Thoughts on Thinking (Two Tweets)

I saw two tweets last week that I can’t stop thinking about. First, this one that got everyone on Twitter talking about the way they process thoughts.

I think I’m the second type. I *can* think in sentences, if I try, but its always a conscious effort. I have to imagine myself having a conversation, or I do something I call “writing in my head”, which is a very deliberate search for the words for something. I now understand that some people don’t have to make that effort at all, but that sentences pop up in their head all the time. I’m a bit jealous. It would save me so much time if I didn’t have to do the thinking and the word-finding separately!

It also explains why I have such a hard time with “morning pages” or other stream-of-consciousness writing exercises. And it explains why in writers’ groups some people just can’t wrap their head around the concept of outlines, while I absolutely need an outline so that I can later find the right words for the framework of ideas.

But here’s the thing. I think this way of thinking, with abstract thoughts that whirl around faster than you can find words for them, is also related to this other tweet I can’t stop thinking about.

Now, let me first explain that when I say I “can’t stop thinking about” these two tweets I have barely any recollection of the actual words in the tweets. I was able to find them again by remembering the username of one person and two words from the other tweet, which I combined with some guesses until Twitter search brought me to the right place. When I thought about these tweets I just had flashes of vague ideas. I would remember how people reacted in surprise when they found out that they didn’t think in the same way as other people. I imagined how this would have changed the way they thought about other people’s brains. I thought about my own way of thinking. “Do I think in sentences?” I thought, deliberately and consciously as a sentence. Yes, I can, but not usually.

Usually when my brain has an idea the only thing I can verbalize about it is “Oh!”. Then a bit of a frantic scramble when I realise people heard my “Oh!” and are now waiting for me to share the thought. Rapidly searching for words. “The…the things. The tweets. They’re the same thing, kind of.” The words aren’t ready yet for the thought, and I sound unprepared and immature.

That’s why it took me several days to formulate this thought. I not only think in abstract concepts, but I also don’t like to speak spontaneously in formal discussions, as mentioned in the second tweet. My absolute least favourite assignments in university were the ones where you had to jump into a discussion and participate. Everything goes so fast! I can’t listen to them and think of my own ideas at the same time. I need some time to process.

And now, having had time to process, I wonder if these two tweets are not about exactly the same thing. Maybe the people who prefer to share a finished and polished thought are also the people whose thoughts appear as abstract ideas. I simply could not share thoughts as they pop into my head because the thought doesn’t come with words.

Does that make sense? If you’re a person who loves participating in rapid discussions, are you also someone who thinks in sentences? Or vice versa (like me)?

Writer, science communicator, musician. Find more of my writing at Forbes.com, Undark, Nature, Nautilus, The Scientist, Hakai and other places.

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