This Susan is so funny … oh, I have to drive the dying car … did I put out the stove … why is this man so strong … my finger feels weird … I feel like I know this man … here comes the sun, doo-doo-doo-doo.
We often find ourselves in an endless cycle of thought. And every so often, we try to stop this endless stream of thoughts, telling ourselves to just stop thinking. But can we really or can we stop thinking?
It depends on how you define "thinking," said Michael Halasa, an associate professor in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The thought, which is the result of a chemical shot between brain cells, can happen at both the conscious and unconscious levels, he said.
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The type of thinking we are aware of, such as the endless thoughts that pop up when we try to sleep, can in theory be silenced. This is probably meditation, Halas said.
But although meditators seek to do so, it is not clear what part of the idle state they can actually achieve. "I don't know if [completely stopping thinking] is theoretically possible, and if so, I think it would be incredibly difficult to test," says Julia Kam, a cognitive scientist at Knight Lab at UC Berkeley.
But it's clear that "meditators are much more attuned to their thoughts," Kam told Live Science. "So when they need to be focused on something and their mind is shifting, then they are just much better at focusing that shift of attention."
There is a difference between thinking and realizing that you have thoughts, she said. So if you ask anyone what he thinks and he says "nothing," he just can't help but be aware that he has thoughts, Kam said. For example, you may be deep into thinking about a relationship or an upcoming test, and you only realize it when someone taps you on the shoulder and tears you off, she said. People who think of "nothing" could also have streams of conscious thoughts that don't tell a coherent story, Halasa said.
But the brain actually never stops "thinking" in a broader sense. Most thoughts actually happen in the background without us being aware of them and "there is really no way to rule these things out," Halasa told Live Science.
If you see a familiar face in the crowd and think you know them, you may not be able to figure out how to recognize them immediately, Halasa said. But maybe hours later, you will suddenly remember. This is the result of your brain "thinking" in the background, he said.
Even decision-making occurs largely unconsciously. For example, some of that background thinking leads to what we call "gut feeling," Halasa said. "Many times, our brains crunch a lot of numbers and spit out the gut feeling we eventually go through." We don't always have conscious access to our brain's decision-making process, and sometimes we create a story to explain the decision ̵
Kam agrees that how you define "thinking" changes the answer to the question. "If you mean thinking, like having an internal dialogue with ourselves, then yes, we can stop having that internal dialogue," Kam said. But if thinking means not focusing attention on something more specific, "I think it will be a lot harder for the lair."
Even if I sit here reading this, thinking thinking sends messages through a chain of neurons in the brain. So, if in any way we manage to stop thinking consciously or to reach an "empty state of mind" through meditation, the brain will not come out. There will continue to be thoughts – we just won't be aware of them.
Originally published by Live Science .