Train of thought

中国日报网 2014-05-27 14:42



Train of thought

Reader question:

Please explain this headline: Transport policy of city needs new train of thought. “Train of thought”?

My comments:

The railway train being such an important means of transport, or transportation, we have a good play of words here. The city’s transport policy makers need a new “train of thought”. In other words, they need a new line of thinking.

Fresh ideas, that is. They need to get out of the old rut and take a new route.

Back to train of thought, which, by the way, means a series of connected thoughts developing in one’s mind. The train, you see, is a number of connected cars or carriages pulled by an engine. Hence, it’s not too far fetched to liken one’s thinking process to a moving railway train.

People sometimes say they have to collect their thoughts. That means they have to rearrange their ideas before they can make a convincing argument with good reasoning. Then they start talking and you say something to disrupt their thoughts. They ask: “Where was I?” Then you know you’ve disrupted their “train of thought” and they’ve lost track of their points of argument.

See? To enable good reasoning, you need to get your “train of thought” going and uninterrupted, like a moving train.

Actually, the term “train of thought” was coined in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes (Wikipedia). So you know the term has nothing to do with the steam train, which only came into existence in the early 19th century.

In Leviathan, a book about the structure of society and government, Hobbes used “train of thought” to refer to the association of ideas in our mind, i.e. our thoughts are not totally disconnected from moment to moment.

By Consequence, or train of thoughts, I understand that succession of one thought to another which is called, to distinguish it from discourse in words, mental discourse.

When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently.

Alright, here are media examples of “train of thought”:

1. Michigan Judge Raymond Voet doesn’t like phones interrupting court proceedings. It’s fair enough; court is very serious business, and the last thing you need is someone’s wacky ringtone right at the moment of sentencing. Voet, therefore, decided that offenders are liable to be held in contempt and fined, a policy that’s stated in a clear sign hanging in Voet’s courtroom.

So when, in the middle of court, his own phone started asking him to give it voice commands, he had no choice but to hold himself accountable.

“The prosecutor was in the middle of his closing arguments,” Voet, an Ionia County 64-A District Court judge, told ABC News. “He lost his train of thought and looked at me. I felt my face starting to burn red.” Voet turned off his phone and allowed the prosecutor to continue. During a break in proceedings, however, he fined himself the $25.

Voet, who used to use a BlackBerry, had just switched to a new Windows phone and was not as familiar with its operation, leaving the phone unlocked -- but, having heard many such excuses from people whose phones he has confiscated over the years, he said that he had to hold himself to the same standard.

“Judges are humans,” he told the Associated Press. “They’re not above the rules. I broke the rule, and I have to live by it.”

- Judge holds himself in contempt for his cell phone,, April 16, 2013.

2. You’ve seen The Godfather Part II, right?

So you’re aware that the Robert De Niro half of the movie, documenting the rise to power of Vito Corleone, is clearly superior than the Al Pacino half showing the moral collapse of his son Michael. It’s not that Pacino does a bad job. Just that Vito’s story is intrinsically more dramatic and interesting.

Such is life for Sting on his current tour, co-headlining a double bill with Paul Simon, which stopped at a full Rogers Arena in Vancouver last night.

Appearing on stage side by side at the show’s opening, the initial offerings of Sting’s “Brand New Day,” Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” and Sting’s sombre “Fields of Barley” suggested that the evening would drift into a musical backslapping session, a worry heightened by Simon’s explanation that the tour was an experiment in merging bands and repertoires.

“By the end of this tour I’ll look like an Adonis and be able to have sex for days on end,” he suggested, gazing upwards in awe of Sting’s robust physical condition and reputation as bedroom gymnast.

During those opening numbers Sting was taking the lead, his practiced stage manner willing the crowd to its feet, contrasting with Simon’s clipped versions of his own melodies and visible agitation when a cry of “We love you Paul” from the crowd interrupted his train of thought.

- Review: Sting and Paul Simon serenade Vancouver,, February 21, 2014.

3. Have you ever clicked on a website, and upon finding it takes a few seconds to load, switched to another tab to “make use” of the time? Do you find yourself doing the same thing when toasting or microwaving food for a minute? I know I have. Why are we so impatient? I believe we fear wasting time by not being productive, and thus we find it hard to focus on anything that does not provide constant stimulation to make us feel productive.

Multitasking truly can increase our productivity. For example, while waiting for your bread to be toasted, you can pack your backpack for school. However, for multitasking to be effective, there must be enough time to do another task. How much can you accomplish in the three seconds of waiting for a website to load?

Despite potentially increasing productivity, multitasking can mentally exhaust us, especially if we switch rapidly and frequently from one task to another. In order to switch, we must abruptly break our train of thought on the old task and switch to a new train of thought. If we switch after a few minutes, such as in the toaster or microwave example, the strain is minimal. However, if we switch every few seconds, such as in the slow website example, we may quickly become mentally fatigued and thus less productive in all of our tasks.

Knowing that we cannot accomplish anything in a few seconds, why do so many of us feel compelled to try? Are we that afraid of wasting time? I believe many of us are without realizing it. We constantly hear messages like “time is money,” making us think that any time spent not doing anything is wasted. However, while time is money, that is not the only thing it can become.

I think of time as a liquid that can be distributed between different vessels: money (productivity), relaxation, sleep, entertainment, friends, etc. We have a fixed amount of time; we merely decide how to distribute it. Thus, not putting it into the productivity bucket does not mean we are wasting it! In fact, all of the buckets are essential. Working constantly and never resting mentally turns us into stressed-out zombies, who are not capable of productivity. We need time to relax, sleep and have fun as well as work.

In large part because many of us fear wasting time, we are uncomfortable when not “doing anything.” Most often, we feel that we are not “doing anything” when nothing is stimulating us. For example, while a webpage is loading, it is blank and thus not stimulating us. As a result, we may unconsciously or consciously feel uncomfortable, and thus feel compelled to do something else for the few seconds the page takes to load. If we cannot control these urges, we will be unable to relax and thus constantly be highly stressed.

Yes, productivity and money are fine goals, but are they all you want from life? My goal in life is to be happy; money is merely a means to that end, not an end in itself. I need food and shelter to be happy and thus require some money. However, would twice that amount of money make me twice as happy? Would 10 times make me 10 times as happy? If I do not need it to enjoy my life, I will not seek it or worry about obtaining it.

- The Philosophy of Education: Time Management, By William Conner,, March 6, 2014.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



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(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)


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