Where do thoughts go?

… once we have finished thinking them.

I love this question.  It has triggered a thought, and ever since I’ve thought it, it conquered my mind almost continually.  One way of ridding it is writing it down, providing me with one answer, already.

Some people say there is a collective unconscience from where our thoughts originate (I wonder about this).  Perhaps, after we finished with them, they go back there?

I realised different thoughts go different ways.  Mundane thoughts, such as “What’s for breakfast,” merely evaporate into thin air after the question has been answered adequately.  Do they leave behind the smell of freshly brewed coffee?

If I tell someone my thought, for example: “I have this idea about making a million,” it crawls into the listener’s head and may stay there, did it multiply?  After some time the thought may not be as exciting anymore, and it goes into one of my brain’s storage boxes, up on a high shelf.

A nice thought like: “I would like a new bicycle for my birthday,” rather than forgetting it (let me come back to this one), or instead, allowing it to continually occupy my frontal lobes, I put in a bright, colourful box with an even more gorgeous ribbon.

They find a place on a brain shelf in eye height permitting me to see it quickly when I look there.  This method really helps when my birthday had been only recently, and I must wait for almost a year.


I think this is proof of the existence of cul-de-sac synapses.  You have not heard of them?  Don’t worry, they have not been discovered, yet.  It’s common knowledge, synapses are one-way streets, and once a thought goes down one, it can’t return.

They only can go in circles.  You know, those nagging ones.  They only can hop into the next neurone.  What if there is no neurone following?  Told you, this is a cul-de-sac synapse.  Well, this is it then, brother.


… could be another way of finding out where a thought has gone.  Sometimes, a thought pops up again without any reason.  This effect does not help much with finding out where it had been hiding.

Maybe those other ones we are looking for, tell us more, maybe?  What’s this girl’s / boy’s name again?  How embarrassing.  The more our nervousness increases, the lesser the chance to remember their names.  What’s this all about?  It wasn’t me!

Brains and Computers

Neurologically speaking, the brain is a bit like a central processor in a computer.  Every few fractions of a picosecond (approx. 10-12 of a second) the brain asks our senses what they are sensing right this very moment and stores the information in a box.

The more sensitive our senses are, the more signals the brain receives.  This can be senses of comfort/discomfort (light, sound, seating, temperature, and clothes), a bird outside the window, an insect on the floor, etc.

Emotions have about 10.000 times more informational content than thoughts.  If the mind is busy absorbing this avalanche, nothing else matters.  Remember: falling in love, a toothache, the day before Christmas?

Thoughts, similar to information in a computer, are stored in the sequence of their occurrence.  If we could concentrate well enough and not let us be distracted, a whole train of thought would be kept in a string or cluster of boxes.  But we can’t.

Not even a computer can.  Or, it could, but this would mean, it would do only one job at the time… we would not like that.

In my brain, while I am writing this, a lot of other things are going on, of some, I am not even aware of.  In between the information of writing other things happen, such as: the time is ticking, looking up the spelling of a word, the encyclopaedia is running in the background, what’s for breakfast… and so on.


How much the brain takes in does not only correlate with the quantity of stimuli or their intensity but also how fast the brain operates.  Like computers, different brains run at different speeds.  A higher operating speed may not be an advantage.

In the brain, information is stored in nests of neurones.   A thought does not fit in one nest, it only contains a fraction of the complete event.  Once one is full, the adjacent one is filled.

Remember:  Information is stored in the sequence of their occurrence, they are not sorted.  Other, irrelevant side information is stored in between.  The faster the operating speed, the more stuff is stored, the wider the gaps between the bits of our train of thought.

This is the reason why brains with low speeds can remember more easily of what they have taken in.  They may register as much as anyone else, however, not as many blocks of information are collected.  Much of which is not in their focus will get lost since it will be busy storing the important stuff.


In a computer, information is stored on the hard disk, in the same way as above.  Blocks or packets of data are cached as they arrive at the disk controller.  Blocks are stored at the nearest free place from where the disk reader/writer head has been active.

All in a jumble, the same as in our brain.  Actually, our brain is a bit better, it stores information in specific domains, discriminated according to topic and intensity.

The fuller the disk gets, the slower the computer runs, because it needs the information stored.  It takes longer to find the individual blocks and string them up, again.

A computer can be defragmented.  During this process, separated nests of data belonging to each other are rejoined.  And because all the information bits are stored next to each other
they can be accessed faster.  It does not need to jump around gathering the loose ends.

Imagine, our brain could be defragmented!

Another program can recognise superfluous data and deletes them.  Would it not be great if we could clean up our brain in the same way?


The computer finds the blocks of information because each space has an address.  At the end of a blog, it notes the address where the next block will be stored.  It also has a register in which all the addresses of the starts of information chains are stored.

Similar, a train of thought is interrupted and only can be recalled in its entirety if at the end of a block is a pointer to the nest where the following block is stored.  If not, or only partially, we can string together what we found, parts of a thought.

Those blocks with no connection to the main string are not lost.  Often an situation can trigger a sense of familiarity: “I wonder what this reminds me off?”  Sometimes, the information segment correlates with the event so much, we experience a déjà-vue.

A real Life Example

While students listen to their teacher, a lot of other things happen around them.  How much of the total information (teaching and other) they take in depends on their individual attention and operating speed.

In the following example:

  • I write in bold what the teacher says, and the student hears
  • in italic, what the teacher says, and the student does not hear
  • in regular writing, what else occupies the student

In a biology class about kangaroos the sequence may look like this:

Teacher: “Today we are going to talk about kangaroos
I know all about them – You all know – something scratches on my sock – they are – that knot on the window cord is frayed

Indigenous   What was this?  What does indi-whatever… mean?  – animals of Australia.  They live –  Am I stupid? – no, the teacher is stupid – I hate this – in the bushland of –  it’s hot, I want to have a swim – why can’t we go the swimming pool more often?

Australia.  What about Australia? – where they have been living – I am hungry.  How could I eat one of my lollies without the teacher noticing?  (This is a very occupying thought. It will defer the student’s attention for some time) – for thousands of years.  I will show you a

video yeah, cool, video – I can have my lolly while the video runs – about kangaroos in their – … from this moment on the student will not present any longer.

Got the gist?

All the student heard was: “Today we are going to talk about kangaroos … indigenous … Australia … video.  In the gaps, the student was occupied with much more important subjects.

The significance of the points of a thought determines their storage place and the most crucial aspect is written on its tag.  If you try to remember information on kangaroos would you search under the heading lolly?

Tying up some loose Ends

Often we believe a thought has been dealt with, we have finished thinking it, but it does not go away.  It stays where it has been stored from the moment we conceived it.  We only turn our attention away from it.

Some get lost amongst the billions of neurones, they partially dissolve and get submerged in all the other stuff we take on board during every moment of our life.

Furthermore, synapses are rerouted between the neurones of our brain.  This is initiated by changes in our beliefs, attitudes, morals or ethics.  This is why remembering gets harder when we get older.  The number of synapses depends on the activity of the brain.

If we stop thinking, they only dangle around, hanging from one neurone but not move closer to another.  They become inactive, they turn into a cul-de-sac.

There are a few ways around this, but this is another topic.

Another good questing is “Where do thoughts come from”.  I have written about this in my essay titled: “Every thought has been thought before.”


Wolfgang Köhler
23 April 2006

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