Thinking Without Words


Can you think without words? Of course you can. You don’t use words to guide yourself from work to home on the same familiar path, or, for that matter, to operate your vehicle, any more than laboratory rats successfully navigate a maze by thinking, “Left, six inches, then a quick right.”

Infants have rudimentary reasoning skills before they have language. One of the first things they discover is who has the good stuff. Early in life, they cry automatically when they’re hungry, but pretty soon they figure out that Mom or Dad is the bringer of food, warmth, and comfort, so, at some point, babies learn to cry strategically. Mom or Dad walks in the door and they beam like a summer sunrise. “There she is!” they think wordlessly. “Here comes lunch!”

‘Fetch, Monica!’

According to Russell T Hurlburt, Ph.D., in the article “Thinking Without Words” (Psychology Today, Nov. 11, 2011), this phenomenon is called “unsymbolized thinking,” defined as “the experience of an explicit, differentiated thought that does not include… words, images, or any other symbols.” Many psychologists believe that unsymbolized thinking is impossible, but Hurlburt and his colleagues claim that their research validates its operation. My own research—consisting of throwing a stick in the yard and calling, “Fetch, Monica!” and then, when Monica brings me the stick, scratching her ears and giving her a treat—led to the same conclusion.

Language, however, is necessary for abstract thinking and flights of fancy that are among the writer’s greatest joys. This morning I heard a radio personality ask, “What does it mean to be human?” I applied about five minutes of very conscious thought to the matter and came up with a provisional hypothesis: being human is choosing to love. It’s not that other creatures are unable to love, Monica being a living, breathing, slobbering demonstration of doggie love. But only humans, I suggest, can make a decision to cultivate that emotion and exercise acts of love that don’t arise spontaneously. We can choose to love the planet, the frantic waitress, the elderly and infirm next-door neighbor, and even the spouse who cheated on us. I’m not talking about pretending to be kind when we are seething inside, although sometimes that’s the only way to start. I’m talking about reaching deep into the spirit and opening the valves that keep love from flowing… about giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable and genuine.

Writes Arika Okrent in the article “Is It Possible to Think Without Language?” (, May 23, 2013),

While it appears that we can indeed think without language, it is also the case that there are certain kinds of thinking that are made possible by language. Language gives us symbols we can use to fix ideas, reflect on them and hold them up for observation. It allows for a level of abstract reasoning we wouldn’t have otherwise. The philosopher Peter Carruthers has argued that there is a type of inner, explicitly linguistic thinking that allows us to bring our own thoughts into conscious awareness. We may be able to think without language, but language lets us know that we are thinking.

Inner conversations

Some scientists speculate about why humans think in words at all. Durham University psychologist Charles Fernyhough, author of The Voices Within, writes that we talk to ourselves for motivation and focusing, to change our behavior (“Stop fidgeting!”), and—perhaps most important—to engage in inner dialogue, by which we bring multiple perspectives to our thinking. “Language is particularly powerful at representing different perspectives and bringing them into contact with each other,” writes Fernyhough.

Writing marvelous worlds

The thinking that devised the hypothesis “being human is choosing to love” altered my mood. It was hopeful and uplifting. If I had addressed the question differently and had decided that “being human is choosing to win,” it probably would have depressed me. I can always love, and authentic love usually has good outcomes. Winning, on the other hand, entails luck, cunning, skill, strategizing, and often a certain amount of capital.

People who study happiness—Michael Neill and Robert Holden, to name a few—claim that your emotions proceed from your thoughts. If this is true, then can’t it also be said that the way one arranges words in one’s mind or on a blank page can determine how one feels? Speaking from a writer’s perspective, can we “write ourselves happy”?

I believe we can. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a “to-do” list and checking off the items as we accomplish them. There’s a great deal of power in that. But I have, from time to time, written worlds I’d like to inhabit—children’s stories of green, blooming, magical places where fairies grant wishes and all good things are possible. These worlds are in the realm of fiction, but who can deny that there are elements of truth in the fictional universes of Narnia, the Land of Oz, and Middle Earth?

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