I am at the verge of submitting a paper on 'scientific explanation of reality' to an international philosophy body. First submitted draft was returned by the evaluation expert, asking me to re-submit it, after re-checking the validity of my assertion that 'science (biology) believes that neuron firing always precedes thought'. Can any one provide answer on biology's clear stand on above question ?

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    $\begingroup$ how do you define "thought" biologically? $\endgroup$
    – Memming
    Feb 26, 2014 at 4:25
  • $\begingroup$ see the "materialism" philosophy debate. biologists are more agnostic on this, a position not really required for biological work. maybe a better fit on Philosophy or Psychology & Neuroscience. there is possibly some data from neurobiology specifically brain imaging studies that does impinge on the question. $\endgroup$
    – vzn
    Feb 27, 2014 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ I would suggest doing reading on corollary discharge to answer part of your question. $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2014 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ i'd be surprised if you could find a neuro-scientist who didn't go at least this far. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Apr 19, 2014 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ this should be on the neuroscience stack. Voting to close until you migrate it. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 26, 2022 at 3:11

3 Answers 3


I think the only way to interpret these kinds of questions biologically is to assume that "thought" means "the perception of a thought occurring." The perception of a thought, like all perception, arises from neuronal firing.

The interesting biological (rather than philosophical) questions arise when we look at the relationship between the neural firing that gives rise to the perception of intent to act and neural firing that carries out the "intended" actions.

This paper is relevant. The authors are trying to argue that the initiation of a motor action comes before the perception of intent for that action. I'm not a cognitive neuroscience person, though, so I'm not very familiar with their techniques and personally have a hard time determining if they draw valid conclusions.

  • $\begingroup$ I didn't read the paper that you linked, but the reaction time literature supports that assertion as well. See some of the papers in the early 2000s by JF Kalaska. The work is done in primates, so it's difficult to gauge "perception" of the movement. I'm sure there's been human work since then, I just haven't looked for it. $\endgroup$
    – jonsca
    Feb 26, 2014 at 17:42

You've stumbled on an old and unanswered question that is still debated--- bordering on the issue of Free Will. The reason it is still in the realm of philosophy is because current experiments don't allow direct testing of which neurons give rise to specific thoughts. This area of consciousness is fraught with difficulties and we just can't get at an answer.

Now for a more philosophical answer. All consciousness is generated by the brain so every thought must come from neuronal firing necessarily. The difficulty lies in the fact that thoughts themselves cause neurons to fire and one is never thoughtless so we are reduced to the chicken and the egg problem if we continue down this path. However, assuming we come from a thought free state- for example deep coma-- the first thoughts we have are indeed generated by neuronal firing so your assertion is correct.


Original thought is not perception. Perception is response to the afferent, reacting to something. Original thought is efferent not reactionary but inventive. This is the conundrum, chicken or the egg. Dennett would support that the egg creates the chicken in order to create another egg. The egg that creates a rooster is well on the way to independent inventive thought (free will).

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    Nov 30, 2022 at 1:41

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