"A penny for your thoughts!"
Let's assume you mean that inquiry seriously-that you really want to know what is going on with me right then. What do you really want to know?
First, you want to catch what was ongoing on with me, just before you asked the question. If I answered "Well, I was thinking about how to answer your 'penny for your thoughts' question," you'd say, "No, that's not what I meant. I want to know what was going on just before I asked that question."
Second, you probably aren't asking only about my thoughts-you're asking about my feelings, sensations, and so on, whatever is "going on with me" just then.
Third, you probably want to know about me, not about people in general. So if I say, "Everyone is sad," you'd say, "Yes, but are you sad right now?"
I think the target of your penny-for-your-thoughts question is important, and I've spent my career trying to help people provide what I call "high fidelity" answers to such questions.
We call the target of your question "pristine inner experience." By "inner experience" I mean thoughts, feelings, sensations, tickles, seeings, hearings, and so on, anything that appears directly before the footlights of consciousness (as William James, one of the founders of psychology, would say). Inner experience can be of internal events (such as seeing in imagination the cloud billowing from the World Trade Center) or of external events (seeing the billowing cloud on a real TV).
By "pristine" I mean occurring before it is disturbed by the attempt to apprehend it. When you said "I want to know what was going on just before I asked that question," you were saying that you want to know about pristine experience, not about experience altered by the question. I mean "pristine" in the pristine-forest sense-the way the forest was before the loggers' clear cut, before the Park Service's asphalt and signage, before the tourists' plastic bags and bottles.
Pristine does not mean "pure" or "clean." Much of a pristine forest is mucky, bloody, brutal.
So "A penny for your thoughts" (seriously meant) translates as "Tell me in high fidelity about your pristine experience."
Our research has shown that pristine experience is fascinating, but that its characteristics are relatively unknown both by the experiencer herself and psychological science.
"How could I not know about my own pristine experience?" you might ask. "I live in it all day every day!" More about that next time.