The question, “When did humans start to think?” is difficult to answer. Based on evidence from cave art and jewellery, most modern anthropologists agree that symbolic thinking evolved before the first Homo Sapiens walked on the savannah. Recent research that explored how communication and thinking skills were needed to create the sophisticated stone tools of Homo Erectus, placed the emergence of human-like ways of thinking as far back as 1.8 million years ago.
Our ancient ancestors developed language as a way of communicating with each other to survive and thrive. Similar to learning a new language today, shared verbalised sounds became associated with objects or actions to communicate. Over time the sounds, images, and the relationships between things became internalised in the form of thoughts. Our ability to represent and explore the world using symbolic thought provided a significant evolutionary advantage and has led to the world we inhabit today.
Our minds develop by making sense of our environment, which includes the tangible, physical world as well as intangible information and knowledge. Similar to the phrase, “You are what you eat”, our mind becomes what we feed it. So, if we have a mental diet that’s the equivalent of fast food, our thinking will be a bit limited. The same goes for the quality of thoughts we entertain. As well as structuring around input from the environment, the brain also builds pathways from what we pay attention to. Like the cow paths on a hillside farm, where one cow follows another until a well-trodden route develops, the neural pathways in our brain form around repeated use, which become automatic habit patterns. The more we entertain negative thoughts, for instance, that we are not good enough, the more thoughts of this quality will arise.
After all, our mind is simply doing its best to serve us with what we most frequently focus our attention on, in other words, what we like. Similar to a smart speaker, but in this case with Alexa or Siri acting as our inner critic.
Thoughts emerge from a range of sources: they can arise in response to previous thought, from an emotion; something perceived through our senses, or from physical sensations in the body. The first of these, about how one thought leads to another in a stream of thoughts, can be useful and productive, or sometimes not so useful. Intentional thinking includes things like planning, problem-solving, calculating, and analysing. Unintentional thinking is when our minds wander and take us on a mental journey, often about the past or future. For instance, taking a shower we may find ourselves thinking about something that happened on the holiday last year.
The second is when thoughts arise with emotions. A good example is when you stub your toe on a heavy object that someone has left on the floor. The sudden pain causes anger to quickly arise, often followed by thoughts about who’s to blame. The significant thing about thoughts from emotions is that thoughts tend to amplify and sustain emotion for much longer than if the emotion is acknowledged and simply allowed to dissolve in its own time. Researchers estimate that emotion like anger lasts about 45 seconds, but much longer when our thinking gets involved.
Some of the key skills in cultivating mindfulness are the ability to observe our thoughts as well as to notice their quality. When we notice thoughts, rather than judging them as good or bad, it’s much better to focus on whether they’re useful or not useful; helpful or not helpful; nurturing or depleting; expanding or limiting. Simply noticing the thought and asking yourself these questions can be very powerful, especially when the thoughts are recurring and negative.
Human thoughts are powerful things. Thoughts have taken us to the moon, helped us understand the vast universe, composed symphonies, and unravelled DNA. By discerning the quality of our thoughts, we give the mind feedback so it can serve us more usefully. Like saying to our mind, “Give me more useful thoughts that are expanding and nurturing and fewer that are limiting and depleting”.
Practising gratitude is a great example of quality of thought in action. Even after what may seem like a difficult day, bringing two or three things to mind that you can be grateful for before you go to sleep is the equivalent of feeding the mind with the best healthy and sustaining food you can find. Each of us has thousands of thoughts running through our heads each day. By noticing the quality of our thoughts, with curiosity, openness, and kindness, we improve the quality of our thinking as well as our health, happiness, and wellbeing.
Suggested weekly practice
- Notice and observe the quality of your thoughts as helpful, expanding or nurturing, or not helpful, depleting, and limiting.
- See if you can spot repeating habit patterns as they arise, that no longer serve you or others.
- Observe the quality of thoughts that arise when you feel a strong emotion, applying the same helpful or unhelpful discernment as outlined above, and see what difference that makes.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to observe thoughts as well as notice the quality of thoughts.