Thinking across Cultures

By Donald M. Topping; Doris C. Crowell et al. | Go to book overview

16
Structural Relations in Thought Sequences

Benny Shanon The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

You are sitting in your armchair, reading a book and listening to the radio. The announcer makes a comment, and this triggers a train of verbal mentations that pass through your head. One thought leads to another until you come to realize something, reach a conclusion, face a dead-end or simply halt. Whichever is the case your mental soliloquy has come to an end and you now feel that your head is clear. Thought sequences of this type are familiar to everyone. They consist of finite, ordered progressions of discrete phrase-like thought expressions, and they are characterized by having well-demarcated beginnings and ends; in general, the sequence is no more than half a dozen states long, although some sequences are much longer.

Thought sequences are interesting because they constitute a phenomenologically well-defined domain which is a genuine, spontaneous expression of the workings of the mind. The number of such natural cognitive sequence types seems rather small: Natural discourse, day- and night-dreaming, free singing, and communicative gestures are domains that come to mind, and apparently there are not many others. Thought sequences are of further interest because they seem to define the natural resolution of consciousness. At the basis of this appraisal is the observation--supported by both psychoanalysis and reaction-time cognitive psychology--that people are conscious of only part of their mental activity. The relationships between consecutive expressions in thought sequences may thus be regarded as comprising the constraints on this subset and in this respect be viewed as defining the grammar of human verbal-like self-awareness or consciousness ( Shanon, 1981).

The study of thought sequences is based on the method of introspection for there is no other way by which the sequences could have been collected. The use of introspection in psychological research is notoriously problematic

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