Thinking as the sixth sense: From Freud to Buddhism

  • Freud developed the idea of the Unconscious as a driver of thought and behaviour
  • Neuroscience provides evidence for action-selection being outside of awareness
  • Buddhism understands thinking as a sensing process rather than a "thought-making" process
  • Separating ourselves from our thoughts can empower us to become more self-accepting
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We are constantly thinking about what we are doing and what we did yesterday. We make plans for tomorrow. The experience of thinking blends with the experience of being a "me", and so it is natural to associate "myself" with "my thoughts". From the times of Descartes, the Westerners have believed that "I think therefore I am" - but is this really so?

Freud and the Unconscious

Freud's Conscious, Preconscious and Unconscious represented as an iceberg At the beginning of the 20th century, Freud challenged the perception that everything going on inside of "me" or, more specifically inside of "my head" is perfectly known through thoughts. He separated the brain's processes into the Conscious and the Unconscious, claiming that most of the brain's work is done outside of a person's conscious awareness [1]. To Freud, and essentially any psychotherapist today, the Unconscious processes perceptions and emotions and reacts to them, while the Conscious is limited in how it can intervene and understand what's going on. The separation between the two is often represented as an iceberg, where the Conscious is only a tip of that iceberg [2].

Take an example of a teenager - let's call him Aiden - who is being bullied at school. Being shouted at and beaten, as well as having intense fear, are all experienced and ultimately recorded in Aiden's brain. Twenty years later, Aiden may or may not be aware of having these memories. If he does, they are likely not as vivid and accessible to him as when he was young. However, regardless of Aiden's ability to remember what happened at school, his memories continue existing in his Unconscious and as information interact with other memories and with what's going on with Aiden at the moment.

The adult Aiden makes a mistake at work and is confronted by a colleague who expresses her disapproval and looks a bit angry. She complains that she will need to work with him to fix the issue. Aiden experiences extreme anxiety, becomes defensive and doesn't turn up for work the next day, feeling helpless and guilty and leaving his colleague confused. While Aiden may look like he "overreacted" to his colleague, from a psychoanalytical perspective, his reaction was rather appropriate. Perhaps without his full awareness, his intense fear associated with being bullied at school got triggered, where his Unconscious related the past and the current situation, producing extreme anxiety and avoidance behaviour.

Evidence from neuroscience

Freud used direct clinical experience with his patients, especially hypnosis and free association, to arrive at his theory about how the mind works. Modern neuroscience supports the idea that information processing, as well as action selection, are mostly unavailable to the conscious awareness.

Research suggests that visual signals that are unconscious can still affect behaviour [3]. There is also evidence that brain activity associated with volition, i.e., the action of choosing between option A and B, is present before the person becomes aware of making that choice [4]. Some scientists go as far as claiming that having a "free will" is only a feeling that we come to have by self-interpretation and that both this feeling and actual motor action are caused by the brain's processes that are hidden from awareness [5]. Interestingly, it has been shown that if certain areas of the brain that are associated with awareness of making choices are damaged, people are still able to make choices - even though they are unaware of making them [6].
Person meditating on self-awareness and thoughts

Meditation and the six senses

For experienced meditators, the process of thinking can be examined in detail directly from the subjective perspective. In Buddhism, thinking is considered to be a sixth sense, next to the five senses traditionally recognized in the West [7 - page 37]. When we think, we in fact sense the brain's inner workings - we are becoming aware of the brain's spontaneous processes. What we are not doing is consciously "producing" thoughts. By carefully attending to thoughts and observing their arising and fading, a meditation practitioner is eventually able to distinguish between thoughts and the self who perceives them.

Tibetan Buddhists have a great metaphor for consciousness being like a lamp. It illuminates a part of the (inner) world, including itself, enabling what is within the light to be known, while the rest remains unknown in the dark. This way of viewing thoughts is strikingly similar to Freud's split between the Conscious and the Unconscious, and is becoming more and more supported by today's neuroscience.

The implications

If we agree to consider thinking as being a sense organ tied to the unconscious processes in our brain, how can we use this understanding in practice?

First, if thinking is a sense, it can be trained to turn away from unhelpful and harmful perceptions. Just like we close our eyes under a bright sun, we can reorient our attention from distractions and disturbing triggers. This is of course much more difficult to do than with sight or hearing. Being in control of one's own awareness requires specific meditation practice - first to understand the nature of thinking and comprehend its separation from the "self", and then to develop the skill and discipline to consciously steer the attentive awareness.

Second, gaining clarity on how thoughts come about can be extremely self-soothing and liberating. In Aiden's situation, appreciating the existence of his automated thinking processes, that, in his Unconscious, linked being bullied as a teenager with confrontation at work, can be helpful when challenging his negative self-image. If Aiden can distinguish between his "self" and "his thoughts", he can feel more empowered to process his past and change his reactions in the present. Through deeper self-awareness, the automations of the unconscious lose some of their power and it becomes possible to consciously observe and challenge one's thoughts and actions.
As a clinical counsellor, I help my clients gain deeper self-awareness and facilitate their ability to challenge unhelpful thoughts and behaviour. Learn more if you need support.

  • [1] Freud, S. (1915) The Unconscious. Translation reprinted in General Psychological Theory (1963), Collier Books, New York.
  • [2] Green, C. D. (2019). "Where did Freud's iceberg metaphor of mind come from?". History of Psychology. 22 (4): 369–372. DOI: 10.1037/hop0000135_b
  • [3] Gaal S., Ridderinkhof K. R., Scholte H. S. & Lamme V. A. F. (2010) "Unconscious Activation of the Prefrontal No-Go Network". The Journal of Neuroscience, 30(11), 4143-4150
  • [4] Libet B. (1999). "Do We Have Free Will?". Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6(8-9), 47-57
  • [5] Wegner, D. M. (2003). The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • [6] Sirigu, A., et al. (2004). "Altered Awareness of Voluntary Action after Damage to the Parietal Cortex". Nature Neuroscience, 7(1), 80-84
  • [7] Ingram, D. M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teaching of the Buddha (Revised and Expanded edition). Aeon Books Ltd, London

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