Subjectively, our thoughts come from nowhere: they just pop into our heads, or emerge in the form of words leaving our mouths. Objectively, we can say that thoughts emerge from neural processes, and that neural processes come from everywhere. Yohan John a computational neuroscientist at Boston University with a PhD thesis on the neuroscience of timed behavior argues that we don’t know exactly how thoughts emerge from the activity of neurons, or even how to define what a thought is in biological terms.
Without trying to understand neuroscience, you might’ve experienced the “aha moment” or might’ve found yourself asking the question “where is this thought coming from”? Citing Keith Payne, an associate professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, ‘When stereotypical thoughts occur to you, do you think they reflect your own personal beliefs, or something else, like the media, or society at large? In a recent study with Fleming Lei and Erin Cooley, I found that where you think they came from makes a big difference for what you think they mean.”
Basically our stimuli and our experiences have a causal impacts on our bodies, and the experiences become manifest in the brain as “clusters” of information. We are aware of a tiny fraction of the thinking that goes on in our minds, and we can control only a tiny part of our conscious thoughts. The vast majority of our thinking goes on subconsciously and very often can cause unwanted emotions and stress. The ability to control one’s thinking is the central debate about free will.
Many traditions — especially mindfulness meditation — encourage you to observe your sensory experience in a neutral manner. Observe your breathing, observe emotions, observe thoughts, and so on, without reacting to them. This observer technique works really well because it gives you something like an outside perspective on your own experience. You can watch your own mind, your reactions, your emotions, your behavior almost from the perspective of another person, and that is tremendously useful feedback to have. It leads to equanimity, and it can change your world!