Thought formation

In order to take care of our own thought-hygiene, it’s important for us to have some understanding of how our thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are formed. The process of forming thoughts is complex, and we are far from having a detailed understanding of it. However, we can imagine thought formation as a four-step process.

Step 1: True, objective reality

Does it exist? Some people think yes and others think no, and it’s hard to prove it one way or another. One thing is clear though: if objective truth does exist, people can’t perceive it directly. Our perceptions of the world are flawed and incomplete.

Fig. 1: The idea formation process, visualized in 4 steps.


A flow diagram with 4 bubbles connected by arrows. First bubble: True, objective reality. Not directly perceived by humans. (May not actually exist). Second bubble: Sensory perception: sounds, colours, light and dark, touch, taste, smell. Third bubble: In the brain: sorting and processing. Fourth bubble: Ideas and beliefs about the world.

Step 2: Sensory perception

Even at the level of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, our perceptions often contain errors. Our brains often take shortcuts in order to provide a complete picture. For example: peripheral vision is black-and-white, yet when I look at the room I am in, it doesn’t seem to me that the parts of it at the edges of my vision are without colour. Another example is change-blindness: when we focus on one particular thing, we don’t notice changes in other parts of our field of vision. This is demonstrated in the video The Invisible Gorilla. In this video, participants in an experiment have to watch a video of a group of people passing a ball to each-other, and count the number of times the ball is passed. Thirty seconds into the video a person in a gorilla suit walks across the screen – but half the participants watching the video fail to notice the gorilla!

Step 3: In the brain

This is where the magic happens! Large amounts of data are filtered, sorted, and transformed into useful information. We know little about this process, and it is often treated as a “black box” whose contents and inner workings are unknown. One thing that we do know is that at this stage many simplifications are made, and errors are introduced. The errors are of both types: random errors, and systematic errors (also called systemic bias).

Step 4: Ideas out in the world

Once a person has formed a thought or an idea, she will usually release it into the wild, where it can interact with other ideas. She may tell her idea to others explicitly, or (more commonly) the idea may influence her behaviour in many subtle ways, which may impact upon others.

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