Friday, March 11, 2005

The Speed of Thought

I've been thinking about that inner voice you 'hear' as you think. Is that just what you're thinking - are you 'hearing' your thoughts? Or is it something different - perhaps only a subset of thoughts, those that are conscious? Can you have subconscious thoughts? (Of course most of our cognitive processing occurs below the conscious level, but can they properly qualify as thoughts?)

How fast can you consciously think? I seem to be limited by the speed of my tongue, which seems rather arbitrary and bizarre. Even though I don't actually use my mouth to 'talk' to myself, it still constrains me in some sense. It's as if I must employ imaginary correlates of the vocal organs in order to produce the imagined words in my head - and these imagined correlates are just as slow as the real things! I can't think a stream of words any faster than what I would be able to vocalise. Why is that? (And do others find the same thing?)

Do we really think in our spoken language, or is it just the end result? I vaguely recall reading a Heinlein novel where people were taught a much compressed language which then allowed them to think several times faster than usual. Could that really happen?

It seems pretty implausible to me. I guess it would speed up conscious thought, at least, by loosening the "vocal" constraints I described above. But I doubt it would greatly influence our underlying thought processes. I don't know much cognitive science yet, so I'm stuck with the notoriously unreliable method of introspection as my only source of evidence. But it seems to me that thoughts just kind of pop into my head. That is, most of the hard work seems to be done by my subconscious; my conscious mind just takes the credit!

I'm not even sure that all conscious thoughts occur in our spoken language. One can also think in images, for example. Further, it sometimes seems like I can have a thought that is purely semantic; a 'meaning' without any 'vehicle' (e.g. words or images) to carry it. They're not very clear, is the problem. I might have this odd 'feeling', and then nod to myself and think: "hmm, yeah, that seems right... now how do I spell that out?" So, unless I'm delusional (which I wouldn't rule out!), it looks like sometimes the thought may come first, to be 'translated' into language later.

A better example might be of that common experience where you are grasping for a word that is just out of mental 'reach'. You know the meaning of it, but you can't put it into English. You can't remember what word encapsulates the meaning you have (literally) in mind.

One last thing: have you ever noticed that, when shadowing another speaker, you hear your internal voice as being simultaneous with the actual speaker? I noticed this in my psyc lectures last week; I would imagine my inner voice 'talking' along with the lecturer, and I'd hear them both at the very same time! But it must take time for my mind to process what I hear and then reproduce it, so I think this must just be a nifty example of the difference between objective and subjective time that I've discussed before. (In short: my brain represents a later event as happening simultaneously with the earlier one. It then seems simultaneous to me, because all I have access to is the representation, not the underlying neural 'vehicle' that may have quite different temporal properties.)

If I tried to speak out loud, the illusion of simultaneity would be dispelled, of course. But why does the internal voice behave so differently? One might argue that a delay is involved in physically vocalising one's thoughts and then hearing them again. Or perhaps the brain can more easily manipulate the temporal properties of our representations of internal events? (That is, although the thoughts actually occur after hearing the speaker, we can more easily represent them as occuring simultaneously, which is why it seems to us as though they are simultaneous, when really they're not.)

Well, that was some fun speculation. Hopefully someone who actually knows something about this stuff can set things straight...

Update: Mixing Memory responds.


  1. I'm not sure I buy the claim that my "internal dialog" operates at the same speed as spoken utterances. I think we think we're "talking" at the same speed, but I've timed myself and it seems my internal speech is considerably faster. Obviously the speed isn't completely under my control. Further it "appears" like my internal speech is going at the same rate. (i.e. it seems liken normal vocalized speech until I actually conduct the test based on objective time rather than my psychological perception of time).

    I'm not about to draw any conclusions from one person. But it is interesting.

  2. Very interesting! I'll have to try that out myself some time.

    Another issue I've just thought of is reading. I can read several times faster than I can talk, but my thoughts don't seem to have any trouble keeping up.

  3. my internal dialogue is faster than I can speak BUT not a hell of a lot faster but you can tell the difference because if you start talking with your internal dialogue you will tend to get toungue tied. But I think it is similar because the speed at which you think is a habit and it is associated with the speed that you talk - thus you could probably think faster if your language was more efficient.
    If I am thinking on two tracks at the same time the second internal dialogue is probably a lot slower, "quieter" and more conceptual than the first one.

  4. That's a good point. I just tried doing some more attention to thinking and noticed that I sometimes appear to "skip" words and also blur together sentence fragments. Especially when I'm trying to think quickly. I wonder if the brain isn't just putting together 'blocks' and also dropping unnecessary data. Then whatever part of the brain is interpreting this and giving the "appearance" of speech fills the stuff in making it seem like you are "as if" talking.

    Try it. I was really surprised.

    This reminds me of way back in 5th grade. We were starting to read more complicated texts. My teacher kept stopping me because I was reading at a regular pace but my brain, unbeknownst to me, was replacing words and even fragments that I didn't know with guesses at synonyms. So to me while reading it appeared like I was reading every word but what I thought I was reading and what I was saying were two different things.

    I suspect phenomena like this is one reason why I don't think we have infallible access to our consciousness.

  5. One other thing I'd noticed before but which I just really noticed. When conducting an internal dialog with myself I appear to use other "signs" rather than just words. Sometimes I mix in words, images, text, and sounds. Especially for things I don't have a good word for or that are too long to say. I don't know if I just trained myself to do this and never paid it attention before. But it's rather interesting. What's most interesting is that if I don't pay attention to it I'd think I was just speaking in my mind.

  6. My experience is similar to that which others have reported here: I seem to think faster than I speak out loud, and I seem to think in "blocks of words," as well as in images, etc.

    Also: It seems to me that when I've just been writing a lot (e.g., when I've just spent several hours working on a paper) my way of thinking seems to be more "word-bound" than at other times. Another interesting thing is that when I sleep at such times, I sometimes have dreams about arranging sequences of words.

    I have the suspicion that in thought, "space comes before words" -- that we mentally represent words as being arranged spatially somehow. For instance, we might think of words as little blocks, and of language as a game in which you arrange the blocks into patterns according to rules. In this way, using words might be sort of like playing Tetris.

  7. David, what you say seems to fit in nicely with the Chomskian 'universal grammar', and the 'Language of Thought' ('Mentalese') hypothesis. It's funny though, that you seem to be suggesting the possibility of mental syntax without semantics, completely inverting one of the ideas in my post!

  8. I have moved all my very "thoughts" into this empty space, wherein I shall expound many truths about it's usage, performance and worth to the soul. If you have entered, you will find no coddling of humans and their belief's, doctrine's, practice's, ego's, hope's, desire's and/or etcetra. In other words, free your mind or get out of my presence at once!
    STEP ONE...

    The subject is Thought... and what of it?

    What is thought?

    Thought requires a brain. As babes, we have that brain. Data from our environment is fed to that brain through the five senses we all posses.

    The five senses allow us to assimilate knowledge and store it in the brain, first by means of a state of awareness and then by the Senses. For if not Awareness first then to what should the Senses report their findings?

    Now the Brain is physical but the Mind is what? So we shall call that Spiritual.

    Think on these five senses. They are not "Nothings", they exist and have substance else they could not perform a function. To identify their activities, source and purpose let's call them "Spirit Powers".

    And so, we are faced with two conditions, one physical and one spiritual to which the combination of our awareness and senses may be applied.

    How does this all work?... How do we actually "Think"?... How does the mind Learn? Picture's... all pictures... "Mind Pictures" we shall call them.

    How does an infant mind grow to enable it to form mind pictures?... Data stored by the mind as supplied by the five senses is released in combination onto a "Mental Grid". By such a function now revealed one might call this a miracle but, it is nevertheless a fact as we are all witnesses to it's validity!
    STEP TWO...

    What is the speed of Thought?

    Thought is the fastest thing we know of. Light is next but a real piker in comparison. But Thought has no physical essence to us, while Light does. Our five senses do not have the power to reveal Thought except "After The Fact" but Light is most ubvious. We are by the way, short in number by Four Senses (take it or leave it). If our minds were complete as indicated, then perhaps even Thought could be seen or caught (by the Spiritual Eye), but to what end I am presently at a loss to imagine, except possibly the ability to read another's mind. But I digress...

    Light we can observe, we can see photons because we have that power given us, the power to see Thought however has not been given to mortals.

    Now my speech borders on the Spiritual because how else to discuss the unseen?... But still I will try to forebear!

    If Thought is an entity of itself then we might imagine something like this for an anology to describe it's speed: What else but a trip to our furthest known planet Pluto and back! While there we inscribe our name on a large boulder. We look around to identify the area and we have the coordinates... Now returned to Earth we flash our thoughts to that same place... how long do you suppose it will take for you to visualize that same spot and the inscribed boulder on Pluto?... Heh!

    But, are you there as before?... No, but your thought is. But does this mean a part of your thought's is/are actually there?... For all practical purposes I must say YES! And again I digress.

    In Conclusion-

    Actually, we just went to Pluto together in mind. Will you deny it? Truly now, the mind/thoughts have no bounds except for the lack of knowledge of them on the posessors part, and instant access is also available to any so called Plane or Level that one may be so aware of whether it be imaginary or real! For if I say "Snow White" you see fantasy but if I say "Elvis" you see a non-fictional dead man... etc.

    Speed of thought? We have no measure, just anology. But enough to get a glimmer of what is involved in such processes.


  9. Richard,

    I understand exactly what you're saying. Some thoughts do arrive without having any evidence of a vehicle to have arrived in. No clear picture or word... just thought.

    Some people actually connect that with intuition. I'd like to talk more with you on the subject. Please e-mail me if you're interested.


  10. I think that added to these excellent observations regarding thought, I would add that thought is also color'd by parallel perceptions of past, present, future and fantasy. Our reactions dance between these realms. Perhaps thought is as fast as the speed of light for it dashes between these states at lightning speed and then, a fountain of conjecture erupts.

    I once thought all people could consider their thoughts as they were occurring. However, there is a limited population out there that can 'observe their thought structure' as it is occurring. A good example of this is catching oneself in an 'irrational thought' that one has given life to. Noting it and correcting it as a result of noting it.

    It takes the ability to be able to internalize and study self; 'To know thyself.'
    Seemingly when one 'sorts out' one's internal observations by utilizing language it seems direct these observations and put them in perspective where one can dispassionately judge the merits of one's thoughts and expand upon them. (I believe that many of the greatest books of observation written, only occurred because the writer sat down and began the procedure of tapping his mind.) The more asked of consciousness, the more consciousness occurs. While many schools of thought (enlightenment, self-actualization & more) have existed since people like ourselves existed) I would note that the transcendental community of the late 1800s provided interesting literature in this regard.

    As one thinks one realizes 'that' all thought is an energy source, then the matrix is not as farfetched a concept as one might believe. Obviously some of us are born that are driven to understand our psyche and we use a process of thought that only another who uses the same or similar process would understand.

    Thought is energy, energy is matter and matter cannot be destroyed, only changed. That which does not evolve becomes extinct. Consciousness is an evolving energy and our bodies house that consciousness. Mass times energy times the speed of light, is thought. The purpose of life is to evolve thought and at the end all consciousness will realize itself and awaken to the fact.

    I know few minds that can accept they are riding on a spec of a planet and that accordingly to the size and vastness of the universe, we have not even the size of a flea. But the vastness of our thought is immense. If we were all truly 'aware' of this simultaneously than we would feel the reality of existence.

  11. I am of the opinion that thought propagates at a faster speed than light.


  12. Consider timing that starts with the circulation of both blood and plasma into and through the brain and in particular, the temporal left side (speech center) in relation to the neurological activity (Ionic and neurotransmission).
    Don't forget white matter is considerably more 'faster' than grey matter.

    If thought is faster than light, perhaps this is the reason thoughts are prone to 'see' the future. That reletivity thing seems to apply...But I somehow doubt it.

    A single thought is still probably a cloud of neurological activity...Not a single line that can be clocked independantly.

    I wish I had a hit of acid.

  13. This probably doesn't help the conversation much, but most of the time, when I'm thinking, I think in pictures - vivid pictures, with lots of details, colors and actions. How do I compare that with speech?

  14. The Human Mind Yes it is where god
    relates to us I find mine works like so ,,A Feeling comes,It if grasped quickly or it last long enough it may leave an impression that will give me a thought,That in turn may give me something to Think about,,,FeeLings i talk about are/can be related to 'War',dont walk through the door theres a bullet on the other side
    a gut 'feeling some call it' or been here done that 'dejavue'

  15. Recently a black mass was found in space 'Light' bends around it,there is some spectulation it may be the orgin of the Big Bang,, If so the Black mass that light can not penertrate could indeed be the HELL
    talked about in most FAITH based religons,again if so has the expanison of the comos come to its limit? and is the Bang about to resverse as some think it will?, for
    mine 'thought' is quicker than light
    which i am told is 186,000 mph, how fast are my thoughts?,,sorry don't know?

  16. Back to the though vocalization. I have a problem in which I obsessively overthink everything. In social situations where I am particularily engrossed in what's happening/being said for example. I often try to follow multiple lines of thought simultaneously, herein lies the problem. I vocalize these thoughts internaly, so when I'm trying to follow so many "Internal conversations", well, immagine sitting in a crowded room following 2 or 3 conversations around you while still participating in your own. Your conversation is bound to suffer for it. I have experimented with drugs and found that in these situations certain things that supposedly dulled the mind allowed me to think clearer (Codeine for example). Thinking about it afterwards I assumed it was because I was unable to multitask, so i didn't try. for example, car A going twice the speed of car B a four times the distance will arive at it's destination after the slower car. Just the other day though, I noticed it's actually because I'm able to follow a thought process (even long or complex ones) through to a conclusion without having to vocalize them. I'm able to think faster. The next day I considered the possibility that my perception was simply altered so I thought I was thinking faster. Then I thought of how I read. When I first pick up a book, I read pretty slowly because I vocalize the text. Often if I'm just reading a sentence or two with other people, I'm the last to finish. When it comes to a whole novel, Few people I know can finish a book faster than me. The reason being, soon after I start reading I stop vocalizing. When I stop vocalizing, I fly through the pages .


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.