How To Think

A mysterious question that has been bugging me for ages:

How exactly do we think thoughts?—especially good ones?

The unsatisfyingly default answer:

“We direct our attention to whatever we want to think about, and with enough concentration, good thoughts manage to shoot out, kinda like how we squeeze out the last bit of toothpaste from the tube.”

The problem with the explanation is that it doesn’t explain. It’s almost as good as “Lightning struck Jim because Zeus was mad at a girl who didn’t want to sleep with him.”

How, for example, does attention create thoughts?

My Improved Answer:

Attention does not lead to thoughts. Instead, attention, like the proverbial Berkeley who sees the falling tree, only brings to consciousness the thinking that’s going on all the time. Thoughts are like mutations. Mutations don’t happen because God wants things to go a certain way. They just happen.

When we concentrate, we register those mutations and start doing natural selection. We juggle different answers to the same problem that are already there in our mind, and judge the good ones from the bad. A good thought comes not out of the blue, but from this process of semi-random generation followed by conscious selection. It arrives not by a mysterious feat of will, but through passive, non-judgemental observation of thoughts followed by deliberate choice.


When you can’t think of anything. Don’t try to force out a thought. Rather, give in and observe. You always have answers. It’s just that the answer may seem so stupid that you’ve decided, with almost no conscious effort, to ignore it. Don’t do that. Register that stupid thought. And then wait for the next one to appear, because it will. If you’re lucky, the new one may not be so stupid. If not, keep stalking those thoughts, because thoughts, like Ivy League kids, hang out with each other. Watch one of those thoughts and wait for their friends to come. You might just find a hottie there that you can pick up and show to your friend. Bingo, there’s you’ve found your Cogito, Meister Descartes.

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