A thought experiment is a Neuro-Linguistic device used to provide experiential understanding of an idea or concept when it is either very difficult or impossible to explain using other means, or when such experience adds a superior level of understanding. Take smells, for example. Most people find it extremely difficult to describe new smells to other people because the sense of smell does not connect with the language areas of the brain. The only way to really understand is to smell it yourself. Additionally, thought experiments are generally designed in such a way that they are not limited to the restrictive constructs of language. The zen koan is a good example of a thought experiment as it can not be analyzed logically, nor can it be fully understood by merely hearing about it. Many authors of physics books use thought experiments to help explain Einstein's theory of relativity. The thought experiment expands the model of the world by forcing the participant into a new way of thinking. Nikola Tesla used thought experiments extensivley in his scientific work, as did Einstein.

Example thought experiment:

Consider the difference in what comes to your mind when reading the following sentences:

  • I want to talk to her, but I'm too scared.
  • I want to talk to her and I'm too scared.
  • I'm scared, but I still want to talk to her.
  • I'm scared, and I still want to talk to her.
Most people discover that when they say the first sentence, the I want to talk to her is shoved into the background, and I'm too scared is brought into the foreground. In the second sentence, both parts stay in the foreground. In the third sentence I still want to talk to her is in the foreground and I'm scared is in the background. In the fourth sentence, both parts are again in the foreground.

Construction of thought experiments:

Thought experiments are usually very easy to construct, as long as you personally have an experiential understanding of whatever it is you are trying to teach to somebody.

  • Step One: Consider how you represent in your mind whatever it is you are trying to explain. What do you see, hear, feel, smell, taste? What is important here and what is not? What is in the foreground, what is in the background?
  • Step Two: Ask yourself How can I explain this to somebody else so that I just set them in the direction and they discover it experientially on their own?
  • Step Three: Try answer from step two on yourself to check that it works. If so, then deliver it to recipient.
  • Step Four: Check that recipient understands by asking them to explain it to you using normal conversational language.
(c) 2002 Martin Kretzmann

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