Our mind has been likened to working like a series of nodes that work through spreading activation. In cognitive psychology, this theory is termed “spreading activation theory” and is the idea of each thought is a node connected to other nodes by weighted links. The spreading activation theory is the idea that when a node, or idea, is activated by thinking of that idea it sends out a “pulse” or “wave” through all connected links to all other nodes. Nodes closer and directly related will be activated strongly, while other nodes further away in the net will be activated less strongly or not at all. From this point on I will refer to a “node” as thought or idea as a more familiar and relate-able word and can be substituted for either term. As an example to illustrate this idea in practice, imagine a person activating the idea of zebras. Activating the zebra thought will also activate other similar connected thoughts of : black, white, pony, stripes, horse, and animal strongly; but perhaps Sahara, lion, elephant, Africa, hot, desert, and grass less so. The former list are strongly tied to “zebra”, but the latter list may not be directly linked to “Zebra” – the may be 2, or even 3 nodes away. Thoughts even further away like red, house, airplane, or sandwich will probably not be activated very much, if at all.
Relating the spreading activation to how initial thoughts make up our day is that the first thought(s) we have as we become conscious in each new day act as the starting point for which node is activated first. The first node that is activated will have the most chance to activate other nearby nodes. For instance, if you first activate a node that contains a negative idea, you will activate other negative nodes. Activate a good thought first and you will activate more good thought nodes.
Our thoughts are also processed serially, they are like a train of chains. Thoughts flow from one thought to other similar thoughts, and don’t jump from one random thought to another random thought. We don’t usually think, “I’m hungry.. I’m missing a sock.. my favorite tv show is on.. sky is blue.. I remember when I was a kid that I lost my mittens.. how many ounces are in a pound?”. We think more along the lines of, “I’m hungry.. what should I make for breakfast.. I have bread, eggs, and milk in the fridge.. I also have cereal in the cupboard.. What do I feel like eating?” All these thoughts are related to being hungry.
The idea presented here so far in these two paragraphs is summarized simply: Ideas work along in a series of related thoughts. Think first about negative thoughts, and you will get the ball rolling on a negative thought train. Think about positive thoughts and you will get the positive train rolling.
What’s more is that it’s not only our flow of ideas that might influence this idea, but also our perceptions. The empiricist, our beloved uncle, David Hume argues that our sense of selves consist of memories we link causally together, although this causality is an illusion. He believed that both our experiences and sensory faculties influence who and what we are -we create ourselves through linking our different memories and moments together, including anything from our current sensory experience. For instance, if my memories show me to have grown up in a bilingual environment and having attended french immersion schools throughout my life, I would have the sense of self as being a bilingual. I can sense that I speak both English and French when I receive the sense of memories from both languages.
We wake up every morning as a blank slate. Our minds become conscious, our senses turn on, and we begin to take in our environment. We imagine ourselves in our bed, “this is my house, my bed, I have to get up since I have work scheduled at 8 AM”. We begin to take in our senses, smells, sights, proprioception, etc.. If we have bad balance it may activate memories of being clumsy and physically cumbersome, so we define ourselves as “I’m a clutz”.
Hume also argues through his bundle theory we’re simply a bundle of perceptions. Bundle theory states, in short, that a thing only consists of the perceptions we receive. There is no ball, only the perception of solidity, color, size, shape, etc.. Hume argues in his bundle theory of self is that we are but a collection of our perceptions of ourselves at the current state. There is no enduring self, only a collection of seemingly enduring perceptions.
What this means is that what we perceive at any given moment is our reality. This is based on our senses, as well as memories, and memories are just another type of sense. The memories of things which have occurred to us, to which we create casual links are sensed (as memories and/or images) and we link those to our current environment. The culmination of the senses of our environment and memories situates us in our reality.
To summarize Hume’s ideas of self into a simple sentence: we link our memories in series as a picture of who we are, and we tie that to what we’re experiencing right now. If I have memories of being in and out of hospitals due to illness, and feel ill currently, I might think of myself as a diseased or sickly person prone to illness.
It’s the culmination of our waking senses, memories, and thoughts that create our sense of self for the day. Who we construct first lays the foundation of the house that will be built that day. Change your environments and memories and change your day.
In summary, the neural net spreading activation theory provides an argument that related ideas are more prone to be active in the mind. We think in series of thoughts. Our self consists of memories, which are just another thing we perceive, and we links memories together in a causal chain. The perception of our current environment and our memories allow us construct our self. With each new waking day we enter a new conscious state of being, including the state of who “we” are. With the construction of the self and the serial spreading activation of thoughts, it becomes very important that the first thoughts we have in our heads make up who we are, and set the train rolling on the track for the rest of the day. Wake up positive and we’re more prone to have a positive day; wake up negative and we’re more prone to have a negative day.