What is Thinking? How Does Thinking work? (Explained)

What is Thinking?

Thinking is the cognitive process, the use of everything from long-term memory to come to an end or solution to the problem.

In everyday language, we have been using the term “thinking” with a wide variety of meanings. The phrase thinks better means for a more favorable opinion, think twice to reconsider, or think again, think up to invent, contrive plan, etc. Webster’s New World Dictionary (1988) defines the word think, as the general word which means to exercise mental faculties to form ideas arrive at conclusions, etc.

Thinking is also synonymously used with the words reason, cogitate, and reflect. The word reason implies a logical sequence of thought, starting with what is known or assumed and advancing to a definite conclusion through the interference drawn. For example, he reasoned that she would accept the proposal. Cogitate is used sometimes humorously to describe a person who is, or appears to be thinking hard. For example, I was cogitating, not daydreaming. Reflect implies turning one’s thoughts back on a subject, or a series of unbroken thoughts.

Thinking is an incredibly complex process and must difficult concept in psychology to define and explain. Philosopher has argued for a generation about the meaning of thinking. In the field of psychology, thinking refers to the active mental process. Psychologists defined thinking as the manipulation (handle) of the mental representation of information.

A mental representation may take the form of a word, a visual image, a sound, a data any other sensory modality stored in memory. Thinking transforms a particular representation of information into a new and different form, allowing us to answer questions, solve problems or reach goals.

Thinking can be defined in many ways:

Thinking Is A Symbolic Process

Thinking is defined as the memory representations or symbols for a purpose. While executing mental actions and implementing decisions, individuals take the help of visual representations or mental images of persons or objects. The mental images or visual representations may be in the form of past knowledge, understanding of signs, symbols, concepts, ideas, visual pictures, words, languages, numbers, and diagrams rather than the overt activity.

The systematic arousal of symbols helps organize thinking. For example, if we have to carry a large table through a narrow doorway, we rotate a visual image of the table in our mind, determining that the table won’t fit if it is not turned sideways. Davis, S.F., and Palladino (2004) define”thinking as a mental process involving manipulation of information in the form of images or concepts that is inferred from our behavior”.

Thinking Is A Higher Mental Process

Thinking comes under cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with higher mental processes which examine thinking, knowing and reasoning, problem-solving, decision making, and understanding the world, communicating our thoughts to others, using our memory and current experience. It is only through thinking that we encode, process, store, retrieve and analyze information.

Thinking makes human beings higher organisms than animals. It makes a person capable of winning the Novel prize, exploring the universe, solving complex problems instantly, or mentally be retarded. It is a process that remains until death. People think even in dreams and sleep.

Thinking Is A Sub-Vocal Talking

Thinking is a private process, the inner workings of an individual as well as a mechanical activity of the person. Thinking is neither an activity confined to the head nor directly observable. It involves implicit or inner behavior, mental images, and some slight muscular movements.

We can not think only in verbal and mathematical symbols but also in gestures of the arm, hands, and heads, as well as in a wide variety of expressive movements, such as shrug of the shoulders, arrowed eyebrows, a smile, etc. thus the whole organism is involved in thinking. If we watch children solve a puzzle, we can observe their movements. From these movements, we can determine what they are thinking. Thus, it is called sub-vocal talking.

Thinking Is Fulfilling A Need or Problem Solving

It is always initiated by a problem and ends with its solution. It is evident when we produce new meanings, beliefs, and plans to solve problems or make decisions. Some problems are easy to solve while others require great effort, concentration, patience, and thought. Some may be unsolvable but still, we think. The thinking goes on to trace out the required route to reach the goal, mentally removing obstacles. This process helps to understand the nature of the problem, identify the needed information to solve it, and then generate a list of solutions.

Thinking can be seen in the “aha” (I got the answer) experience when people find the solution to a problem suddenly that had been in their mind for hours or days, later, thus fulfilling the need of an individual. Warren, H.C. and L. Carmichael (1930) define thinking as “it is a symbolic, initiated by a problem or task which the individual is facing, involving some trial and errors but under the directing influence of that problem and ultimately leading to a conclusion or solution of the problem.

Elements of Thought

Thinking uses tools and instruments of various kinds. These are the elements that help to work our thinking effectively. Some of these are mental images, concepts, and propositions.

Mental Images

Mental images are mental pictures of our past experiences. Whenever we think of certain objects or events we visualize them in their absence. Images can be auditory, olfactory, visual, gustatory, cutaneous, or kinesthetic. For example, you can recall the mental pictures of the picnic with your friends where you listened to good music (auditory), enjoyed delicious foods (gustatory), smelled the flower around the picnic spot (olfactory), good sceneries (visual), danced with your friends each other’s hands (cutaneous), and so on.

Mental imagery is greatly used in sports and music. Athletes use them while in a training phase. Sports psychologists have advocated visual imagery as a practice technique to enhance performance in sports and in rehabilitating injuries. Research evidence shows that mental practice can activate brain structure which aids in performance. Thus images help us to plan a course of action if we scan information stored in memory. It also helps on a task for better results.

Although images play an important role in thinking but not all involve images. Images may not be necessary for abstract thinking. Much of it involves the formation and use of concepts.


Concepts are the mental representation of a class of objects, people, events, and things that share common characteristics. e.g. animals, furniture, vegetables, etc. Cauliflower, beans, and cabbages are examples of the concepts of vegetables. Red, green, and white are the concepts of colors. The flower is a concept but an individual flower is not a concept. The word mother is a concept but my mother is not a concept. Similarly, the sun, and moon, are not concepts.

Concepts help to reduce our mental efforts and make communication easier with relative ease. They organize complex phenomena into simpler, easily understandable, and usable categories and help to solve our problems.


Thinking involves languages, percepts, and symbols to give meaning to our thinking process. Propositions describe the mental manipulation of these cognitive skills (languages, mental images, concepts) for meaningful relationships to what we are thinking. Propositions form mental models which guide our knowledge structure with objects places and events of the world around us.

While an incorrect model leads to errors in thinking and inactions. For example, the sentence “I missed you” conveys intimacy between two best friends. If your mental model is wrong about that friend you may think negatively about her/him. This proportion creates a link between our mental processes.

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