Updated: July 2, 2010
This is something that often comes to mind, albeit at a frontier of a thought already conceived. How fast are our thoughts? Are they physical? Or maybe a by-product of simple physical things like electric current and suchlike? Can thoughts be measured? If not, are they bound by physical laws? Could a thought be faster than the speed of light? If so, what happens when that happens? Is there such a thing as premonition? Can we forethink our thoughts? How does telepathy fit in here?
In this article, I'd like to be creative and discuss the delicate mechanism of our thinking. I'll try to answer all of the questions above without getting philosophical; just pure speculated physics. Well, the beauty about discussing phenomena that science has no formal definition is that anyone can talk about them any which way and sound smart, provided they use reasonably plausible arguments for their dissertation. Which is exactly what I'm going to do.
Definition of thought
Let's try to define this - without getting too smarmy. We're talking physics here, after all! It is obvious there's neural activity inside our heads all the time. However, it is impossible to pinpoint thoughts to any particular electron or a change in quantum states of atoms. We can observe brain activity on a macro scale, but it tells us nothing about the product of that activity, only observed side effects.
This leads me to believe that thoughts are complex functions with possibly unreal eigenvalues, which explains why they cannot be observed, without contradicting the physics. However, this still might pose a problem if we limit our neurons and synaptic activity to classic electrochemical signaling. In this case, we must have wavefunctions with real values only.
An alternative explanation to the physical manifestation of thoughts would be the use of less known particles for signaling, similar to what I proposed in my Telepathy & Telekinesis article. Or we could be dealing with extremely low energies that are undetectable by modern equipment.
A third explanation is that thoughts are a direct, linear product of synaptic activity, although conceived from many thousands or millions of events. In fact, you might treat thoughts as the product of biological cryptography, with electric signals as raw data bits and external and internal stimuli as the encryption key. Which would explain why any attempt to measure thoughts outside the mind would appear as pure random noise.
Depending on which explanation you prefer, the debate of what we do with our mind changes. If you stick with the quantum theory, then we can definitely go beyond simple physics easily. Unknown particles and ultra-low energies place us in an uncharted territory that human instrumentation has not been able to measure yet. And the third explanation is the simplest and purely classic. Now, let's try to answer some fairly basic questions, based on these ramblings.
Some people are smarter - are their thoughts faster?
I would say no. It's like the question whether smarter people have bigger brains. The thoughts travel at the same speed for everyone, it's just that smarter people have more bandwidth. Think of your thoughts as a collection of thought packets. This works for all three cases. A wave group, a coupled state of thought particles (electroweak) or a collection of synaptic connections. Either way, the more the merrier. If you have a wide thought channel, you will be able to transfer more data in a shorter time, which explains why smarter people are indeed smarter.
As to why some people will never be able to think about certain things, it could be the layout of brain topography, which dictates what the human CPU can do. If you do not have enough connections for a certain thought, then it will never happen. A simple analogy would be to try to encode a cipher than is larger than the entire RAM of a machine. There would be no place where to store it.
Faster than the speed of light
Thoughts can be faster than the speed of light, methinks. Proof? Deja vus. That's what happens when you exceed the speed of light and make time twitch. You create a temporal disturbance, although highly localized in your brain, which is then interpreted by our intellect as a delay in a thought already conceived in the past. This makes us think we just had this thought, which we did. We registered the thought twice, once as the super-physical faster-than-light disturbance and once as pure physical information that our senses can register.
This also explains why we have no idea that we just experienced a thought until we receive the information, because there's nothing to process the faster-than-light part. To make a simple analogy, think of spurious thoughts as superluminar phase. And this means that our thoughts are not quite bound by physics, although the process of cognition is. Well, this is a daring claim, but we'll talk about that some more quite soon. However, there's a mathematical contradiction.
Another question you may ask is: are thoughts as fast as we thought them or as fast as we think we thought them? I'm not trying to be philosophical, but having a thought and understanding it is different. A good example is a physical reaction to change. If someone tries to slap you, you will blink, even though you may have not thought about it. So does this reflex constitute as a thought? No. And your understanding of the event will be as fast as your physical senses permit.
But what happens when the entire process is limited to internal processes in your brain? For example, if you're lying on a bed, with eyes closed and trying to solve a puzzle. There will be a moment when you figure out the puzzle, hopefully. You may ask yourselves how fast was the process of realization when you solved the puzzle? Mind, it's not the same as asking how fast was that thought.
For all practical purposes, measuring change is near impossible. At best, you have an approximation of a step function, but any physical thing requires a reasonable amount of time to measure, lest you end up with infinite uncertainty. Therefore, trying to conceptualize thought is like trying to lift yourself off the ground - difficult.
Analogy to CPU ...
The only thing you can measure is the self-realization of thought that is currently active in your brain. Like context switching in CPU, with tasks coming in and out of the process queue. In fact, the creation of computers may be the closest thing to philosophical introspection the humans have made. While we cannot simulate the organic effects that occur in our brain, we sure can simulate the abstraction of communication between its elements, which is exactly what modern CPUs do. The ability to identify your thoughts is what I'd call intelligence and what separates people with different levels of smartness.
Thoughts & time
However, knowing the exact duration of thoughts is probably impossible. It may seem very short or very long or very sudden, but it could be nothing more than a simple chemical effect. Furthermore, our internal clock is also subject to the same principles, which is why time measurement is subjective.
And the principle that time runs faster when you have fun holds true; if you dedicate a large portion of your brain activity to having fun, the clock interrupts will be far and few in between, so you will experience fewer time ticks in a given physical time period. However, when you're bored, you will spend more time sampling your internal clock, thus ending with far more measured time in relation to physical time. Lastly, there's the superluminar phase, which might skew our understanding of the real time, creating a temporal illusion of past-future events, which we interpret as deja vus.
Some extras ...
Lastly, you may also be interested in this (direct link) article - The Speed of Thought: Investigation of a Complex Space-Time Metric to Describe Psychic Phenomena. Note: I'm not sure if this research has a homepage, so I grabbed the highest ranking search in Google. If you know of a better home to foster this article, feel free to email me. It has lots of equations in there, so it must be true or something. It deals with parapsychology, so it might be just a handful of sci-fi techno mumble, still worth a reading.
There you go. I just beat 150 years of philosophy to dust. Nothing mystical, just pure physics. How fast is human thought? Well, physically, no more than the speed of light, which still binds all the little particles, including those we do not quite know about yet. However, we could be experiencing deja vus as a manifestation of faster-than-light thought phase. Lastly, the speed of understanding is purely individual, faster in smarter individual and entirely dependent on external stimuli, which is why you don't take exams during a rock concert.
I hope you enjoyed this. In the sequel, I'll discuss dreams, based on this nonsense above.