WITH hindsight, it is clear this has been puzzling me for years. It started with the realisation that I don’t always see things the way others do. Then I began to wonder what was going on inside other people’s minds. I don’t mean what they are thinking, but how they are thinking. What form does their stream of consciousness take – and could it be entirely different from mine?
Thinking about thinking is hard. Sure, you may have heard of inner voice and inner vision: there was that buzz about people who don’t have any internal monologue, and huge interest in aphantasia, the phenomenon where people have no mind’s eye. But there is more to inner experience than that. What about sensations and emotions and abstract ideas? How do these all mesh together to create thoughts? Why do certain things pop into our minds? And what makes someone prone to ruminations or anxiety?
To find out more, I turned to scientists who study the mind. I discovered that we are finally getting to grips with the different ways people think – allowing us to identify whether we think the same way as other people… or not.
Philosophers have mulled over the nature of thought since at least the time of Aristotle. A century ago, it was also a popular subject for psychologists. “But it got kicked out the door by behaviourists,” says psychologist Charles Fernyhough at Durham University, UK. “They claimed that it’s impossible to be scientific about the subjective nature of experience.” So, with the rise of neuroscience, psychology focused its efforts on objective, measurable phenomena. Thought became sidelined. But it wasn’t forgotten entirely. …