03 November 2009

How Do People Think, Generally Speaking?

I have a question for everyone. It just recently occurred to me that part of the way I think might not be common to the way most (i.e. mentally normal) people think.

The way of thinking I have in mind is the sort of quasi-epiphany manner of thinking; the kind of thinking where a whole rush of complex thoughts lands in the mind, inspiring wonder. I don't mean rapid thoughts - the quality of this is sudden but whole, and while exciting, it doesn't gallop away in all directions as the rapid thinking of mania does. It has a finality to it and a completeness to it that rapid thinking, in my experience, doesn't.

It's not the kind of epiphany thinking that goes along with delusions, either. When it happens, there's a feeling of exaltation but not anything like god-likeness, nor is it a revelation of 'the one right way of being, doing and thinking' fixation that can accompany psychosis. It's more like an immediate inductive understanding of part of the world, or a sudden intellection of the functions and forces of part of the world. That's how to put it; an immediacy of inductive comprehension.

If it only occurred while I am thinking about the nature of things, something which I, as a philosopher, I feel very fortunate to spend a lot of time doing, then I would not wonder whether it were unusual. However, it also just happens upon me while I'm trying to decide what to have for dinner. It also happens pretty often, at least once a week and sometimes more frequently, even daily.

Does this happen to anyone else? Is this something that qualifies as a mental health symptom or is typical of the human thought experience? Is it a by-product of too much philosophical reading and discussion? Whatever it is, I'm very happy to have it. It's very useful when it happens in the middle of a seminar, among other things, and very enjoyable besides. I wouldn't want to lose it. I just can't settle for myself whether it is normal or not. Any thoughts?


  1. It's a mode of thinking I experience very, very rarely, and usually only when I'm thinking about academic topics and I get a sudden 'Oh, I see, that works like that' moment. Most of my mental activity is like slogging through a heavy bog - there's a sense of achievement when I get where I'm going, but, blimey, is it hard work. If you get to experience it often, then I say you're very lucky, and you should just relax and enjoy it. :o)

    (But, of course, I'm not a 'normal' person either...)

  2. Good. I thought I might have gone haywire. I think I shall chalk it up to too much discussion, or perhaps the right amount of discussion, of philosophy. I've been surveying my fellow students at the pub too and have gotten one weird look, five 'yes, me too's, and two no's. Admittedly, this is nothing like a good statistical sample but I think it's enough for me to conclude that I don't need to see a doctor. Not that I probably would have, so let's say that it's enough for me not to berate myself for not going to a doctor about it whenever I get to the self-berating stage of my next nervous breakdown, assuming that I will have one and I do assume that's a safe assumption.

  3. Katherine – I just found a comment I’d left in notepad (I do this with longer comments since blogger has so often eaten them and left me discouraged) but neglected to actually publish! I notice you have now drawn your conclusions and closed the enquiry but, for what they’re worth, I thought I could still add my thoughts…
    ..‘My belief is that the type of thinking you describe is exceptional but not abnormal (i.e symptomatic of a mental-health problem) or paranormal. Personally I don’t think I experience anything like this with any kind of frequency although when I was studying intensely in my 20’s, I seem to remember having sudden ‘epiphanies’ of this nature, just as you state – whilst frying an egg or cleaning my shoes!
    These days, I am more prone to experiencing the ‘racing-thought’ syndrome and while some of these thoughts might seem novel and inspired at the time, they are generally far too nebulous or erratic, making it near impossible to isolate and sustain any one in particular. Like Aethelred, real, robust intellectual-work is a hard slog for me but I’m usually able to pass-off semi-baked notions thanks to a reasonably good facility with language and a small amount of actual training in critical-thinking (of course I don’t imagine these would fool you for a moment!)
    There is one instance of epiphany-like comprehension (or should I say ‘perception’) I do get much more often yet it would seem to be strongly symptomatic of high or hypo-manic states in my case. That is – my visual apprehension of reality is very much heightened so, for example, I may be approaching a rose-bush and rather than seeing the standard array of pink flowers, I perceive something more like a shimmering excitation of atoms as if I’d caught in a heartbeat the instant of transition as the phenomenon absorbs and rejects the wavelengths. I’m not sure this is an ‘intellectual’ process but it’s certainly immediate and has granted me a very direct, intuitive comprehension of basic physics (re. colour-theory, at any rate).
    I’ve read that this is not an uncommon experience for some people following sensory deprivation or fasting for example. Also it can be an effect or side-effect of certain psychotropic drugs. All of which suggest to me that it is not a ‘normal’ way of thinking or perceiving and, while wondrous and enlightening, might be regarded as abnormal (but surely not dysfunctional?). I can’t make up my mind whether it is ‘hallucinary’ or in fact a more accurate perception of the true nature of things (i.e as in flux and reactive rather than static and fixed). Either way, I’m glad to have it when I do (it does stop altogether with average-to-low mood however)’.

  4. It's perfectly normal for us extra-terrestrial walking apes. I get it all the time. Thank god I keep notebooks handy these days.

    It's been a delight to have found your blog tonight (via LoopyWeedy). You're fighting over the questions I'm fighting over - and with much more coherence too!

    I'm looking forward to reading more.

    Ok, atb, take care, Dx (who is off to roll in the snow - so you've been forewarned).

    p.s. Your Foucault post set me thinking... If Jaspers says madness is defined by the incomprehension of the sane (sorry, paraphrasing from memory), then the very definition is a tautology. Because if J(aspers) deemed me mad, and K(ate) deemed me sane, and L(ots of other people) begged to differ, and the M(an on the street) deemed Jaspers and all his like completely bonkers, then where does that leave the definition? :-) I could carry on through the alphabet, but the snow calls.

  5. I'm glad to hear from you, David, and glad you like the blog!