Thinking without thoughts: The new and commonly misunderstood phenomenon that is unsymbolic thinking
Unsymbolized thinking is alike any other type of specific and controlled thinking, except that it occurs without any words, images, or symbols. Read more about it here.
In psychology, we devote a lot of time and effort to the exploration of thinking. By now we have uncovered litanies of biases, heuristics, and schemas that differ between people, but surely, the way in which we think, the phenomenological experience of thinking, must be relatively consistent? Surprisingly, it isn’t at all.
A number of years ago I found myself at a party, talking about the film “what women want”. In the film, Mel Gibson’s character reads women’s minds by essentially eavesdropping on their inner dialogue, something I had always assumed was an artistic way of portraying thoughts for the sake of the audience. To my surprise, the vast majority of the people in this conversation actually experienced this inner speech, while some of them experienced a combination of inner speech and imagery, but much to the confusion of everybody there, I experienced neither. In fact, I realized that I was unable to experience my thoughts in any tangible way whatsoever.
Does this mean that I actually have never experienced a single conscious thought in the last 23 years of my life, or that I have the functional IQ of a sea sponge? Thankfully not, but what it does mean is that I am predominantly what is called an unsymbolic thinker.
What is Unsymbolic thinking?
What is Unsymbolic thinking? To effectively answer this, I will need to outline not just what unsymbolic thinking is, but also what it is not. Unsymbolic thinking is considered one of the 5 types of pristine inner experience, alongside inner speech, inner seeing, feeling, and sensory awareness. Unsymbolic thinking is thinking that involves very substantial, specific, and direct thoughts about any topic, object, or idea, but includes no words, mental imagery, or other conscious internal representation.
Unsymbolic thought is not some vague notion or fleeting thought, it is as specific as thinking “I wonder what would happen to Groningen if all electricity was suddenly cut off for 48 hours?” or “what lines of reasoning should I include in this blogpost of fewer than 800 words?”, but the key difference is that before I put these words onto paper, these ideas had no internal representation whatsoever. Like many other constructs in psychology, there is evidence to indicate that unsymbolic thinking is distributed to varying degrees across the population, and the amount that any one person experiences unsymbolic thoughts in their daily lives differs from person to person. Like any other style of thinking, a line of unsymbolic thinking can last seconds, minutes, or even hours. To paraphrase my younger brother, Unsymbolic thinking is “basically boneless thoughts”.
So why all the fuss about this way of thinking? To state it briefly, this incredibly fundamental phenomenon has only begun to be acknowledged in recent times, and as such represents an absolute goldmine of potential research. As of this time of writing, there seems to be an absence of a feasible theoretical framework to explain the mechanisms behind this way of thinking.
How many unsymbolic thinkers are there?
There seem to be more unsymbolic thinkers in the population than one might have initially assumed, with research by Russel Hulbert supplying an early estimate of as many as 9 out of 30 people experience at least some degree of unsymbolic thoughts in their daily lives, so the question remains, how do these people differ from other types of thinkers? Are they better at some tasks? Worse at others? Does their memory differ by capacity or mechanism? If they were to present with psychological problems, would their cognitive symptoms be voiced differently, and would cognitive-behavioral-based treatments have a similar or dissimilar effect on these people? The number of questions one could raise is practically limitless.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about all of this, is that for the longest time, unsymbolic thinking remained a largely unexplored phenomenon. Only in recent times, thanks to the work of researchers such as Russel Hulbert, has the field of psychology begun to acknowledge this arguably bizarre phenomenon. Furthermore, it is incredible that something so fundamental to the science of the mind such as the way we actually perceive our thoughts can vary so much, with new mediums only beginning to be explored. This raises the fascinating question if we have managed to miss a qualitatively different way of thinking for so long, what other unexplored constructs may still be hiding in plain sight?
Adam is a second-year psychology and honors student at the University of Groningen. Heralding from the green hills of Ireland, he enjoys the outdoors, a cheeky pint, and spending time with Willow, his round little shiba dog. His particular interests lie in clinical psychology, personality psychology, or any parts of psychology which explore the unusual.
Hurlburt, R. T., & Akhter, S. A. (2008). Unsymbolized thinking. Consciousness and Cognition, 17(4), 1364–1374. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2008.03.021
Persaud, N. (2008). How can i tell how i think till i see what i say? Consciousness and Cognition, 17(4), 1376–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2008.05.005