Can we stop thinking?

We always feel that our mind is constantly thinking about one thing after another, non-stop.

We often find ourselves thinking about something all the time, and sometimes want to pause such a long train of thoughts by telling ourselves to stop thinking. But can we really stop or can we stop thinking?

It depends on how you define “thinking,” says Michael Halassa, an adjunct professor in the Department of Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A thought is the result of a chemical exchange between brain cells, which can occur consciously or unconsciously.

The kind of thinking we’re familiar with, e.g., thoughts that keep popping up incessantly while we’re trying to sleep could theoretically be stopped, for example by meditation.

Can we stop thinking?
The brain never really stops thinking.

But even when we meditate to try to stop our thoughts, no one can say for certain how much. Julia Kam, a cognitive scientist at the Knight Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, said: “I don’t know if it’s theoretically possible to stop thinking completely, and If it were possible, it would be extremely difficult to test.” However, she also says that meditators are better able to understand and have better control over what they’re thinking about.

There’s a difference between “thinking something” and “knowing what you’re thinking”. So if you ask a person what he is thinking about and they say “nothing” , he may not realize what he is thinking about. For example, you’re deep in thought about a relationship or an upcoming exam and you only realize you’re thinking about it when someone taps you on the shoulder and pulls you out of that train of thought. People who are “not thinking at all” may also have unconscious thoughts that do not form a coherent narrative.

But the brain never really stops thinking . Most thinking actually takes place on the basis of whether we are aware we are thinking or not, and “there is no real way to stop the brain’s train of thought” – Professor Halassa said.

If you see a familiar face in a crowd and think you know the person, you may not immediately remember why you know the person. But maybe after a while, a few hours later, you suddenly remember. It’s the result of your brain having constant thoughts.

Even decision-making mostly happens unconsciously. For example, some background thinking will lead to what we call ” a sense of ambiguity”. There are many times when our brain is busy counting a lot of numbers and eventually leads to a vague sense of something. We don’t often have a conscious approach to the decision-making process and sometimes we come up with a story to explain the decision that sometimes is correct, sometimes it’s not.

Cognitive scientist Julia Kam also agrees that how you define “thinking” changes the answer to the question “when does the brain stop thinking”. If you think of thinking as a self-conversation, the answer is “yes, we can stop thinking, stop that inner conversation” ; but if you think that thinking means not paying attention to anything in particular, it’s very difficult to tell whether the brain stops thinking or not.

Even as you are reading these lines, your thinking or thinking is the act of sending signals through a chain of neurons in your brain. So if we intentionally stop thinking or try to reach “mind blank” through meditation, the brain won’t stop working. The brain continues to have thoughts, we just don’t realize it.