Science of Thought

imageMy days are full of epiphanies and ah-hah moments, often because I learn something new and I’m piqued.

Sometimes the epiphany arrives like the UPS delivery chap who knocks on the wrong door.

Like the package I can’t keep, the epiphany is one where I learn I’m wrong about something.

Sometimes our mistakes make us better teachers.

To get a handle on the kind of work I do–which looks at how meaning is constructed in text and in the mind–I often dip my toe in foreign waters.

Sometimes that means learning how the mind works.

It is amazing how little I know.

One of the solid theories we toss around in communication is the notion that we pay attention on two different levels–one superficial; the other more deep and lasting.

The peripheral level is described as a route–which sounds like a road or pathway–that pays scant attention while the central route of processing is described as a deeper, more thoughtful method of thinking through issues.

Advertisers refer to the peripheral route as “top of the mind,” while central processing takes on adjectives like deep.

Visually speaking, a picture of the model shows an image where superficial thoughts dot the surface of the brain while more thoughtful processing occurs within the core.

But when I asked my neurologist whether we process information along these two routes he said, nope.

The processing theory is a metaphor of how the mind works: it’s not a snapshot that resembles thoughts. Thoughts don’t actually flutter on the surface ready to be dusted off while others lay buried within our brain’s core.

Still, we persist in describing the mind metaphorically. The lovely parcel of thoughts and dreams seems more elegant than mechanical.

And I like to imagine the mind as something other than a squishy mass of jello-like mousse infused with electrical charges that help us think, swallow and poop.

Picture by Robert Fludd, 1619, from


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, neuroscience, science, science communication, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Science of Thought

  1. One thing I find revealing about the total context of how we process can be seen through things like Tourette’s which brings with it the inability to harness any meaningful mediation over words and behavioral ticks that are emotional in nature. This is also true of later stage Alzheimer’s. People with a Broca’s aphasia will sometimes repeat a single word while thinking they are parsing sentences and phrases, except for basic numbers (learned when first connecting verbally to mommy and daddy) and emotionally charged words (typically swear words). I guess it should not come as a surprise since our higher cognitive functions are far newer and less developed than those deeper limbic regions of ourselves.

    It has occurred to me how we are far more prone to behaviorally echo the emotional dynamics in our individual developmental environments and higher cognitive functions, including linguistics, are often a reporter and explainer that justifies a repeat of that deeper emotional language spoken through behaviors, far more than the decider we frequently delude ourselves into believing they are. Far too few of us wake up and develop the discipline to move with intention in our lives. I suspect that will change when we understand ourselves better and decide it is important to tend to that emotional linguistic part of ourselves.


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