How Much Of Our Thoughts Are Our Own?

If you take away everything we have, we are left with our thoughts. It would certainly seem like they form the very core of who we are, or our individuality. If I don’t own my thoughts, what else could I possibly own?

Related: Listen to an episode of the Intellectual Roundtable Podcast, where Lee and Michael discuss this question: ‘How much of our thoughts are our own?’ We also discuss another question as well, ‘How much is enough?’

And yet great efforts are made to try and control how we think. A movie can make you cry, an ad campaign can make you buy a product, a politician can earn your vote. Manipulating someone’s thoughts to make them do something is incredibly powerful.

I want to believe that what I think is somehow up to me and me alone, but I know that isn’t true. Hence the question: How much of our thoughts are our own?

Related questions: How can we determine how we have been manipulated? What makes you you? Why do we like what we like?

2 thoughts on “How Much Of Our Thoughts Are Our Own?”

  1. This is definitely a very heady topic. 😉 There are a lot of theorists out there that have explored how much our thoughts are our own. Bourdieu wrote about how learned, fundamental, deep-founded, unconscious beliefs, and values, come to be taken as self-evident universals. Foucault wrote about “subjugated knowledge”; the knowledge of the common people or of a particular region that is disqualified as “real” knowledge. But, this question makes me think most about Paulo Freire.

    Freire wrote about levels of consciousness. The first is “semi-intransitivity” in which people are simply focused on survival. The next is “naïve transitivity” in which people become aware of larger issues beyond their own survival, but they are prone to overly simplify them and, as a result, are very vulnerable to the persuasion of charismatic people and nostalgic responses. The highest level of consciousness is “critical transitivity” or “critical consciousness” in which a person is able to examine evidence, determine cause and effect, and form their own judgments.

    Taken together, these different theories about thought, knowledge, and consciousness make the case that we don’t start out with our own thoughts exclusively. From the beginning, we have the thoughts of others heavily layered over our own. Exercising control over what we think is therefore a conscious act of self discovery, and a political act that can involve rejecting “self-evident universals” and elevating “subjugated knowledge.”

    In honor of thinking, I tried to make this as heady as possible!

  2. How much of our thoughts are our own?

    Not as much as we like to think. And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

    Manipulation — someone subtly or not-so-subtly controlling what you think in order to get you to do something is clearly bad, and we should do what we can to protect ourselves from that.

    Similarly, it doesn’t benefit us as individuals or as a society to get swept up in a mob mentality and to think the way that others think. We need to have independence of thought, and use our reason to make decisions and drive our behaviors.

    And yet persuasion is vitally important to our lives. We need to hear the voices of people who are around us, who might disagree with us, and be open to the possibility that we might not know the best thing to do in any particular situation. We can’t do that if we are so strong in our personal convictions that we never change our minds.

    But if I am willing to change my mind, I introduce the possibility of someone changing it for me, and it may not be in a way that benefits me or my world.

    I guess the best thing to do is to learn the methods of persuasion or manipulation. When you watch a commercial, try to figure out how it is trying to get you to buy a product. In hearing a politician’s speech, look beyond the direct message and try to see how the word choices are meant to appeal to you in various ways. When reading a newspaper op-ed, see if you can spot the ways the author might try to convince you. Then once you understand and can recognize them, you can make a more informed decision about what is best for you.

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