2.6. Understanding oneself

In the last sections of this chapter, I made the following assumptions: (1) Information, as form or structure, has an objective content, namely to refer to the causes or reasons of its emergence. (2) This content, however, is not a meaning in a semantic sense. Meaning comes about when information is understood, i.e., interpreted on the basis of contextual knowledge by a system capable of semantic processing. (3) All forms and structures of matter and energy are information. – If these three assumptions are correct, then it follows that also the structures in my brain (e.g., the patterns of activation) of which I believe they are the physical basis of my thoughts are information – information which indeed has an objective content, but no semantic meaning until I understand my thoughts. This sounds odd, but I will try to show in this section that it is not implausible.

Sometimes I do not understand, or I misunderstand something spoken or written by someone else because I lack the knowledge needed for correct understanding in this case. Is it possible that I do not or not completely understand something generated by my own brain or mind? Yes, it is: my dreams. One reason may be that the contextual knowledge is no longer accessible for my conscious mind (although it is still stored in my brain). A further cause may be that dreams result from non-rational brain processes which have a purely physical (‘sanitary’) function. But what about thoughts produced in alert state and with full consciousness? Can I misunderstand my own thoughts?

I can hardly misunderstand my own thoughts because I possess the contextual knowledge as my thoughts arise from this knowledge. However, sometimes I remember a word, e.g., a technical term learned long ago, or a word in a foreign language, and I’m unclear about its meaning, I do not understand it, or I even misunderstand it and use it in a wrong way. This suggests that a word (as a sequence of sounds) does not imply its meaning – not even in the brain. And if so, then the same must be true for a sentence, may it be a spoken, written or thought (internally spoken) one: It does not imply its meaning; the meaning is always the result of an ‘act of understanding’.

The fact that we must understand a sentence read or heard – that is, the fact that there is a mental process of understanding which requires some knowledge of the language and the context – might be uncontroversial – but one’s own verbal thoughts? When I’m reading a sentence which is a thought of mine written down long time ago, and I have forgotten the context or the meaning of a specific word, e.g., a scientific term, then it can be difficult for me to understand this sentence although it is my own thought, produced by my mind. Obviously, it is possible to not understand one’s own thought if the required knowledge is no longer accessible.

What about a verbal thought, a sentence suddenly arising in my mind? Can I distinguish between its production and its being understood by myself? Given a verbal thought is an internally formulated sentence, and the process of formulation takes some time, then it is implausible to assume that the sentence is understood before it has been formulated. I immediately understand my own words when I have spoken them out (but it may happen I use a word in a wrong way, which would mean that I have not well understood it). Understanding a whole sentence, which, e.g., includes to decide whether it makes sense or not – is possible only when the sentence is (nearly) completely produced. This is true for both, sentences externally and internally spoken.

In fact, there are situations in which I can observe the difference between the production of a thought – or better to say: its arising in my mind – and the process of understanding. When I’m meditating on a problem in order to find a solution, and a thought, some words or a sentence come up in my mind. then I immediately understand the words, and after that, as a second step, I understand what the words togehter mean and whether this idea is nonsense or the solution of my problem. The same happens, when I am listening to someone else: I immediately understand the words (given they are in my native language and familiar to me), but I understand the meaning of a whole sentence not before the sentence is spoken out (nearly) up to its end.

The examples should have made clear: We can, in fact, distinguish between the emergence or production of a thought and the understanding of that thought by the thinking person. What is true for information in general is therefore also true for thoughts: understanding and meaning are not included, but understanding is an additional act. It is this act of understanding by which a form or structure, e.g., a sequence of internally produced speech sounds (based on a sequence of activation patterns in the brain) is interpreted semantically. In our self-perception, however, we normally become aware of a thought and understand it at virtually the same time, thus both processes seem to be one and the same.

The above said does not mean that brain processes underlying thoughts have no or indeterminate content. The content of brain processes immediately underlying thoughts is determined by connections established in the course of language acquisition [1]. Thus they result from a process in which contents (perceptions of things in the world, perceptions of words, and routines of syntax and grammar) were encoded in structures of neuronal connections. The person speaking or thinking, however, doesn’t know anything of this. The person does not understand the meaning of self-produced words and sentences by his or her brain activation patterns during speech production, but by (externally or internally) listening to the sound-sequence, just as in listening to the speech of someone else [4].

The assumption that verbal thinking consists of two components – production and perception/understanding, or ‘inner voice’ and ‘inner ear’ – is supported by empirical findings of psychology and brain research: The production of verbal thoughts is associated with activity in nearly the same motor areas in the brain as the production of overt speech is [2], and their perception is associated with activity in nearly the same brain areas as the perception and comprehension of the speech of someone else is [3]. Some individuals who suffer from schizophrenia perceive internal voices talking to them, but are not aware of the fact that they themselves (or their brains) produce those voices. On the other hand, some individuals who suffer from a Wernicke’s aphasia exhibit a dramatically reduced ability to understand speech, including their own (despite normal hearing), such that they have difficulty formulating meaningful sentences (see, for example, this video).

Let us, at the end of the chapter, summarize the most important assumptions about information: Every form, shape, and structure of matter and energy is information. Information has an objective content which refers to the causes or reasons of its emergence, simply because it was formed, shaped, or structured by just these but not other causes or because of just these but not other reasons Content, however, is not meaning in a semantic sense. Meaning comes about when information is understood, i.e., interpreted on the basis of contextual knowledge by a system capable of semantic processing. What makes a system able to process information semantically is subject of the next chapter.


to the top

next page


  1. Such connections underlying thoughts are, for example, those between neurons representing a certain word (i.e., its phoneme sequence) and the neuronal representations by which we understand the meaning of the word – which can either be representations of non-verbal memories (the sequence d-o-g may be connected with visual memories of dogs, acoustic memories of barking, etc.) or representations of other words, as we often understand the meaning of a word only by reference to other words. What is the cause why these neuronal structures represent just these contents? It’s the process of their emergence in language acquisition: The little child sees a dog and, at the same time, hear the sound sequence d-o-g spoken by the mother, and the child spontaneously imitates the sound sequence and memorizes both, the word and its content. So we find also here: The content of information (here: of a neuronal structure) results from the causes and reasons of its emergence.  [⇑]
  2. see, e.g., Aleman and van’t Wout,(2004), Smith, Wilson, and Reisberg (1995), Wilson (2001).  [⇑]
  3. see, e.g., Brumberg et al. (2016), Kell et al, (2017), Martin et al. (2014), McGuire et al. (1996), Palmer et al. (2001), Shergill et al. (2002), Tian and Poeppel (2012), Tian, Zarate, and Poeppel (2016).  [⇑]
  4. Lind et al. (2014) demonstrated how much normal heathy speakers rely on auditory feedback: The experimenters covertly manipulated their participants’ auditory feedback in real time so that they said one thing but heard themselves saying something else (namely – in Swedish – “green” instead of “gray” or vice versa). In 85% of all cases in which the exchange went undetected, the inserted words were experienced as self-produced. The results suggest: When we are speaking spontaneously, we indeed have an idea of the message we are going to tell, but it is the auditory feedback which informs us about what we have actually said.  [⇑]

to the top

next page