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How does thought work?


Recently I have been reading up on psychology.  As I was reading, I noticed an interesting pattern that was never addressed; there is no real explanation of the process of thought.  What i mean is that behavioral psychology begins describing our thoughts as reactions to stimuli and then explains how our thought processes lead to our actions.  What I want to know is how a simple reaction to stimuli turns into a sentient mind that thinks for itself and is aware of its own existence.

The first thing I started thinking about was the idea of reaction to stimuli being the function of the brain.  Now this is partially right, our brains constantly take input from the sensory organs and react to this input.  We see a wall in our path and we move out of the way, we get hungry and are driven to eat, or we are tapped on the shoulder and we turn to see what touched us.  But there is more to it than that.  If we only reacted to stimuli then every gust of wind and every new color would panic us.  In a brilliant article by Steve Grand, he explains that our brains are capable of prediction.  This prediction helps us in reacting to stimuli that we encounter all the time or that we generate ourselves, which is why you can’t tickle yourself.  So this ability to predict adds another level to our mental processes but where does thought come into this?  Beyond this point, I can only find studies and theories about how our thoughts can change or influence our behavior.

What I am wondering is where thought itself comes from.  We as humans are not an animal that is only reaction to stimuli, and in addition we are one of a select group of animals that are self aware.  What allows this to happen?  I’ve been thinking about it and the only idea that I can come up with is that perhaps the mechanism that allows us to predict, if advanced enough, could allow us to process hypothetical stimuli and pull from past experience to create the process of thought.  It could be that sentience is just a further advancement of this process as well, I mean what better way to predict our environment than to understand our role in it with a kind of outside perspective of ourselves in relation to the world and time.  But these are just my ideas, and I don’t really have the qualification to claim myself as an expert on any of these fields of study.  So feel free to chime in and let me know what you think.

By the way, If any of you reading this aren’t familiar with Steve Grand or his work I would recomend checking out his blog. He’s always been a hero of mine for his work in Artificial Life technology and computer science.  And if you can, why not help fund his latest project.  I would donate myself but I’m not in the best situation right now when it comes to money so why not help both of us and say that I sent you. 😀

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