I’m utterly boggled. Yesterday, out of nowhere, I learned of a fundamental divide in how peoples’ mental lives work about which I had had no previous idea at all.
My reaction to that title can be rendered in language as – “Wait. People actually have internal monologues? Those aren’t just a cheesy artistic convention used to concretize the welter of pre-verbal feelings and images and maps bubbling in peoples’ brains?”
Apparently not. I’m what I have now learned to call a quiet-mind. I don’t have an internal narrator constantly expressing my thinking in language; in shorthand, I’m not a head-voice person. So much not so that when I follow the usual convention of rendering quotes from my thinking as though they were spoken to myself, I always feel somewhat as though I’m lying, fabulating to my readers. It’s not like that at all! I justify writing as though there had been a voice in my head only because the full multiordinality of my actual thought-forms won’t fit through my typing fingers.
But, apparently, for others it often is like that. Yesterday I learned that the world is full of head-voice people who report that they don’t know what they’re thinking until the narratizer says it. Judging by the reaction to the article it seems us quiet-minds are a minority, one in five or fewer. And that completely messes with my head.
What’s the point? Why do you head-voice people need a narrator to tell you what your own mind is doing? I fully realize this question could be be reflected with “Why don’t you need one, Eric?” but it is quite disturbing in either direction.
So now I’m going to report some interesting detail. There are exactly two circumstances under which I have head-voice. One is when I’m writing or consciously framing spoken communication. Then, my compositional output does indeed manifest as narratizing head-voice. The other circumstances is the kind of hypnogogic experience I reported in Sometimes I hear voices.
Outside of those two circumstances, no head-voice. Instead, my thought forms are a jumble of words, images, and things like diagrams (a commenter on Instapundit spoke of “concept maps” and yeah, a lot of it is like that). To speak or write I have to down-sample this flood of pre-verbal stuff into language, a process I am not normally aware of except as an occasional vague and uneasy sense of how much I have thrown away.
(A friend reports Richard Feynman observing that ‘You don’t describe the shape of a camshaft to yourself.” No; you visualize a camshaft, then work with that visualization in your head. Well, if you can – some people can’t. I therefore dub the pre-verbal level “camshaft thinking.”)
To be fully aware of that pre-verbal, camshaft-thinking level I have to go into a meditative or hypnogogic state. Then I can observe that underneath my normal mental life is a vast roar of constant free associations, apparently random memory retrievals, and weird spurts of logic connecting things, only some of which passes filters to present to my conscious attention.
I don’t think much or any of this roar is language. What it probably is, is the shock-front described in the predictive-processing model of how the brain works – where the constant inrush of sense-data meets the brain’s attempt to fit it to prior predictive models.
So for me there are actually three levels: (1) the roaring flood of free association, which I normally don’t observe; (2) the filtered pre-verbal stream of consciousness, mostly camshaft thinking, that is my normal experience of self, and (3) narratized head-voice when I’m writing or thinking about what to say to other people.
I certainly do not head-voice when I program. No, that’s all camshaft thinking – concept maps of data structures, chains of logic. processing that is like mathematical reasoning though not identical to it. After the fact I can sometimes describe parts of this process in language, but it doesn’t happen in language.
Learning that other people mostly hang out at (3), with a constant internal monologue…this is to me unutterably bizarre. A day later I’m still having trouble actually believing it. But I’ve been talking with wife and friends, and the evidence is overwhelming that it’s true.
Language…it’s so small. And linear. Of course camshaft thinking is intrinsically limited by the capabilities of the brain and senses, but less so. So why do most people further limit themselves by being in head-voice thinking most of the time? What’s the advantage to this? Why are quiet-minds a minority?
I think the answers to these questions might be really important.
UPDATE: My friend, Jason Azze, found the Feynman quote. It’s from “It’s As Simple As One, Two, Three…” from the second book of anecdotes, What Do You Care What Other People Think?:
When I was a kid growing up in Far Rockaway, I had a friend named Bernie Walker. We both had “labs” at home, and we would do various “experiments.” One time, we were discussing something — we must have been eleven or twelve at the time — and I said, “But thinking is nothing but talking to yourself inside.”
“Oh yeah?” Bernie said. “Do you know the crazy shape of the crankshaft in a car?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Good. Now, tell me: how did you describe it when you were talking to yourself?”
So I learned from Bernie that thoughts can be visual as well as verbal.