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I have noticed that every time I end up "sitting down" and "thinking" about something as if it's some sort of exercise to plan out, I end up just repeating thoughts in my head or ultimately think things that serve no purpose. Thoughts seem to arrive at my mind unconsciously and automatically. If I see a valid or invalid reason to believe in something, it's happening automatically. If I don't have enough information about something, I'm realizing that automatically.

Sitting down and thinking seems like an extra, unneeded step. Not to mention the fact that it seems to just be a very uncomfortable process and seems to be the root of tons of anxieties.

Thus, the question remains: is "conscious", rather than unconscious, thought ever necessary?

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    "After careful consideration, I have concluded that thinking about things isn't useful. I am glad that I've reached this conclusion, it seems really insightful, and I plan to apply it to how I live my life going forward..."
    – Jedediah
    Nov 8, 2022 at 21:31
  • You could look in to Nonduality. This is a big part of the felt experience.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 9, 2022 at 1:27
  • There are many many things I do poorly. None of these things are valuable to humanity. Right?
    – Boba Fit
    Nov 9, 2022 at 1:28
  • Another idea is the "System 1" (fast, intuitive) and "System 2" (slow, conscious) distinction. You can get a lot done with the first, but the second is sometimes necessary. If System 1 was enough, we wouldn't have language, and you wouldn't be having those pesky thoughts.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 9, 2022 at 1:32
  • @Jedediah That's a bit of a strawman. The question is whether my thought is conscious/effortful or unconscious
    – user62907
    Nov 9, 2022 at 8:02

4 Answers 4

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What you describe is the free association technique popularized by Freud more than a century ago, which has since then become the indispensable tool in psychology. Here is how Freud describes it himself:

“So say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views you see outside.”

(Sigmund Freud, On Beginning the Treatment)

What happens here is that, by suspending one's train of conscious thought, one allows subconscious thought to filter into consciousness, so that we become aware of it. Many of these subconscious thoughts seem to be rather obvious, but bringing them to consciousness certainly has value, since in a spur of a moment or under stress people often overlook rather obvious things. How often has it happened to you to say or do something stupid and later realize that it was indeed obviously stupid?

However, we are having deal here with two parallel thinking processes - conscious and subconscious ones - which should not be confused. While subconscious might surprise us by keeping track of obvious truths that our conscious thinking has overlooked, there is no guarantee that the subconscious reasons in the same way as conscious. In fact, it certainly doesn't, and is prone to illogical thoughts and even thoughts that are incompatible with normal functioning in human society. To quote again Freud:

"The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life."

Freud was mistaken about many things, but his ideas about the basics of conscious and subconscious thinking are rather mainstream (by now). I suggest for deeper insight reading:

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Daniel Kahneman's work in Thinking Fast & Slow, pointed to the idea we have learned algorithms for 'good enough' responses, where the outcomes aren't important or the situation is familiar. So, learning is a crucial area. It may not be verbal cogitation. For a baby, basic play to understand solid objects takes intense concentration.

Research on 'flow states' in elite sports, shows that peak performance comes when non-relevant brain functions are dropped. Easier said than done though, it takes deep familiarity with the tasks, and meditation-like focus to not get caught up in arising verbal thoughts.

The Global Workspace theory of conscious awareness, suggests it is a faculty exactly for integrating unexpected inputs.

"If I see a valid or invalid reason to believe in something, it's happening automatically"

What about when doing math. We have sequences of operations to check things. Consider also a police detective. Or a barrister looking over a case. There is an automaticity to what arises in the mind, but we build mental pathways to give us that, then we develop methods for checking, or for when we get stuck.

Relying on intuition and instinct alone leaves you very vulnerable to cognitive biases. See Can a decision be something other than voluntary or involuntary?

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This seems trivial: That depends...

    1. ... on the concept of consciousness (given that even scholars have quite heterogeneous definitions of consciousness, nevermind about layman definitions...),
    1. ... on the goal that corresponds to such necessity (do I need to be conscious in order to think about me? Do I need to be conscious to fall asleep?).

For example:

  1. My own definition of consciousness (barely based on [1]) is recursive thinking.

Use whatever you like. Mine is about addressing the subject as an object, me as if it was a person I can discuss with. You are conscious when you think about your thoughts, about yourself, when the subject becomes the object (when I think about me, about how amazing is thinking). But you are not conscious when you think of any external object (e.g. How does this bolt fits in place? Will it rain tomorrow?). In simpler words, strictly, there is no conscious thinking [2] [3]. If you would pass your life thinking ONLY on external objects, bolts, rainbows, numbers, etc. you will never know yourself and therefore there were never be a subject to get consciousness about.

  1. a) My goal is to calculate x=1+1

Then, in such case, no, I don't need to be conscious to get such result. The proof is that even a computer can do it: a microprocessor can do it, a micro-controller can do it, a mechanical device can do it. Without consciousness.

  1. b) My goal is to open the door, not mechanically, but consciously: my keys are gone:

Then, yes, I need consciousness, because I need to ask myself (the subject, me, asks the object, my-self) where did I left the keys. Such process can't be done by a computer. For now. Perhaps one day computers will get conscious and able to integrate the subject (themselves) in the world of objects (doors and keys).

[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/npre.2008.2444.1

[2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/there-is-no-such-thing-as-conscious-thought/

[3] This experiment is amazing: make your biggest effort to pay full attention to your surroundings: the net result is the more the effort, the less the attention about the environment, which is evident: the brain is focused on trying to focus. As seen by a kid: https://stryptor.herokuapp.com/mafalda/08/051/ (See translation).

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Reasoning is a skill that one can cultivate. Your conscious thoughts going in circles, or getting stuck in non-useful tracks -- can be cured, by practicing how to reason more usefully.

If there is a question you need to solve -- What car to buy, whether your relationship is owrking out or not, etc. -- then reasoning can be deployed to help this process of thinking.

One tool is to make lists of what matters to you, in a car or in a relationship. Then weight or prioritize those features. It is often useful to read reference books on god/bad relationships, and good/bad features of cars (Consumer Reports is a great reference on cars, there is a lot of good popular advice on relationships). That reading will be helpful in adding to your list, and dropping some items off, and giving you background to evaluate what is left.

If there are several options you are considering, try numerically weighting your priorities, then numerically scoring each option against them. Then sum up the scores. you are likely to have a "better" choice through this process.

Now compare this reasoned choice to your intuitive gut. Do they agree? If not, then examine the details in your intuition that are pushing you in a different direction. Are there aspects of the weighted choice that you overlooked, or are not weighting properly? In this way, one can refine one's reasoning, and either bring it into sync with your gut, OR -- if you realize your gut feel is overweighting something that you rationally know is incorrect, then learn when to overrule your gut.

Ultimately, you want to use your intuition AND reasoning both usefully, and bring them into sync.

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