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Thinking Without Words

Thinking without words or images is possible.

This series of posts has been describing pristine inner experience—whatever is directly in your experience at some moment. My colleagues and I have given people beepers to carry into their everyday natural environments; when the beeper randomly beeps, they jot down notes about whatever experience happened to be ongoing (their "pristine" experience) when signaled by the beep. Later we interview them about these experiences.

I've been saying that this procedure reveals five frequently occurring phenomena of everyday inner experience: inner speech, inner seeing, feelings, sensory awareness, and "Feature 5." I haven't said what Feature 5 is, giving you the opportunity to commit yourself to your speculation. Now I'll describe it: unsymbolized thinking.

Unsymbolized thinking is the experience of an explicit, differentiated thought that does not include the experience of words, images, or any other symbols. For example, if you had been beeped a moment ago, you might have experienced an unsymbolized thought which, if expressed in words, might have been something like "I wonder what Feature 5 is." But if this was an unsymbolized thought, there would have been no experienced words—no experience of the word "wonder" or of "Feature 5." There would have been no experienced images—no seeing of a beeper or of anything else. There would have been no experienced symbols of any kind, and yet you would have directly apprehended ("before the footlights of your consciousness") yourself as thinking that exact thought.

Another reader might have said to herself while reading, "I wonder what Feature 5 is?" That experience would have been very different from yours, involving the experience of words. And another may have seen a list that looks like this:

  • inner speech
  • inner seeing
  • feelings
  • sensory awareness

Plus a blank where the fifth feature will appear. Another may have felt a mild irritation with me for wasting time before I got to the point. Another may have been thinking about the war in Iraq. Another may have had no inner experience at all while reading that paragraph, was simply reading with comprehension.

There are thus lots of experiences that people may have had while reading that paragraph. Here I'm trying to illustrate one: unsymbolized thinking I wonder what Feature 5 is.

To qualify as an unsymbolized thought, the thought must be directly experienced, just as directly experienced as would be an inner speaking or the seeing of an image. That is, you don't merely infer the existence of an unsymbolized thought (I must have been wondering what Feature 5 is). If this is an unsymbolized thought, you directly apprehend the thought as an experience before the footlights of consciousness at the moment it is occurring.

An unsymbolized thought is specific: you're wondering what Feature 5 is. You're not wondering whether there are still other features, not wondering how Hurlburt knows this, not wondering what kinds of things go on in peoples' inner experience, not wondering about how inner experience is measured, not trying to recall what sensory awareness is, and so on. That is, you're wondering about what Feature 5 is, not about anything else that might be more or less closely related to that.

An unsymbolized thought is not "hinty" or "general" or merely a part of some other phenomenon. An unsymbolized thought is just as complete and directly apprehendable as an inner speaking or an inner seeing.

Many people (perhaps most), including many (perhaps most) psychologists, believe that unsymbolized thinking is impossible.

Our beeper studies show the full gamut of the frequency of experience of unsymbolized thinking. Some people rarely or never have such experiences, others experience unsymbolized thinking at nearly all their waking moments, and yet others sometimes do and sometimes don't experience it.

Most people who experience unsymbolized thinking, including those in the "nearly always" category, don't realize that they do so. In fact, many people who engage in unsymbolized thinking nearly all the time believe that unsymbolized thinking is impossible, until the beeper reveals its existence to them. A method that carefully explores specific moments is necessary to know what really goes on in inner experience.


Hurlburt, R. T., & Akhter, S.A. (2008). Unsymbolized thinking. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 1364-1374.

Hurlburt, R. T. (2011). Investigating pristine inner experience: Moments of truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ch. 15.