Fear and Impulse: Pre-thought or not

I’m going to do my best to address two comments that have come up regarding what is thought and what is not. The first is from the conversation with my brother that I’ve mentioned before, which is regarding the idea that fear comes before a thought. The second is from a recent conversation with a friend, which is that the sensation of touch is an impulse and not a thought.

Let me begin with fear. The part of the brain that registers activity during fear is in the amygdala and nicknamed the reptilian part of the brain because it is the oldest and least evolved. My brother’s argument is that fear is a primal instinct and occurs pre-thought. In other words, someone who finds him/herself in a truly dangerous environment is going to feel fear before thought, therefore the idea that all our feelings are a representation of thought cannot be true.

Sad to say that we were unable to continue this discussion at the time but it’s a great question that I’d like to address. You see, in part, it comes down to how we define thought. I would agree that a person will more often than not feel fear well before they have any personal thinking about their situation. If you think about it, our ancestors would probably not have survived for very long if they started to think about or analyse the situation when s saber-toothed tiger approached. In fact, it has been shown that our capacity to think logically or intelligently strongly deteriorates when the fight, flight or freeze response is triggered within us. But how is this response triggered?

The response itself is instinctual but it requires an interpretation of the circumstances to trigger it. For example, you put a baby in front of a tiger, it will not respond with any fear, it has not yet learned that tigers could be deadly. As we get older we learn they are dangerous animals so when we see them walking towards us, we interpret the situation as dangerous and feel fear accordingly. That interpretation is done almost instantaneously and outside of our conscious thinking. But the interpretation takes place nonetheless and that interpretation is thought-based. People with phobias are the same, their learned response is to associate an object that most of us would not be concerned about with fear. The association of that object with fear is thought-based. If you think about it, fear cannot be a pre-thought response because it requires an (unconscious) assessment of the event or situation in order to determine if a possible danger exists.

Moving on the the impulse statement. When I was speaking with my friend in London recently about the thought/feeling relationship, he brought up the idea that babies are clearly emotional creatures but they are pre-verbal so they can’t have any thoughts. Again, it comes down to how one is defining thought.

My understanding of thought is actually non-verbal and it is much more comprehensive than simply looking at personal or conscious thinking. The example I gave my friend was the idea that a baby may not be able to put the words hot or cold to a sensation as they touch an object, but that sensation is interpreted by the baby through thought.

My friend stated that he would call that an impulse and not a thought, which is where language can become a problem when it comes to describing the indescribable because we all have slightly different definitions for the words that we use. This is why I frequently recommend that you not look at the exact words themselves but at the feeling behind the words.

However, let me do my best to speak to this idea of an impulse vs. a thought. The baby puts his/her hand on a metal countertop and an impulse travels from its hands to its brain with all kinds of data about that surface, like texture and temperature. I would agree that this part of the equation is an impulse. But, then that data is interpreted by the brain and it is experienced through thought as hot or cold, smooth or rough, pleasant or painful. The baby may not have learned the specific pattern of sounds (language) that represents that sensation, but the thought that is created to turn the data coming from the hands into something the baby can experience, which leads to the pre-verbal interpretation, exists.

I hope this has been helpful and I’d love to hear from you if you would like to discuss either of these or other examples further.

Until next time, may the four winds continue to guide your way.

Lots of love,
Daniel