“Thought as a system” by David Bohm: A book review
David Bohm’s “Thought
as a system” begins with a bombshell. He says, “What is the source of all
this trouble (that humanity is facing – war, corruption, conflicts etc.)? I’m
saying that the source is basically in thought. Yet it looks as if the thing we
use to solve our problems is the source of our problems.” It feels as though
Bohm is pulling the rug under our feet. What is wrong with the thought?
Imagine you cross your boss in the office corridor and
you see that he is looking particularly unhappy and avoiding eye contact. Then
you recollect that he would have seen your email that your teams’ delivery will
slip this time as well. Now, it is clear to you that he is really going to take
some action this time. You go to your seat and immediately start browsing job
market sites. Soon you are convinced that boss is going to fire you. You start
sending mails to your close friends looking for help in finding a job. You are
not able to focus on your work and you come home worried. A couple of days pass
in this state. And then you get a mail from boss for a one-on-one meeting. Boss
says, “Why are you looking so tense these days? I strongly suggest you should
take some time off. And don’t worry about the slippage. I know how the customer
requirements changed last minute. You have done a good job in making sure the
schedule doesn’t go out of hand.” And you say to yourself, “Oh! My boss is
really not mad at me. I suffered unnecessarily past few days.”
This is an extrapolated version of a short story Bohm
narrates in the book. It highlights the role thought plays in altering our
perception. The thought “My boss is mad at me” muddles up our perception and we
start seeing the world as if it is real. Our actions of browsing job
sites, sending resume, not focusing on work result from that. When we persist
with incorrect perception in spite of contrary evidence, Bohm calls it
“sustained incoherence”. Thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then it
struggles against the problem it is producing. In this case, thought doesn’t
know that it has imagined that boss
is about to fire me and it is struggling to overcome the “firing” problem.
Taken to extreme, my behaviour at work might be affected so much that boss
might eventually fire me confirming my belief.
Sustained incoherence may result into “seeing” every
person from a particular nation or religion or community as a “bad person”. In
its milder form, this might result into shouting at your daughter or student. In
its amplified form, it may lead to mass killings. A thought such as “I am the
greatest” may lead to building a twenty seven storied house for a family of
five. More importantly, thought is responsible for significant portion of our
suffering in our day-to-day life and incorrect action that flows from it.
Bottom line is – thought affects our perception and we don’t even know it.
Why don’t we see that the perception is muddled up by a
thought and doesn’t hold real ground? Well, thought is built to resist
everything that weakens its role. Thought operates very similar to how a
knee-jerk happens. You hit the bone and knee jerks automatically, reflexively.
Similarly, you see boss’ frowned face and like a reflex a thought pops up
saying he is mad at me. Thought is a system of reflexes all ready to be fired
at the press of a button. And what presses the button? Well, it could be a
word, an image, an emotion, another thought etc. A thought such as “I am the
greatest” or “I am useless” can create a chain reaction that can last a
lifetime. The reflexes are continuously being adapted by new thoughts and being
strengthened by repetitive thought patterns. Thought as a system of reflexes is
constantly creating a huge amount electrochemical smog in which we live and
What do we do then? Here is how Bohm offers hope. He
points out to a bright spot we already possess i.e. our ability to see the
relationship between our intention and the movement of our body parts. It
is called proprioception. Proprioception makes us aware
that it is my intention that is moving my hand. On the other hand, the car passing by on the
road is not being moved by my intention. Good pianists, dancers, gymnasts have
highly developed proprioception at least for some of the body parts. What happens
when we lose proprioception? Bohm tells the story of a proprioception impaired
woman who got up in the middle of a night screaming and hitting herself. Only
when the light was turned on she realized her mistake. It was her own hand that
had touched her and she thought it was someone else. Thus proprioception plays
a crucial role in our daily movements.
Bohm feels that thought is a close cousin of our body
parts. Hence, we should be able to see its movement just like we see the
movement of our hand and feet and its relationship to our intent. And we should
be able to see how the story the thought is spinning is muddling up our
perception. Most of us have lost our ability to see the movement of thought
just like the woman who has lost it for the entire body. Can we build the
ability of proprioception of thought? If so, how?
Bohm suggests we make a note of “boss is mad at me” kind
of repetitive stories that lead to our suffering and identify the buttons which
get them started. A button could be a word or an image (say of an ice-cream or french
fries) or a thought. In an
earlier article I had mentioned one of my buttons – someone cutting the
line in which I am waiting for my turn. First thing is to observe how the
button press and story spinning happen like a knee-jerk – automatic and
reflexive. The next thing is to invoke the word that presses the button
voluntarily and see its mechanical reflexive nature starting from your own
intent. This helps us drop those stories which are not getting validated e.g.
“boss is mad at me and will fire me”. This weakens the reflexes. Eventually, it
may reduce the interference of thought substantially leading to a more coherent
perception and more meaningful living.
“Thought as a system” is my third David Bohm and it was published
in 1992 the year Bohm died. I read "Wholeness & the implicate order" in 1997 and "Science, order & creativity" a couple of years back. “Thought as a system”
is clearly my most favourite among the three. It is an edited transcript of a
seminar Bohm conducted in 1990 in Ojai, California. It is not a light reading and is in the
form of a dialogue. I have a special liking for a dialogue / interview
narrative as compared to a single person narrative. Hence, I was able to
appreciate it even more. I am thankful to my dad and his friend Harshad Shah for suggesting
and making it available to me.
Bohm talks about the worst thing a reader can do with a
book like this. He tries to understand the concepts with thought and says, “I
got it.” That’s where you lose the game. The concepts get incorporated into the
system of reflexes and that adds further fuel to the electrochemical smog producing
engine. In Bohm’s words, “Thought can deceive us about anything and everything.
There is no limit to its power of deception.” Watch out for the thought-trap if you read the book and even if you don't read the book.
of thought” - David Bohm explains the basic concepts in the book in this
interview by Michael Mendizza done in 1978.
Video coverage of some of the sessions in the 1990 Ojai
seminar on which this book is based are available on