The purpose of thinking is to understand our world as best as possible. Our minds have evolved to think so that we can better adapt to our environment and make smarter decisions on how to survive and live.
At a biological level, our thoughts are millions of neurons firing off in our brain. These brain cells working together represent concepts, language, and knowledge that arise in our consciousness.
Our thinking reflects our map of reality. This is our view of the world and what we find to be true about it. The more accurate our map of reality, the better we can adapt to our surroundings.
The function of our thinking is to make decisions that eventually guide our behavior. Our map of reality is therefore instrumental to how we act and respond to the world.
Thinking and problem-solving
Many psychologists define thinking as “mental exertion aimed at finding an answer to a question or the solution of a practical problem.”
Take a second and think about most of the things you think about throughout the course of your day. You will probably find that most of them focus on a question or problem in your life. Common thoughts may include, “What should I eat for lunch?” or “What college should I go to?” or “What should I do this weekend?”
Often our thinking is directed toward answering problems in our life. The more important the problem, the more time we usually spend thinking about it. For example, most people will spend more time thinking about what college they will attend instead of what they will eat for lunch. The bigger the impact of our decisions, the more we are going to want to think things through before finalizing our choice.
Some of the greatest thinkers of our time – scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians – have spent years focusing on just one problem in their lives. Many times the answers they’ve found have advanced civilization in unprecedented ways.
Thinking is one of the key reasons we have evolved so effectively as a species. It has led us to consider problems and find answers that other species cannot even conceptualize.
But, no, critical thinking isn’t just about scientific or technological breakthroughs. It also plays an important role in solving personal problems we experience in our own life. Everything from relationships to work requires some element of thinking and problem-solving. And it is up to us to think about our lives and improve them to the best of our ability using our knowledge and experience.
The need for reflection
Thinking is valuable to our success in life, so it’s important that we all make time for reflection. We learn a lot throughout the course of a day, but if we don’t take the time to reflect on what we learn, then a lot of that information gets misused or forgotten.
Recent studies using fMRIs have shown that rats who were given a chance to reflect showed better signs of learning than rats who were not given a chance to reflect. Scientists now believe that “replaying a sequence of events in our mind” is an important mechanism in effective learning and memory retention.
Positive psychologist Tal Ben-Sahar draws a relevant distinction between information and transformation. “Information” is the raw sensory data that our brains collect throughout the day. “Transformation” is the framework we build around that data making up our map of reality. During transformation we decide what parts of our experience were most important and worth paying attention to.
I believe reflection is something we should all practice a short amount of time each day. Just 15-20 minutes of reflection can help you gain valuable insight into your day and how you can improve it tomorrow. This practice is essential to thinking more effectively.
Too much thinking
While thinking does come with many benefits to our survival and evolution, it can also be counter-productive.
For example, many who suffer from mental disorders like depression, anxiety disorder, or OCD are excessive thinkers. They dwell on problems to unhealthy levels, especially about events in the past or things they have little control over.
This type of thinking is usually misdirected energy. Some people waste a lot of time and effort ruminating over things they can’t ever change no matter how much thinking they do.
When we find ourselves dwelling on a situation to no end, it’s important to re-direct our thoughts toward something more constructive.
Finding a healthy balance
The goal of living a healthy mental life isn’t to avoid thinking altogether, but to change our thoughts to better serve our needs.
Sometimes it is appropriate to ruminate on an issue in our life until it is resolved. Other times it is appropriate to let go of re-occurring thoughts and move on.
Not every problem can be amended through contemplation.
The key is to find a balance that works. Thinking our way through problems is a valuable way of finding solutions. But too much thinking can exacerbate problems.
Learn to identify when your thoughts are serving your interests and needs – and when they are leading you down a road to nowhere. If you can make this distinction, then you have already won half the battle with your thoughts.
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