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.

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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. In 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 for the FutureLearn blog or join the free online course “What is a Mind?

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Comments (44)

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  • 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.