thoughts are a bit too immediate. If a pilot encountered an unknown aircraft, simple paranoia might cause him to instinctively think about shooting it down. By the time he had a chance to identify it and realized that it was, in fact, a friendly fighter jet, or a Boeing 747 full of tourists, he might already have launched six missiles at it. Or what if you had a somewhat dyslexic pilot in the cockpit? As the plane approached a particularly high mountain peak, it might nosedive straight into the ground!

Exploring this idea a little further while taking my walk, I made a conscious decision to stop mentally formulating my thoughts into sentences. Sure enough, I found that an unending stream of concepts, perceptions and emotions suddenly flowed through my brain very quickly. But I also found these concepts, perceptions and emotions to be very fleeting. It seems that, for me at least, mentally formulating my thoughts into sentences helps to solidify them. It makes them more substantial and lasting. Without some sort of structure, thoughts become almost dreamlike; all jumbled and disjointed.

This post was mentally conceived in about 0.7 seconds.

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