Our thoughts are basically the result of the electro chemical activity which are happening in our neurons. The signals sent by different neurons to each other back and forth create a pattern which we register as thought/memory. The start of the electrochemical signal is generated by a potential gradient which is present outside the neuron cell membrane and is regulated by different voltage gates via the mechanism of action potential. My doubt is basically asking what comes first? Looking into it, it seems like thoughts result from these activities inside our brain but then how does this activity is brought about? For me, this question is like asking what comes first, the chicken or the egg. Do the electrical synapse somehow form and then we perceive them as thoughts? Then in this way, we shouldn't have control over what we think because the synapses are not voluntary. But we know this is not the case. Our thinking is under our control

Is there an answer?

  • $\begingroup$ Thoughts = electro-chemical activity 1:1. It just happens that this activity has emergent properties. Are you asking what triggers the electro-chemical activity (which is = thoughts)? $\endgroup$ Apr 28, 2021 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ "Then in this way, we shouldn't have control over what we think because the synapses are not voluntary. But we know this is not the case. Our thinking is under our control" - This is debated extensively in philosophy as the existence or not of "free will". You won't find a definitive answer from science, but certainly not all philosophers would agree with you that thoughts are "under your control". $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 28, 2021 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/free-will $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 28, 2021 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ This question implies that thoughts beget more thoughts in some infinite loop. But thoughts are not the only component of the chain of neural activity. Importantly, senses (inputs) trigger much of the activity in the brain. There are also memories, emotions, metacognition, random noise, and many other factors that play into it. As-is, this question appears to be based on false premises, so I don't know how it can be answered. You may instead be interested in: Where would a cognitively separated person get their brain signals excited from? $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Apr 28, 2021 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ My question definitely implies that thoughts beget more thoughts and that's why I was looking for an answer. Memories, emotions, thinking all are caused by neuronal activity and in the end via electro chemical activity. Im just asking what triggers the electro chemical activity? Is it our senses? That means what we think randomly are related to what sensory input we are receiving at the moment even though our thoughts might not be related to the sensory inputs at all! $\endgroup$
    – Ruchi
    Apr 29, 2021 at 6:12

1 Answer 1


There is ongoing electrical activity in the brain, there's even a lot of it when we are asleep when we are not 'thinking' at all, and also when we are unconscious and even when in coma. When brain activity does cease, i.e., its electrical activity becomes unmeasurable, there's a definite medical emergency.

Thus, there is unceasing activity in the brain. This activity includes both random 'noise' like neuronal jitter (Freeman, 1996) or constitutively active neuronal populations like those in the auditory (Wang & Bergles, 2015) or optic nerves (Sernagor & Grzywacz, 1996), as well as voluntary activity. In turn, the occurrence of random or controlled 'thoughts' is not so strange, as there is ongoing activation of neuronal pathways and activation in one neuron will trigger activity in others.

As a side note, and alluded to in the comments, thoughts are hardly voluntary; think psychotic patients who can experience their thoughts as intrusive or instructing them to do nasty things, people with OCD who have oppressing thoughts they have to do stuff, or folks suffering from PTSD who repeatedly experience flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

As you say, all brain activity eventually boils down to ion gradients in the brain. Every cell in our body needs ion gradients to function properly for that matter.

What comes first? Activity or thoughts? Activity, because even random thoughts need a trigger to occur. How do these impulses come into being? Pre-existing activity.

- Freeman, Int J Neural Syst (1996); 7(4): 473-80
- Sernagor & Grzywacz, Current Biology (1996); 6(11): 1503-8
- Wang & Bergles, Cell Tissue Res (2015); 361(1): 65–75


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