Yesterday, my post was about language and thought. My interest in this topic stems from trying to communicate with my older brother who is autistic, low functioning and nonverbal. It is a mystery to me what, if anything, he is thinking. Today’s post is a first look at an attempt to explain thought, from many years ago.

What is thought?

Wikipedia offers this definition of thought: “…ideas or arrangements of ideas that result from thinking, the act of producing thoughts, or the process of producing thoughts. In spite of the fact that thought is a fundamental human activity familiar to everyone, there is no generally accepted agreement as to what thought is or how it is created.” [1] Not that helpful, is it?

I bought a book years ago with the idea of having the opportunity to read it some day. The book is The Neural Basis of Thought by George G. Campion and Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, published in 1934. [2] I wish to proceed slowly though this volume, as it may shed some light upon: the concept of thought; the history of thinking about thinking; and a theory about what causes thought in the brain.

The authors tout Neural Basis of Thought as a presentation of the neurological aspect of Campion’s 1923 theory: Elements of Thought and Emotion. One book reviewer did not think much of Campion’s volume, as he or she wrote the following in March 31, 1923 issue of The Spectator: “The publishers tell us in their synopsis of the book that Mr. Campion’s theory of the nature of thought is congruous with a biological view of the human mind and with the function of the neural elements in the cerebral cortex; but we have sought in vain for a theory of thought in Mr. Campion’s essay.” [3] Perhaps the ideas matured over the 11-year gap between that volume and the Neural Basis of Thought.

In addition to fleshing out Campion’s theory, the authors state their goal: to set the stage for establishing a fundamental psychological law that William James articulated in the final chapter of his posthumous Textbook (see below).  James explains the problem of assigning a one-to-one correspondence to a state of the brain at any one moment to a unique state of mind: 1) it is difficult to identify what happens when a thought corresponds to a change in the brain and what actually changes; 2) it is difficulty to identify pairings of mental facts with cerebral facts. James says it best, “We must find the minimal mental fact whose being reposes directly on a brain fact; and we must similarly find the minimal brain-event which can have a mental counterpart at all. Between the mental and physical minima thus found there will be an immediate relation, the expression of which, if we had it, would be the elementary psycho-physic law.” [emphasis added] [4]

Elliot Smith and Campion suggest that the solution to James’s requirements for a basic psychological law is based on ‘neural schemata’: patterns of neural impulses, which are “inferred and functional entities”. They propose that neural schemata are created for each concept and have connections peripherally, with sensory cells and centrally, with the thalami and other basal ganglia. “[A] nervous impulse passing through these schemata, whether from the receptor sense organs or from the thalami brings into what we call consciousness the particular concept or series of concepts which have become in the course of the individual life associated with the neural schemata being so activated.” [5]

Stay tuned for Sir Grafton Elliot Smith’s Evolution of the Mind.

[2] Campion, G.G. & Elliot Smith, G. The Neural Basis of Thought New York: Harcourt Brace and Co. 1934

[4] William James Textbook (1892) as quoted in Campion, G.G. & Elliot Smith, G. The Neural Basis of Thought New York: Harcourt Brace and Co. 1934 pg.6

[5] Ibid pg. 13

3 thoughts on “Thought

  1. Sounds like for a needle in haystack to me Jack. Not that your research is invalid, but the conclusion you are attempting to reach may have nothing to with your staring point. Not that I would be any better informed, but without entertaining all possible explanations, if one is needed at all then at least you limit yourself less. Although, I know for me personally the investigation of thought and what it is, how it operates is the fascinating part, and I am intrigued to read about what you discover.
    Warmest regards

    • Indeed it is (a needle in a haystack). Furthermore, they are not even looking for a physical entity – I should have made that more clear – and there is no way for them to know, or verify of they are right. The take away from this, which is verified, is the fact that the thalamus and other basal ganglia are relay stations to the cortex. This is just a look at historical efforts. I’m sure I’m not trying to come up with any conclusions. I’d be happy to reach any one that makes sense and is satisfying and even unexpected.

      Warmest regards,


      • At the very least it may well be narrowed down to a chemical reaction, or set of chemical reactions, but I don’t think that would be particularly conclusive either. I think the best way to understand it is by observing what it does, if you can define it at all in that way. Like any definition of an object or abstract concept, it does not describe what it is, but what it does. We don’t communicate in absolutes, because they really don’t exist. Everything is open to further exploration, and there will always be an exception to the rule according to hard science, so searching for definitive answers is a pointless task. But yes I agree, reaching a conclusion that sheds valuable light is invaluable. And if that wasn’t about as generalised as it can get then I don’t know what is! lol

        Warmest regards back

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