A certain feeling


Let’s tentatively make a distinction between operational thoughts and modeled thoughts – or more starkly put, between real thoughts and tokens standing for those real thoughts. Consciousness seems to have many of these modeled thoughts or tokens.

 

In the Mind Matters of the Scientific American there is an interview of Robert Burton by Jonah Lehrer. Parts are below. 

LEHRER: In your book, you compare the “feeling of certainty” that accompanies things such as religious fundamentalism to the feeling that occurs when we have a word on the-tip-of-our-tongue. Could you explain?

BURTON: There are two separate aspects of a thought, namely the actual thought, and an independent involuntary assessment of the accuracy of that thought.

To get a feeling for this separation, look at the Muller-Lyer optical illusion.

Even when we consciously know and can accurately determine that these two horizontal lines are the same length, we experience the simultaneous disquieting sensation that this thought—the lines are of equal length—is not correct. This isn’t a feeling that we can easily overcome through logic and reason; it simply happens to us.

This sensation is a manifestation of a separate category of mental activity—-unconscious calculations as to the accuracy of any given thought. On the positive side, such feelings can vary from a modest sense of being right, such as understanding that Christmas falls on December 25, to a profound a-ha, “Eureka” or sense of a spiritual epiphany. William James referred to the latter—the mystical experience—as “felt knowledge,” a mental sensation that isn’t a thought, but feels like a thought.

Once we realize that the brain has very powerful inbuilt involuntary mechanisms for assessing unconscious cognitive activity, it is easy to see how it can send into consciousness a message that we know something that we can’t presently recall—the modest tip-of-the-tongue feeling. At the other end of the spectrum would be the profound “feeling of knowing” that accompanies unconsciously held beliefs—a major component of the unshakeable attachment to fundamentalist beliefs—both religious and otherwise—such as belief in UFOs or false memories. 

 

This level-of-certainty feeling is probably one of a number of those fuzzies that model our thought in consciousness. Others might be level-of-significance and level-of-recognition.