The subjective experience of thinking—instant poem

Photo of a jumble of bright yellow flowers on glossy insect-chewed leaves. They're from tarata bush, commonly known as lemonwood,
Thoughts have a form and a receptacle: us! A chaos of yellow tarata flowers, otherwise known as lemonwood

The subjective experience of thinking is, I’m guessing, different for everyone. How do you experience your own thoughts? Do you hear them or see them or feel them internally? Do our thoughts belong to us? Or do they have a life of their own?

Recently a fellow poet asked us questions of this sort and it got me, well, thinking. In my youth, I would have assumed that everyone has similar or overlapping subjective experiences. Now I know this is far from true.

So I’m wondering whether my own experience of thinking thoughts seems familiar or whether yours is different. Or indeed, whether you have ever considered (or care) what happens when you think.

I have thoughts

I have thoughts. Sixty-two hundred thoughts a day
I “have” and so do you but “having”
is a colonist’s illusion. How can I have thoughts
when, every waking, dreaming, semi-conscious moment,
thoughts have me. 

They are mice in the walls of an asbestos bach
locusts with briefcases yesterday hatched
sperm with psoriasis twinkling and stretching
into my skull and all my extremities 
in a frantic mycelium of thoughts.

Thoughts barge in, don’t knock at the door
familiar as sisters, foreign as tetrapods
hybrids of concrete and neurobiology 
a rash, a mash, a squash and a surge
of white-water thoughts.

Thoughts are a life force not of my making.
tiny shapes in sepia surging under my skin
they fornicate, prevaricate and procreate
to music that clickety clicks.
And sometimes thoughts

in a disparate cluster splice together 
stand up and claim a momentary unity
as a semi-formed soft-tech copyrighted notion
complete with a noun and a verb—
a thought temporarily new.

Then the thought accrues a few conjunctions
ready for contactless delivery 
to humans beyond the host, the person, me—
this convenient, passive, unwitting receptacle
and nursery of thoughts.

~Rachel McAlpine 2021~

Instant poems are hot off the press, rough and ready. I drop them in your lap because otherwise I would lose them and forget them. They’ll be severely edited if and when they are deemed worthy of my next book of poems. Meantime, I share them as a snapshot of a fleeting … thought.

The mechanics of thinking have long fascinated me. No matter how much science knows about the human brain (and that’s heaps now), we are still none the wiser about how this particular firing of neurons produces that particular thought. A particular mood, sure. A particular cognitive or sensory activity, sure, we can literally see it as it happens on a screen, thanks to various kinds of brain scans.

But why is the associated thought “must renew passport” rather than “must go to Tokelau“? Why does that flash happen when I think “what’s twelve times twelve?” rather than “Vogel bread on special“?

Our subjective experience of thinking is just as mysterious as the mechanics, or even more so. When you are thinking, what does this feel like to you? So if you, dear reader, would like to share your own thoughts about thinking, I’ll be fascinated. Thank you!

17 thoughts on “The subjective experience of thinking—instant poem

  1. alison41 says:

    I enjoyed your Instant Poem, some wonderful imagery! Meditation has shown me that thoughts are arbitrary, mostly fleeting,
    but not always …

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Alison, yes, meditation gives us insight into the mysterious processes of the mind. Interesting.

  2. Fabulous poem! I hear conscious thoughts. I feel other thoughts that I try to ignore but probably shouldn’t, the ones that make my shoulders ache, the ones that scream, “This is NOT a good idea!”

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Priscilla, how physical, how embodied are your thoughts! And how kind of your body to signal danger so vividly. I must pay more attention to messages from my shoulders. Thank you!

  3. You’ve been looking inside my head. Go on, admit it! I love this instant poem and there are some great words there that otherwise may not have seen the light of day this week. I’m still trying to figure out my lump of tripe – maybe one day!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s true, all poets are spies. Now Peter, as your anatomy teacher I remind you that the contents of your skull are different in several ways from tripe. Nevertheless your analogy has merit. I point you to another delightful word: viscerofugal (a type of neuron in the gut). The gut adjoins the stomach, and the gut hath neurons, therefore t the gut, in its own way, thinks. Here endeth the lesson.

      1. Yes, I’ve always told my friends that they have two brains. They would never believe me! My gut is very closely linked to my head and any problem with one will generate problems with the other. Thank you for the lesson!

  4. judibwriting says:

    Love your poem. I am, therefore I think. Brains gush thoughts and as a meditator I endeavor to let them be and not let them take me for a ride. Sometimes I sit back like a parent on a park bench and let them play. I think, who is that “I” that is watching them? Who is watching that “I”? Sometimes they do coalesce into something that wants words written down. Thank you for writing your words down.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So good to have your description of thoughts at play. Yes, perhaps we are parents of our thoughts. And you have described good parenting. I can see that your experience is similar to mine. Yay!

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I remember clearly the first time I thought about thinking. I was 9 and totally amazed that I could think about thoughts. I tend to hear them.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      What an exciting moment that must have been!

      1. Elizabeth says:

        I love remembering my early thoughts.

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        What were they!? How young were you?

      3. Elizabeth says:

        I remember my thoughts back to about 3. Pretty fragmented until about 6.

      4. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Astonishing. I’m at the other extreme, and I blame aphantasia for that. But blame is daft, because we’re on a spectrum for remembering, as for pretty much anything neurological.

      5. Elizabeth says:

        Yep. I find that my grandson seems to have inherited my memory but my granddaughter has trouble finding her way out of the house! LOL

      6. Rachel McAlpine says:

        That’s so interesting: reminds us that our sense of direction is located on a spectrum. So judging it as good or bad is not appropriate. Good, I like that.