Thinking and feeling: what’s the difference?

Professor Mark Solms is the lead educator on the University of Cape Town’s free online course What Is a Mind?. Here, he discusses the difference between thinking and feeling, and the role that instinct plays.

The distinction between thinking and feeling (cognition and emotion) is obviously a fundamental one in relation to what the mind does. One of the themes that I’ll develop in What Is a Mind? is the notion that feelings present problems. That is, they represent needs; they represent demands upon the mind to perform work.

Feelings make us aware that something unexpected (or something unpredicted or something uncertain) is occurring. When I say that feelings represent demands upon the mind to perform work, what I mean is that they represent demands on thinking. The work of the mind is thinking.

Thoughts are ways of dealing with feelings

In the primary case, in the standard situation, feelings come first. Thoughts are ways of dealing with feelings – ways of, as it were, thinking our way out of feelings – ways of finding solutions that meets the needs that lie behind the feelings.

The feelings come first in both a hierarchical and a chronological sense. A little neonate (newborn mammal) has no thoughts to speak of, to begin with; it is a little bundle of feelings. Thinking derives from learning, that is, from experience.

The apparatus for thinking then works on the material we have internalised, from the solutions we’ve experienced, as to how our needs can be met in the world. These solutions are, of course, initially provided by caregivers. (That is why parenting is important.) On this basis, thinking gradually develops and teaches us how to manage our feelings – how to solve the problems that feelings represent.

Thinking can become very elaborate

Once that has happened, though, thinking can become very elaborate. To mention just the most obvious case, a thought, which has developed in relation to a particular feeling, can be re-thought.

If that thought is activated from thinking itself, it can, in turn, reactivate the feeling that goes with it, especially if it’s a thought (that is, a problem-solving process) that has not properly mastered the feeling in question. That will reactivate the feeling. So, later in development, thinking can make feelings come second. But that’s a derivative process, once a mature thinking apparatus exists.

Thoughts are internalized experiences

We must remember that thoughts are just an internalized version of our perceptual experiences of the world. All thoughts, as distinct from feelings, have a perceptual format that is derived from sensory images. (This applies also to thinking in words.) They are internalisations of our experience of the world; what Freud called the “reality principle”.

So when we are feeling our way through a problem using thoughts, we are, as it were, feeling our way through a virtual form of reality, feeling our way through representations of reality.

The function of thinking, in this sense, stands for reality. It’s a virtual space in which we can work out, in the safety of our minds, what to do in relation to reality, before we actually put solutions into effect. In short: thoughts are interposed between feelings and actions.

Thinking and doing overlap

There is also an important overlap between thinking and doing in the world. One consequence of this overlap is that we might, in our doings in the world, avoid certain situations and certain places – for example, dizzying heights – because they make us feel something untoward (in this case, fear): “I won’t go there because I know that if I go there, I’m going to feel scared.”

That’s what the thought is doing, that is the work it performs. It guides what you do and don’t do in relation to feelings that arise from virtual actions. That’s one of the ways in which someone might develop, for example, a phobia. There are all sorts of complicated mental gymnastics that we get up to on the basis of the processes I’ve just described.

Thinking is a refinement of instinct

This leads me to the topic of instincts. We do not have to work out our own solutions to all of life’s problems on the basis of experience. In addition to what we work out for ourselves, and what our parents teach us, we also have certain in-built solutions to problems of universal biological significance.

These solutions apply to things we cannot afford to learn from experience. For example: “I wonder what will happen if I jump off this cliff?” The answer to that question would be the very last thing you learn. Thank heavens for instincts!

But there are many, many problems that cannot be predicted by evolution (what happens if you poke your finger in an electric socket, for instance) and for these problems we need to learn from experience. The in-built solutions are too general and crude.

There are more problems in the world, by far, than there are instincts. So the instincts need to be extended and elaborated, to cope with real-life situations in all their complexity. For that reason, thinking not only interposes itself between feelings (in general) and actions, but also between instinctual feelings and the automatic responses they would release. Thinking generates more nuanced action options.

So – in general – thinking develops in order for us to manage feelings (and the needs they represent) in more flexible ways than our in-built instincts provide. Thinking is a refinement of instinct.

Feelings are not always bad things

What I have said might give the false impression that feelings are always bad things – but they aren’t. Thinking tells you what action will deliver maximal pleasure just as much as the opposite. On the course, we’ll delve more deeply into these workings of the mind, and how pleasure and unpleasure relate to thoughts and feelings.

I mustn’t try to cover everything before we have even begun…

Want to know more? Read Professor Solms’s previous post on the FutureLearn blog or join the free online course What is a Mind?

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Comments (61)

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  • MR M J HOLME

    I’m in my fifties. I’ve had a mood disorder with varying degrees of a psychotic element for 30 years. My experience of the thought / feeling thing, has had confusing moments. In mild circumstances I am able to say its the illness based feeling, but the sudden change in thinking seems so plausible. When insight goes it certainly isn’t a matter of feeling, it is 100% thought or delusions.

  • Jonny

    Thought always comes before emotion, meaning feelings/emotions are always caused by thought. Even if you think an extestential thing has caused feeling/emotion it’s always the thought of the extestential thing that causes feeling/emotion

  • Maurice Thurman

    Surely instincts are learned behaviour. Recent research confirms that neonate babies do not have a fear of heights. They learn to fear as their locomotion skills develop.

  • George Filiatrault

    You don’t know what the whole process of evaluating ones mind really means. Many hours and minutes pass in each and everyone’s life which are all total and completely different the thought process for each and everyone of us depending on there health and life’s stigma and struggles is total different in turn our life’s don’t mesh the same.

  • Saqib Ali

    Very helpful Thanks alot

  • Bill

    Emotions and thoughts have a feeling connected to them. Feeling is not the same as emotion. Feeling is more at the root than thought or emotion.

  • Susan Fehl

    Thanku. You clarified how i felt.

  • Krystyl

    What do you do when your mind forgets thinking and you can only use feeling.

  • Ramin Basharyar

    Thanks it was great

  • ali,p.n

    Hello ALI P.N.,

    We’re missing you on What Is a Mind?, so we thought we’d share a few tips to help you start the course.
    Don’t worry about how much you know

    FutureLearn is designed for people with all levels of experience – you don’t need to be an expert to join in.
    Look at what other people are saying

    Not sure about the subject? Throughout the course you can ask for help from other learners or the educators if you get stuck.
    Do the whole course step by step

    You don’t need to do a lot of work in one go – you can space your learning out. Spend half an hour getting to grips with the introduction today, then come back for more
    Start your course now

    As mentioned the Professor Mark slom In the primary case, in the standard situation, feelings come first. Thoughts are ways of dealing with feelings – ways of, as it were, thinking our way out of feelings – ways of finding solutions that meets the needs that lie behind the feelings.
    In the contrary I feel feeling will cause illness and diseases other than thoughts.

  • Laura

    I think that a newborn mamal not having the ability to think is shallow science. Atoms show intelligence if you think instinctual actions are not thinking you have just deleted the importance of billions of years evolution. It like saying you didn’t have to use anesthesis on babies because their nerves weren’t developed enough or babies are not born with their own personalities. It is arrogance on our part to even think that going through birth and that experience is not immediately thought provocing, then when does thinking start for you? We are born with an intelligence that you are not giving credit to. We are built from an energy that has inteligence, that thinks. I don’t believe you have looked at enough evidence to say that newborn mamals do not have that capacity. And where are these feelings generated from? What are their source? Not their purpose or end results, but their source? And do you believe that by it’s very nature things that have life therefore has intelligence and the ability to think? And if we are the pinnacle of thinking does that make us smart to think nothing else thinks because it is not done as sofisticated as us as adults? Let me know.

    • Jorn Wieldraaijer

      Thinking is aribtary. It is based on our past experiences. Unfortunately the human being is trapped in this mental prison. Some are aware of this some don’t. Emotion is deeply related with thinking. If you cry because your mom has die it is of all the mental images you have about her. Also thinking is in the field of ‘what was’ and ‘what comes’. The present we cannot be aware of at all because the very instrument you use to say this is the present, this is the now is thought. Our natural intelligent state is gone. Knowledge separates ourselves from the world around us and creates the ‘I’. There is no such thing as ‘Your’ mind or ‘my’ mind. There is only the whole accumaltion of thought which is culture. Lets call it the world mind. Feelings are sensations, but when you have described for example with happy or unhappy you have put them in the field of thought. I think therefor I am. But if you don’t think.. are you there? Thought invented: Time, Space, Gods, Science, Art, Culture. But it is not our true nature. Once we can let go of ourselves without effort it will flower. And that will be a real death. The ending of the ego is the only death there is.

  • Leo Grey

    This is the quintessential attempt to reduce human lived experience to it’s fundamentals. In all their nuances, senses, feelings, thoughts, actions and instincts characterize human life.

  • renee docquois

    can you give me some information please..if feeling comes first does it come from conscious or unconscious mind or from some form of instinct I LIKE i don t like some form of deep down animal sort of reaction corrected afterwards by thouht or reason ..or not corrected at all thank you for guiding me only labyrinths are interesting..

    • William Derek Graham

      Hi Friend, I believe it comes mainly from the unconscious mind. Some helpful reading Material is a book entitled, ‘I’m Ok; You’re Ok’ Author Thomas S. Harris MD.

      Blessings … Derek.

  • Johnny

    Is the relation between feelings and thoughts as a “refinement of instinct” the relation between pleasure principle and reality principle?

  • Nava

    Great introduction, thank you ! I always suspected I am confusing feeling with thinking, when required to think, I feel and when required to feel I
    think…looking forward to putting all in order !

  • Bob

    Enjoyed reading Proffessor Solms remarks. My practice is based around: thoughts (random and continuous), thinking (actively working with a thought or thoughts), feelings (the product of thoughts and or thinking), action (response to thoughts/feelings or thinking/ feelings).
    Instinct comes from a subconscious combination of the above plus experience and knowledge.
    Looking forward to a thought provoking course.

  • Kripi

    How bad and good feelings can be differentiated irrationally? Because mostly the distinction of bad and good for an individual depends upon its perception, and that’s not irrational completely.

  • Muneeza gul

    If the thought and feelings are different then what could we do???

  • Antonella Ronco

    We are sure that there is no thought in the feelings? I consider that Emotions are thought-free but in feelings, which I consider categorization experience seems to me that there is a thinking particle, a proto-thought but there is.
    Panksepp’s seven instinctual systems sell out the entire range of the instincts that is if they are completely overlapped with the concept of instinct?
    In this part of the course sometimes I have the feeling that emerges most clearly a concept of the mind as a processor of information, in a model in which the mind is a kind of computer. It receives stores processes in order to produce information. The mind as a perfect probem solver. I’m wrong? But we did not say that it is not just this?

  • Meera

    This article brings me to the day i decided to get over my fears (Bad feelings that people have embedded into me). Even thouugh my parents warned me animals bite and kill, I decided to go to a forest trip and boy!!! my heart was screaming at me to run away and it took all my will power to keep going, thats a decision ill never regret.
    What im saying here is, thoughts not only act in favour of feelings always, it sometimes pushes it away so as to bring new feelings to life.

  • Doc

    I have trouble with the way you’ve chosen to word some parts of your argument. It is a legacy of having a Logician as my mentor during my college days. 🙂

    That said, ‘feelings’ are not always independent or dependent on thoughts per se. The stimulus and response to the feelings a burner creates involves pulling your hand away before a considered thought enters your mind.

    Or do you differentiate reflexes in the spinal cord as something other than ‘mind’? If so, what other neurological behaviors, e.g., hunger, lust, anger, etc., do you omit from the definition of mind? Be careful lest you are left arguing for a ‘soul’. 🙂

    Similarly, that ‘sense’ that someone is lying, or a place or situation is dangerous defies rational analysis. When pressed, most can not articulate the ‘reason’ behind such thoughts.

    It is probably part of what you call instinct, but what I would prefer to call ‘inherited behavior’. My mother reported that I had her mother’s speech patterns and mannerisms. My MGM died prior to my birth. I suppose it could be reincarnation, but I think it is more likely that some complex behaviors, along with primitive reflexes, are inherited.

  • fatima amin

    Yes completely agree that emotions are a difficult part of our life, agree with jas mania that is not always easy to think our way and yes is better learn to feel less and that would help you release stress no? Is that true? What can help to release stress?

  • Jas Mankia

    Is feeling limiting our positive thinking even when we know it is counter productive. Has nurturing played a really unsurmountable role in this. I find problems that we feel are not always easy to think our way out of. Is this true? Is this a weakness of the mind then? If we then suppress or learn to feel less how does that affect our thinking, or are we computerising yourself!

    • Doris Robinson

      Jas, I find this discussion requires me to think so hard to sort out how feeling and thinking relate to each other , that I need to read it probably more than twice . And that experience itself is going to make me concentrate more deeply. I wonder if I will be able to solve that problem . I joined these courses to make me use my mind and keep it active now I am getting older,(87yrs) and this course is going to be areal challenge

      • Shirley Cook

        Very true respect to you Doris!!!! You are right in that this course is a real challenge!!! Stretching my grey matter I can tell you!!

        • Joan Naylor

          I couldn’t agree more with both of you, Shirley and Doris. It is also stretching my ‘grey matter’! I have read and re-read this section on differentiating between feelings and thinking (three times, in fact) but feel I now, finally, have a good understanding in my own mind. It’s very interesting.

          • Monica Quinn

            Well there’s the rub Joan…do you feel you have an understanding or think you have an understanding? 😉

  • Eve Grable

    From this I get the distinct idea that all emotions are feelings but not all feelings are emotional, some are instinctual. As a baby I may feel hungry. If that feeling is not met with satisfaction, then I may experience an emotion such as frustration, or anger or sadness. So essentially, emotions are a result of instinctual feelings. Is this correct?

  • Martin

    Thank you for a very full discussion of these issues. I remember struggling with the order of hierarchy for feelings, thoughts and actions when encouraging offenders to look at, analyse and consider changing their behaviour, twenty years ago. Understanding the neonate experience was what I lacked then and the feedback loop between feeling and thinking (and actions) made things very complicated!

  • GURUDATH

    Thinking and feeling aren’t they the response of the mind? How does feeling comes before thinking? For e.g., when I hear that my relative died in an accident, the ‘hearing’ is relayed to my brain and the thought process is put in motion. I think on the news I have just heard. Is feeling not a thought?

  • Brian

    Can a thought exist without a thinker? The thought that 2+2=4 will be there after we are all gone.

    • Doris Robinson

      Brian , when we are gone 2&2 will still equal 4 , we just will not be there to experience it .

      • Eve Grable

        Brian this is an interesting question. Does math exist outside the mind or did the mind create math as a way to explain phenomena. I just saw a documentary on this very subject on PBS.

  • Mikhail

    I have to take an issue with what you said about instincts. “I wonder what will happen if I jump off this cliff?” that is a learned instinct, because if it was a biological part than a toddler would know it without first learning about the dangers of falling off a cliff or jumping into a swimming pool and drowning. What say you?

    • Michael Peel

      I would say that cliffs and rivers have been around for millennia and that our instinct to avoid them evolved in early mammals or even earlier. Swimming pools and electrical sockets are much more recent innovations and we have yet to become instinctively wary of them.

      • mary

        Babies do have a cliff/void visual response and will not crawl over what appears to be a void even though their hands may tell them the plastic on which they are moving is weight bearing. we do not need to experiment with sockets, someone will tell us NO load and often. So Instinct learnt over millennia has its place, Some things are learnt the hard way but are not life threatening, Others are.

  • GRAY

    Having read the article, and responses, my sense & feeling is to encourage people to think outside-the-box. Debating behaviour, conditioning, reasoning, ontology …etc. and their consequent semantics, ad nauseam, serves to explain the already explained. Why not explore the root of mind from Higgs boson (for non creationists), through gestation, through life-cycle. Why not take the opportunity to explore mind; via influence of genetic coding, synapse, conjunction, and their impact on relationships between heuristic reasoning and cognitive biases…etc. That would ring my bell… to uncover encoding for learning

  • Miguel Saravia

    I respectfully think, we live between to different realities: the cellular level of reality; more energetic and instinctive one, and the organic level of reality; wich we can say is more a socially directed one. We can see that just by realizing that all kind of interactions, feelings and solutions (thoughts) have an electrochemical basis. So, for this course we are going to put more emphasis in the social aspect of the existence, wich, at the end, is the one creating the problem of the mind, and for instance of the self.

  • Shevchenko Helen

    A very interesting topic. I consider thinking to form and create the person. Any person lives in the world of thoughts that is individual

  • Isra

    Just wanted to comment on the example of instinct (jumping off a cliff). In my opinion even that action is lead by thinking not instinct. For example, babies can crawl over the edge of a bed and can fall off (not protected by this instinct) untill they learn from experience the concept of hieghts. which can then be used when thinking (I want to jump off that cliff).

    • Miguel Saravia

      Babies do not just jump at “will” if they fall is by accident and because their brain is still learning how to operate the rest of the body.

    • Christina Ebuang

      Babies live for gratifying their desire/ needs (pleasure) and that is what they get: gratification of those.. As they grow and get to crawl , a desire such as to crawl over the edge seems attainable, until the baby experiences or learn than the is a thing called falling (pain) An adult who stands over the edge goes the with an intention to commit suicide or deal with fear or sth through bungy jumping knowing a line will be tied to the body and hopes to be puled back to land

  • Peter Adams

    I read about thought / mind being holographic. Also that we live in a holographic world. Not being a physicist I struggle to understand such statements. Explain ?

  • fatimah

    nice topic , but i would like to add my opinion which may be considered wrong to you . I think we our thinking started before our feeling , e.g. (when someone telling us about the feeling he had experience when his mother died , we never reach his feeling (feel) unless we passing through same experience (thinking)

    • Julia

      I wonder how we had thoughts and how we understood feelings before we developed a common language? Were feelings felt in the mind or in the body?

    • Miguel Saravia

      Hello Fatimah! Some, or several of our thought can be learn, and also can create the sense of filling the experience (empathy) Since we where kids we have been seen people loosing their love ones and experiencing (at second hand) their feelings (our brain is capable of activating the same area exercised by someone who is playing the guitar, for example, as if we where the ones playing it)

  • Lilian

    I think even an unborn child can think and does so. For instance, it can recognize its mother’s voice, develop a preference for a storybook or music it has heard repeatedly, and after an initial reaction of alarm to a loud noise, it will eventually stop responding to it when it is repeated a couple of times. A fetus can listen, learn and remember at a certain level.

    • GNK

      We seem to get used to like repeatitive patterns from our senses. For example a small child overtime develops a taste for his food. He/She with time decides what are his/her favourite food. As the child grows as experiences new tastes this changes with time.

    • Noreen

      Whether or not a fetus can feel or think, I would take issue with the statement above that a newborn is nothing but “a little bundle of feelings” – probably because it’s almost impossible in practice to separate feelings from the perceptions (= thoughts!) that give rise to them. For a newborn baby to have a feeling, say, of discomfort, he/she must first have perceived the (unpleasant) situation. That is, to have had a thought (yes!) which would be the non-linguistic equivalent of “It’s cold!” before the feeling of not liking it, so “Wah!”. My point is that even feelings are ‘about’ something. This brings us, if thought through, to the really hard question: what is consciousness? …

  • Patrick Miniti

    I wonder as i read through the above, as complicated as it is, i wonder if i would understand it better. I look forward to learn more and understand the connection of thoughts and feelings.

  • dalila

    Alot of by reading this page.. thnk u Igot

  • dalila

    Actually I am interesting

  • Hnin wai

    i got a lot of knowledges by reading. So good.

  • Izeldin

    actually am very interesting for this page

  • Chris Vaughan

    What about “Gut Instinct”? EG on my drive to work I have route choices. Sometimes I approach these choices on the “thought-out” basis of radio traffic advice, experience and habit. But sometimes I rely on my “gut feeling” as to which route and branch I take, without regard to outside input. As an aside, usually (more scientifically 80% of the time or so) when I rely upon gut feeling I end up avoiding trouble/traffic/accidents. Is this unconscious thinking or “spooky feeling”?

    • MMC

      I have similar experience too and I believe it is the development of the subconscious mind over time and has been directed by my survival instinct. It has made me sensitive to my evolved beliefs and fears within and keeps me alert always. I believe the subconscious mind calculates on my applications resources of time, energy and effort that may be required in interaction with the external activities in life.

    • Heinrich

      Perhaps “gut feel” is the result of processing and synthesis we are not immediately or consiciously aware of?

      On a lighter note, Carl Sagan was once asked what his gut feeling is on the topic of the existence of “aliens”. His reply was along the line of… I prefer not to think with my gut.

  • Endre Polyak

    Thinking is rational if it is not clouded by feeling.

  • jackson owino

    I have understood but i have a question,why do some people cant controle their past experiences e.g addicton to sex,musterbatio,drugs.How can these people manage their thoughts?