Is thinking in words a good thing?

Thinking often manifests itself in the form of a voice in your head.
Why would this be? Why not just think in pure thought, whatever that means?
An article in New Scientist of 1st June 2013 deals with the topic, with particular reference to the work of Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky.
My own amateur theorising on the subject makes me speculate that people don’t actually think in words – the words come along afterwards to wrap the thoughts up in manageable packages that can be marshalled into some sort of order (possibly for the purpose of communication to others).
The fact that people often can’t put their thoughts into words seems to point to this.
We’re all aware of thoughts that we can’e express, which is possibly evidence that ‘verbal’ thoughts are secondary manifestations of thoughts rather than being primarily and pure thoughts in their own right.

philosophy of language cartoon

(Please do not copy this cartoon without permission. Get it here)


The process of inner verbalisation of thoughts definitely has its advantages though. It helps you to distill concepts down to easily manageable phrases.
Here’s an example.
I remember in my youth watching a controversial politician making an inflammatory speech on the television. He was predicting riots in the streets. (The politician involved was actually Enoch Powell, but I’m pretty sure the speech in question wasn’t his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech). It occurred to me that the very fact that he had made this speech might provoke people to start rioting in the first place – in effect his speech might be the very thing that brings about the event that he predicted. I mentioned this insight of mine to a friend: it took me quite a long time to explain it, as the concept was still quite a nebulous and ill-defined thing in my head. After I’d delivered my ponderings my friend said “You mean it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” I’d never heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy at the time, but I knew instantly that that was what I meant. From that day on the whole convoluted process by which the very act of stating the possibility of an event can bring about the event itself  was condensed in my head to the shorthand term “self-fulfilling prophecy”. A very useful phrase indeed.
There is a downside to such handy condensation of concepts into easily graspable phrases though: concept ossification.

Once a useful verbalisation that encapsulates an idea is coined, the idea can become rigid and fossilised due to a lack of critical rethinking.
(Ossification is perhaps a very appropriate term here, because the phrases that encapsulate concepts should be thought of as the bare bones that give the concepts structure:  bones that form nothing but the skeleton and that need fleshing out in order to be given life and meaning.)

Ideally ideas needs revisiting and reassessing periodically in order to check that they’re still valid.
This downside of encapsulation is probably far outweighed by its upside though, which is that you don’t have to spend all of your time thinking things through from first principles.

A metaphor for this upside may be that of the car. The downside of a car (or at least the downside that’s relevant to this metaphor) is that you hurtle past the countryside without seeing it in detail (did you notice that rare spider in the grass on the verge just then?), but the upside is that you can travel a hell of a lot further than by foot.

As the article in New Scientist mentions, Vygotsky proposed that words in inner speech may function as a tool that transforms the task that is being considered, in a similar way that an Allen key transforms the task of assembling flat pack furniture. Putting thoughts into words gives the thoughts a concrete form that makes them easier to handle. (My note: not too ‘concrete’ I hope, as  concrete has some of those rigid qualities of ossification  that I mentioned earlier.)
Putting thoughts into words may also give the thoughts access to parts of the brain that they would otherwise be denied access to, such as those areas that deal solely in processing language.

New Scientist


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