I Think Therefore I Yam

I was puzzled by a recent post in PsychCentral. I read it and reread it. I waited a few days to see what comments people would write. I looked at some of the other posts referenced by the author. Finally, I arrived at the same conclusion I had when I first read the post — this is pure nonsense. Beginning from its provocative title You Are Not Your Thoughts: A Personal Philosophy Of Mind, to the implied “seal of approval” by the use of a selected Martha Nussbaum quote, I found myself arguing with almost every point that was raised.

“You are not your thoughts” – Really? Then what am I if I am not my thoughts? A rock? A tree? I am my thoughts (isn’t that obvious?) and without them, I am not human. [note 1] I can change those thoughts which, the author — Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar — acknowledges, is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy and which she succinctly summarizes as follows:

In a (very small) nutshell, CBT asks you to question your thoughts, and the beliefs that underpin them. It asks you to have another look at the way you’ve got things set up in your mind. To see if the conclusions that it’s so easy to jump to in the heat of the moment are actually even real or right. To renovate the interior of your inner-most home. And it has a few user-friendly formulas to do it with. [Emphasis in the original]

But Gawne-Kelnar has a problem with CBT. It can devolve into condescending happy talk. While holding out the promise of personal change through the process of changing your thoughts (see Am I My Own Placebo Effect?), at the same time it passes judgment about those thoughts: this one is good; that one is bad. To some degree there’s nothing controversial here. This type of self-imposed talking cure has become a staple of the Westernized psyche. But now things become more problematic, more confused. Gawne-Kelnar wants to separate our thoughts from our sense of who we are, from our “identity.” She quotes Martha Nussbaum:

…shortly after [birth] we encounter external forces that corrupt and confuse us. These influences take hold of us: and yet they are not really us. They are not “our very own feelings,” but something from the world outside; and they enslave us as time goes on. [Emphasis in the original]

This quote is rife with assumptions that border on the nonsensical. To say that after we are born we “encounter external forces that corrupt and confuse us,” implies that without those external forces, a child will develop a sense of self, a sense of her own feelings that are pure. Really? And how does this miracle child acquire language? How does this miracle child acquire the mental capacity to understand, to describe, to express her very own feelings? [note 2] Nussbaum (at least in this quote) and, by implication, Gawne-Kelnar, are assuming that humans are born with some essence, some sense of self, that precedes socialization. While current research has pointed in the direction of infants “understanding” much more than we have realized, we also find that they cannot express those “understandings” without language which can only be acquired through those corrupting external forces. Bottom line: there is no self that preexists the effects of the external forces because it is those external forces that provides the human being with the conceptual language necessary to have the concept of self. By appealing to some mythical “self” that is separate from us and our thoughts, or that exists prior to birth and the corrupting influence of socialization, is to resurrect old philosophical problems of mind-body dualism. That may work well within the realm of new-age mysticism but not within the current state of science and psychology. You are your thoughts, even if you don’t think so.


  1. If I am not my thoughts then doesn’t that mean I am in a vegetative state, that I am an empty vessel, a simulacra of a human being? Even to enter some Zen-like nirvana implies that I have some thoughts that are putting me in a calming, meditative “non-thought” state but I am still my thoughts even if my thoughts are not foremost in my mind at that very moment.
  2. There are faint echoes here of Ayn Rand’s grand delusion known as Objectivism. For an eye-opening look at Rand’s absurd philosophy, see this set of videos.
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  • Gina Pera

    Good points, Jeff.

    The problems with CBT, which you point out, are particularly risky when it comes to using CBT for ADHD.

    The CBT models, as developed specifically for ADHD by Ramsay/Rostain, Saffren, etc., are incredibly helpful to late-diagnosis adults  in learning how to let go of cognitive distortions, negative coping strategies, and skewed frames of reference.

    After all, when you don’t know that ADHD lies at the core of many of your challenges, you light upon many other explanations, and over the years that can form the basis of distorted cognition.

    These distortions can be so automatic you aren’t even aware of them. Even when you learn about ADHD, it can take some effort to break down the chain reaction (event-though-feeling-action) that has become second nature.

    For years, I’ve tried to dramatically emphasize that “straight” CBT can be a disaster for ADHD, especially for the “positive thinking” emphasis. (“Negative thinking” didn’t cause ADHD, and “positive thinking” isn’t going to cure it.)

    CBT therapists who don’t take into account the neurophysiological basis of ADHD symptoms and the pile-up of negative feedback over a few decades are can truly miss the boat. 

    • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

      Gina, you actually raise a number of issues that I hadn’t really thought about in the context of ADHD. For me, the main issue was the philosophical sleight of hand concerning the concept of “self.”

      • Gina Pera

        Right. And since, unlike most of us, you have actually been a serious student of philosophy, that would stand out for you.  :)

  • Gina Pera

    P.S.  Hmmm, yams….

    • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

      There’s a triple-meaning to the title. You got the “Yams” part…the thanksgiving reference. Then there’s the origin of the phrase…good ol’ Popeye. But the final meaning is the reference to Descartes, the father of mind-body dualism: Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am…the very philosophical problem that I take issue with at the end of the post.

      • Gina Pera

        I got it. I got it. But I was hungrier than I was philosophical. ;-)

        • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

          That’s my latent academic coming to the forefront.

      • George Mchugh

        Yam fries are ubiquitous, so thanksgiving doesn’t even come to mind. I usually think of Popeye with this quote, but skip Descartes and go right to the original being to who this is credited: “I am who I am” The Burning Bush. I must admit Descartes is more relevant. Thanks- as usual when I read something of yours I add to my list of things to learn about/read.

        • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

          ” when I read something of yours I add to my list of things to learn about/read” – THANK YOU!!

          Popeye versus Descartes: They both provide something of value and slightly difference perspective on life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Hutson/100000576144521 Scott Hutson

    Is this a don’t  ”Walk like a Duck” thing? If CBT can teach me to walk like a dog with 2 legs, will I magicaly turn into a 2 legged dog if I tell myself I am a 2 legged dog that quacks?

    I really don’t like spinach that much, but I love yams….:)

    • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

      You may never actually walk like a 2-legged dog and you may be sent to the looney farm if you think you are such a creature, but the fact that you think you are a 2-legged dog…means you are, indeed, that 2-legged dog. So stop raising your leg and use the bathroom like everyone else, will ya? ;)

  • Katy

    Mmmm, all very interesting. Redirecting ones-self toward more positive thinking, though it won’t cure us…can be a critical coping mechanism. As long as it is presented as such, and as one that takes practice, and does not always solve all problems…it’s perfect ;) But…apples and oranges, I know…

    • Katy

      I hit send and then realized I wasn’t done…I can be an exceptionally good ruminator…finally in the last several years I have started to be able to distinguish between productive rumination and destructive rumination. Sometimes redirecting my thoughts in a more positive direction is what I have to do in order to function. I understand that it doesn’t mean I’m solving anything or fixing anything…I am just saving it all for processing at another time. This is no easy feat at first, when you worry that you will forget something if you don’t cling to it. But it’s funny how after a while, you figure out that things that are important will bring themselves back around when they need to be brought around. No solution is perfect for every situation though…ever…

      • http://jeffsaddmind.com Jeffs ADD Mind

        I think the challenge for ADHDers is when those things you shouldn’t forget magically reappear to your conscious self about three minutes before they are due. ;)

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