Shortly after my father died, I remember saying to my eldest daughter: where do thoughts go? What happens to them?
My father was a writer, so many of the thoughts he had he wrote down and preserved in some way. But what happened to all the ones he didn’t record over the course of his life? Is that it - they are just gone?
Studies suggest a typical person has 7,000 thoughts a day. Others put that number ten times higher at 70-80,000. That seems a lot to me. (Some people, from what I can see, don’t even reach double figures).
80,000 thoughts/day would work out at close to one thought per second. It depends how you define what a thought is, I guess. Many thoughts are repetitive: we have the same thought over, often because we forget we have had it.
But whether 7,000 or 70,000, we have a lot of thoughts. So …
Of those many thoughts you have each day, how many do you actually recognise or acknowledge? A tiny percentage.
Of those thoughts you do recognise, how many do you then articulate or speak aloud in some way? Again a tiny percentage. We are at a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage.
Of those thoughts that you articulate, how many do you actually record - perhaps write down? Of those you record, how many do you act on and and turn into something? An even tinier percentage.
So, of all the thoughts we have, a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage get recorded, and an even tinier percentage actually become something.
Now let’s extrapolate that over a life. A typical lifespan is 27,000 days. That makes 189 million or 1.89 billion thoughts over the course of your life (depending on whether you are a 7,000 or 70,000/day person).
Now let’s extrapolate this across human history - all the thoughts that every human being has had ever. 117 billion lives have been lived, google tells me. 117 billion multiplied by 189 million or 1.89 billion is a lot of thoughts. What happened to them all? Where did they go? Where are they now? Is there some ethereal warehouse up the street where they are all stored?
If those thoughts are now gone - unrecorded, unacted upon - what, then, was the point of having them?
Recording my thoughts has always been something that’s obsessed me rather. Even as a child, I used to keep a diary and try to record as many of the things that I thought (the interesting ones, at least) as possible, especially as I worried I might never have that thought again. I’ve got piles of notebooks, not to mention the notes and voice files in my phone and on my computer. But I never go back through them and I doubt anyone else ever will, so I may as well have not bothered. Those thoughts are going to disappear, even though I wrote them down and attempted to preserve them. What was the point of having them?
Park that thought for a moment, while I ask you a question.
Why Christianity and Judaism succeeded where other religions failed
Of the plethora of religions that existed around the Middle East three or four thousand years ago, why did Judaism survive, but none of the others?
Is it because the Jews are God’s chosen people (as my Jewish friends constantly like to remind me every time I bring this question up)?
Or is it because the Jews wrote theirs down?
Other religions were passed on orally. Even better: the Jews inscribed their Ten Commandments in stone.
Why did Christianity supersede all the pagan religions of Northern Europe during the Dark Ages? The Northmen were the superior force militarily, surely their pagan religions should have conquered too. With the likes of Odin, Thor and Loki, or the druidic religions of the Celts, many of those pagan religions were much cooler than Christianity. Why did Christianity conquer?
Because the bible was written down. Pagan religions and traditions were passed on orally. It’s a much less reliable way of transferring thought.
So you can see then both the power of preserving thought and the influence it can have on history.
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Do thoughts exist?
Do thoughts have matter? This is a question that occupies the minds of philosophers far more profound than me. Thoughts must have some kind of matter, runs the argument, because it takes energy to have them. If we do a lot of thinking, we get tired. The brain uses at least 20% of the body’s energy, even though it makes up 2% of the body’s mass. Perhaps a thought is just a little parcel of energy.
But, I ask again, what happens to thoughts after we have them? If we don’t record or articulate them in some way, are they just gone?
Or is there some kind of ethereal depository where all thoughts get stored? Some kind of collective human consciousness warehouse that we haven’t discovered yet.
I’m one of these people that thinks most invention is discovery. Just as Alexander Fleming did not invent penicillin, he discovered it, so did, say, Thomas Edison (and many others) not so much invent the lightbulb as discover the technology that makes lightbulbs work. Did man invent the wheel or did he discover it?
My friend Low Status Opinions, who, as well as his brilliant Substack, writes jokes for famous comedians, says the act of writing a joke is not invention, rather it is pulling back the sand to see what’s there. The veteran commodities speculator Peter Brandt says something similar: a trade is a process of discovery. You place numerous trades, you manage your risk, and you discover which work.
Today, with digital technology, our lives are taken out of the material world and into cyberspace. Of course, there are huge data centres that make it all function, but in a way this ethereal, digital world of the Internet, with all its social media, better represents our thoughts and the preservation of them than the paper and material world that preceded it.
So is there some depository or warehouse of thoughts that we have not yet invented/discovered yet?
The idea that we only use 10% of our brain’s capacity has been largely dismissed, but we definitely have latent brain power than we don’t use. Taking psychedelic drugs perhaps unleashes latent potential. There is “acquired savant syndrome”, when you can acquire often extraordinary scholarly capacity after a traumatic head injury. The most famous example of this is Jason Pladgett who was mugged and badly beaten up, then woke up to find he now had an ability to understand complex maths and physics that did not previously exist; he developed an astonishing ability to draw complex geometric shapes he had no previous understanding of. So there is for sure some untapped potential in our minds.
I wish I knew how to tap into it without risking long-term damage. There are a gazillion ideas I have had for stories, shows, businesses, products, that I would love to realise in some way. Then again genius is 99% perspiration. Having the idea is the easy bit.
But a Scottish audio producer friend had this to say when I bemoaned how ideas disappear. “Nature wastes nothing,” he said with the power only a Scottish accent with its articulated consonants can have. (It’s why they make such good football managers). “Nature wastes absolutely nothing. Everything gets used in some way.”
He’s right. Nature is not like governments or corporations which can be incredibly wasteful. Nothing in nature gets thrown away. Everything gets used (it’s why I am so pro free markets and so anti-regulation and government. The free market is the closest economic rendition of the natural world that we have).
Yes, nature wastes nothing. The process of thinking and having ideas, even if those ideas appear to disappear if we do not record or act on them - there is a purpose to it, even if we have not yet discovered what it is. What though?
I guess if there’s a moral to today’s piece, it’s this: don’t keep your thoughts to yourself.
What do you think? Where do thoughts go? If they disappear, what is the point of having them? Just for the few we do act on? Let’s discuss.
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Until next time,
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Here are the dates and places.
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