View Full Version : More on the Speed of Thought

18th Aug 2001, 11:13

As a layman with no scientific background I am having great difficulty in accepting that you say thought travels at only 432km/hour. I keep thinking that perhaps thoughts are only associated with neuronal activity if they ( the thoughts) are called upon to make something happen ie. thought tells brain to move big toe. This sequence perhaps moves along at 432km/hour. But surely it must be a different story if the thought just stays in the brain and only changes itself from one thought to another. It seems to me that this is instantaneous and I would go as far as to suggest that it might even be faster than the speed of light. If so, then it would be the only known occurrence that travels at such a speed ???


P.S. Icarus, what do you think ?

18th Aug 2001, 13:37
Now that IS an interesting question.

Is this chemistry v metaphysics?

My memory, or "bunch of chemicals" tells me there is research on the "speed" of chemical reactions.
Do they, the chemical reactions, work at a quantum level as well as the atomic or molecular. If so, then there is evidence that suggests that all matter is part of a infinitely large fabric with instantaneous comms across "it".

Light may well have to take a back seat as just another electromagnetic phenomena to whatever "it" is. The latest research on the Big Bang suggests that the "speed" of light was different then to now and we may have to rethink our perception of what we call "age".

Now I need to go have a Bex, a cuppa tea and a good lie down.

As Obi Wan would tell us, "the answer is there for us to see, we must only know how to look" :cool:

18th Aug 2001, 17:07
Gaunty: greetings on our first contact.

I’ve been thinking about the speed of thought for years but have never found anyone to discuss it with. I’ve actually convinced myself it is faster than the speed of light yet I haven’t a scrap of scientific knowledge to back this up.
Stagger and Icarus both have some good ideas about the subject but unfortunately the moderator is not too keen on letting us discuss it. Perhaps this time he may feel in a gracious mood or perhaps he may even be away on a flight.


18th Aug 2001, 17:21
First a message to the moderators – the speed with which someone can react to a novel event when manually controlling a fast moving object (e.g. an aircraft) clearly depends on the speed of thought. Consequently, this topic is relevant – e.g. stop/go decisions close to V1. Please don’t delete!

18th Aug 2001, 17:39
'Fraid not guys.

Neuronal activity in the brain consists of electrical impulses generated by flow of sodium and potassium ions across neuronal membranes.

For sure the ions are travelling at far far less than the speed of light

Neuron firing rates are typically milliseconds so unless your brain is 300 kilometres across you haven't got a leg to stand on so to speak.

18th Aug 2001, 17:50
KFIS - the brain is a big bundle of highly interconnected neurons. Communication between neurons in the brain involves similar processes to those involved in communication between neurons in the peripheral nervous system. Signals (action potentials) travel along long projections (axons) from the cell bodies. These projections form connections (synapses) with other neurons. At these synapses the arrival of an action potential causes chemicals (neurotransmitters) to be released into the gap between the two cells. These either stimulate or inhibit the generation of a new action potential in the post-synaptic neuron. So the speed at which action potentials propagate, and the speed of the chemical reactions that occur at synapses, are both constraints on the "speed of thought" assuming you accept that neuronal activity = thought.

18th Aug 2001, 19:40
Hi I'm sure we've met before.

Stagger 'n Grainger
Yeah we know about the synaptic chemistry thingy but as you say it assumes that neuronal activity = thought.

We can demonstrate chemically that neuronal action = reaction, but I don't recall it being demonstrated in regard to "thought".
If it is possible to "think" without actually "doing" anything, ie synaptic neuronal activity causing something to "happen" then what constraint is present.

One only needs to study the development of primer cord to understand that "speed" in terms chemical is but a relative term.
Instantaneous comms via primer cord over a km or more?

Like KIFIS I think that there is more to "thought" than mere synaptic chemistry.

18th Aug 2001, 20:59
The brain is an information processing machine and when lay-people use the term "thought" they are generally referring to those aspects of the information processing that are accessible to introspection. When you refer to thought that occurs when you’re not actually “doing” anything I assume you mean information processing that doesn’t immediately lead to some sort of motor output. Well, it’s certainly possible to demonstrate that there is neural activity associated with this sort of processing using various techniques (e.g. EEG, EMG, PET, fMRI).

Is there more to thought than “mere” synaptic chemistry? Well of course, how information is processed depends on how the connections are arranged into a network.

[ 18 August 2001: Message edited by: stagger ]

A Very Civil Pilot
18th Aug 2001, 21:07
When I was under line training my speed of though was 432 kmh. Shame the a/c was doing 450 kmh, which explains rather alot. :D

Mr moto
19th Aug 2001, 01:54
I wonder if there isn't a difference between what we call 'thought' and what we might call 'inspiration', the former being what goes on in our heads all the time and the latter being the complete idea, finished, coming to us in a flash.

Furthermore, in the accounts of psychics and others 'in the know' so to speak, telepathy is something which seems to take this form. Rather than being a language based communication it is a complete message/picture being received.

Also refered to earlier, the bond between particles which assures that the more accurately you measure the properties of one particle the less you can know of the other. I believe it is Heisenberg's Uncertainty Theory otherwise known as 'action at a distance'.

I was sorry to had to drop out of the previous debate but I got married last week. I had mentioned that Richard Bach had some interesting ideas on the subject at a more philosophical level in his book 'ONE'.
For a more scientific view I recommend 'In Search of Schrodinger's Cat' by John Gribbon.

Any other literature worth a read?

19th Aug 2001, 05:56
Moderator ...Where are you?????

[ 19 August 2001: Message edited by: TR3 ]

19th Aug 2001, 10:23
For somebody who professes their interests as "everything" perhaps you already know the answer. You couldn't help enlighten us praps. :D

19th Aug 2001, 12:05
I believe the essence of KIFIS's question is with regard to thoughts and not the reaction to a thought, so I 'think' we can dispose of chemical reactions and electrical charge pulses as the basis for the 'speed of thought'.
I would hazard a guess at the need to focus more on 'conciousness' if we are to attempt to understand the process behind the creation of a thought and the time that process takes.
I for one believe that we create thoughts at a far greater speed that that of light (if we are to accept that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant at 299'792'458 m/s (metres per second)).
Contemporary physics states that no object should be able to travel faster than the speed of light, are thoughts objects?

[ 19 August 2001: Message edited by: Icarus ]

19th Aug 2001, 14:04
Having quite a slow day at work today so I have been giving this some more (concious)thought and would like to postulate;

I believe it may be reasonable to class a thought as a wave function, in which case we could take a 'Schroedinger' approach to the whole thing.

i.e. a concious thought is the thought that has been observed which leaves all other thoughts as being 'crashed wave functions'.

Logically the next step would be to say that, at any one moment in time all possible thoughts exist and once one (mind) becomes aware of a thought all the other (possible) thoughts die, to be reborn again once the concious thought led to some kind of (physical/chemical) action (reaction).

There must exists therefore at anyone time in any one 'mind' an infinitesimal number of possible thoughts. When one becomes aware of a thought (through conciousness) then [infinity-1] thoughts have crashed simultaneaously.
The questions that arise are;
How long does it take for a wave-function to crash?
How do you measure the speed of something that does not actually (physically) travel?

In conclusion I would offer the speed of thought as:

1/[infinity-1], which is infinitesimally small; whatever the unit of measurement and is therefore far greater than the speed of light (which is finite).

[ 19 August 2001: Message edited by: Icarus ]

19th Aug 2001, 16:15
Why bother with neuroscience when you can come up with speculative theories about how the mind works sitting at home in the comfort of your own armchairs? Who needs to talk about all those synapses, neurotransmitters, and neural networks when there are crashed wave functions to think about? Who needs to do experimental work when you’ve got an active imagination? Pity those poor fools who actually work in the behavioural and brain sciences and are involved in the serious job of finding out how the brain actually works. They just don’t get it do they? :rolleyes: :rolleyes: :rolleyes:

19th Aug 2001, 16:36
Grainger and Stagger:
I have to agree with Gaunty that your assumptions are based on the fact that neuronal activity is a requirement for thought. Perhaps thought does not require that ever so slow process involving ions and membranes and if you accept this then it is a distinct possibility that thought could exceed the speed of light. Icarus raises a very interesting question when he asks if , quote: “ Are thoughts objects ? “ unquote. If thoughts are not objects then the old formula does not apply and the argument for the speed of light is enhanced.

You’ve managed to put into good prose exactly what I was trying to say. I feel Grainger and Stagger are referring to the chemical process. I think of thought as an entirely enclosed reaction. I don’t know where it’s enclosed or how it’s enclosed but I do know it’s awfully fast. To include consciousness as you suggest may make a difficult issue even more complicated.

You are possibly right, we may have met, especially if you flew in South East Asia.
It’s a small world that we of aviation are privileged to be part of.


P.S. Icarus: I wrote this just before reading your latest and I am impressed but I am not enlighten. It's kind of baffling but you've got me thinking.

19th Aug 2001, 17:22
KIFIS, you are too kind. I am but a humble being thinking too deeply!

Stagger, it appears as though you have some kind of a scientific background. Perhasp you would care to read through this:

I think I have good grounds for what I said earlier (which by the way is my own work, as I have just found this whilst searching the web in retort to your 'attack' of sarcasm).

19th Aug 2001, 17:59
Icarus, I do indeed have some kind of scientific background. To lay my cards on the table - I have a PhD in experimental psychology and have done teaching in neuropsychology, neuroanatomy, sociobiology and cognitive neuroscience. So yes – I’ve been trained in the “current paradigm” which you seem to believe is so misguided.

KFIS, is neuronal activity is a requirement for thought? Well, thought tends to be restricted to things that possess neurons - i.e. humans, dogs, cats, mice etc. Rocks, tables and bowls of soup don't do much thinking. Moreover the processes involved in thought tend to be localised within those parts of an organism that contain bundles of neurons. Chopping off someone’s leg doesn’t tend to impair their ability to think all that much – but circumscribed lesions to specific areas of the human brain tend to produce specific cognitive deficits. Experimentally if you chop out chunks of an organism's brain this will tend to restrict its ability to think in fairly predictable ways – i.e. there is a certain amount of functional localisation within the central nervous system. Finally, by blocking specific aspects of neuronal functioning at the cellular level it is possible to interfere with specific aspects of cognitive functioning. All in all there’s pretty compelling evidence that neurons are a requirement for thought.

[ 19 August 2001: Message edited by: stagger ]

19th Aug 2001, 19:08
I don't believe I have said anything is mis-guided have I?
All I have done is put forward my opinion/thoughts/theory whatever you wish to call it (them).
I haven't seen anything else that offers as much to think about. All you seem to have done is lower the tone of what is an interesting topic and one deserving respect and where appropriate respectful critique.

19th Aug 2001, 19:08
Not sure where, but I believe I read an article by some bigwig claiming that
the _mind_ is much more complex than we ever believed because it is a quantum
computer. ie: all the neurons are _entangled_ (as electrons are entangled in
a quantum computer to create qubits). Thus the mind is capable of incredible
things because it has unbelievably parallel computation capabilities.
Interesting, no?

Also, these pilots seem to be forgetting that a thought is not just a single
neuron firing, but thousands/millions. The brain is just like a parallel
computer, which is only partially limited by the speed of communication
amongst its nodes (neurons). A thought (or program) executes (exists) in all
of the nodes (neurons) at once, and not on any specific one. So, trying to
come up with a 'speed of thought' is pretty useless. All that matters is the
external point of view - what actions the person takes based on his thoughts,
and how fast they occur. And, as pointed out, they are on the order of

Perhaps you can compare our senses to peripherals in computers - we are
limited by how fast data flows from our senses to our brain, just as
computers are limited by how fast data flows from its memory/nic/harddisk to
its cpu. So in the end, the speed of thought is dictated partly by its cpu
(brain), but is completely limited to the speed of its peripherals (senses).
Our brains cannot act if they don't have the information, can they?

19th Aug 2001, 19:21
Well if you want to get all metaphysical about it, and you aren't interested in scientific things like the ions and the membranes, then why bother talking about 'speed' at all?

Speed is after all a physical phenomenon, defined as distance divided by time.

Light would take less than a nanosecond to cross from one side of the brain to the other. As I've said, neuron firing rates are much much slower than this.

So go on, please tell us what two events within the brain do you think are separated by less than a nanosecond ?

19th Aug 2001, 23:01
Icarus, the article which you provided a link to was essentially an essay on why modern neuroscience is “misguided.” It suggests that “Instead of trying to explain consciousness in terms of matter and energy, perhaps we should be trying to explain matter and energy in terms of consciousness.” Forgive me for assuming that you were sympathetic with this point of view.

As for me “lowering the tone” of this discussion – I would prefer to call it bringing things back down to earth. Scientists are in the business of trying to explain human psychology in terms of physiological processes. This has been and will mostly likely continue to be a productive enterprise and one which I’m glad to be involved in.

A cautionary note – thought experiments and introspection are not the best way to go about determining how the mind works. Intuitions and common-sense notions about how our minds process information are frequently wrong and often extremely misleading. Let me offer an example. Vivid autobiographical memories often feel like they have a photographic quality. When we recall (think about) a significant event in our life it typically feels like we a retrieving a snapshot of what we experienced at the time. However, experimentally it can be demonstrated that this is not the case. Such memories are actually reconstructions recreated each time they are accessed, and they integrate some stored information about the event in question with more recently acquired information. Consequently autobiographical memories are rather malleable and easily distorted. This is why eyewitness testimony is often so unreliable. Also it’s worth noting that there is little relationship between how sure someone feels that a memory is accurate, and whether it actually is. Our intuitive understanding of our own memory is faulty.

Another example, people will often generate totally plausible accounts of why they behaved in a particular way in a particular situation that are complete fabrications. It often feels like we know why we behaved in a particular way but in reality we have absolutely no idea – it’s all post hoc theorising. Our intuitive understanding of how we make decisions is often wrong.

For these reasons, and many others, trying to come up with general theories of cognition and consciousness that satisfy our intuitive knowledge about our own minds is a fairly pointless exercise.

Mr moto
20th Aug 2001, 00:40
Icarus gave a splendid explanation of the collapsing wave principle.

The attraction of this and the subsequent many worlds theory (Everett, and the rest) is that it can make possible virtually all of the myths and legends of all religions and philosophies, including ghosts, past lives et al.

The two debates going on here are actually quite seperate (and I may have been responsible for a sidetrack) but as I detected a hint of sarcasm from more formally trained contributors, they would do well to remember that the basis of their chemistry is quantum mechanics!

20th Aug 2001, 03:38
Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong...but, Is this PPRUNE an aviation website...Moderator I once again appeal...

20th Aug 2001, 03:54
TR3 - did you read my first posting about the relevance of this topic to aviation? Sure it's a tenuous link but we're having a bit of fun here. :p

Haven't you got anything better to do than try to spoil our fun by posting messages asking for this thread to be closed down? If it doesn't interest you why not just read a different thread? :confused:

20th Aug 2001, 08:58
TR3, just how many of your 53 posts over 6 weeks have been to ask a moderator to close a thread? This is not the first time I am seeing these comments from you.
The subject is relevant as Stagger rightly points out; it may have taken a turn towards matters scientific, but then, if one asks how IRS/INS work, you are also going to get answers based on math/physics, the same as we are getting here, only we are moving away from contempory Newtonian Physics and into Quantum Theory etc to provide/postulate explainations.
If it is too deep for you, take Staggers advice and read another thread or the Beano.

20th Aug 2001, 10:34
Philosopher/Scientists or Scientist/Philosophers is where we are here.

At the risk of boring TR3 to death (his "back" button must be dysfunctional amongst other things) may I quote Stephen Hawking from his “Brief History of Time.”

"Now, if you believe that the universe is not arbitrary, but is governed by definite laws, you ultimately have to combine the partial theories into a complete unified theory that will describe everything in the universe. But there is a fundamental paradox in the search for such a complete unified theory. The ideas about scientific theories outlined above assume we are rational beings who are free to observe the universe as we want and draw logical deductions from what we see. In such a scheme it is reasonable to suppose that we might progress ever closer to the laws that govern our universe. Yet if there really is a complete unified theory, it would also presumably determine our actions. And so the theory itself would determine the outcome of our search for it! And why should it determine the outcome of our search for it! And why should it determine that we come to the right conclusions from the evidence? Might it not equally determine that we draw the wrong conclusion? Or no conclusion at all?”

I would be careful not to fall for the empirical or deterministic approach, Einstein, whose work provided the foundation for quantum physics would have nothing to do with the child of his research. Most of the great hypotheses and theories that underpin our modern science were the result of mind experiments, and moments of great inspiration, only able to be verified decades later when the technology was available.
Copernicus, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Kant, Heisenburg, Hawking the list goes on and ALL of them swimming against the tide of what was known.
Were those theories/hypotheses philosophy? They could not be what we now call “science” as at the time nobody could then prove/disprove or reproduce the results other than through mind games with each other.

What has this got to do with the speed of thought, I dunno but I’ve got an open mind on it.
Religion, Voodoo, witchcraft, the occult call it what you will, but I believe we are all connected with the universe somehow and therefore with each other. As Icarus suggests the "speed" of thought may in fact be for all intents and purposes instantaneous across the "universe" whatever tha may be.

Empirical study may well tell us what is, and maybe how it is, going on from a mechanical or deterministic viewpoint with the measuring tools we currently have at our disposal but I am with KIFIS, it doesn’t yet tell us the whole story.

20th Aug 2001, 11:32
Grainger, whilst I would agree that velocity = distance/time, these days the term speed is used to define 'rate(s)'.
My PC CPU has a Speed of 750MHz but it doesn't travel any distance (well I guess not, I am yet to open the box and look whilst it is turned on). What about the measurement of the speed of decay in a radioactive isotope (half-life), no movement required there either.
I suggest speed is better defined as 'a rate of change' in these circumstances; and perhaps that could be applied here with thought, a rate of change of something in the mind.

[ 20 August 2001: Message edited by: Icarus ]

20th Aug 2001, 12:02
TR3 - I have in fact been away on a trip for the last three days!

Now I like these discussions as much as the next guy :D I think that you are confusing the time between two different events with travel of an object over time.

Tutorial 3: Faster Than Light Travel (http://www2.abc.net.au/science/k2/stn-archive1/posts/topic42526.shtm) explains some of the aspects of trivial faster than light travel for furthur reading.

Now given that, you are free to chase this discussion in ... hmm.... Non Air Transport Issues. PPRuNe's forum for "News and issues not relating to air transport but still involving aviation."