Head-voice vs. quiet-mind

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.

From this: Today I Learned That Not Everyone Has An Internal Monologue And It Has Ruined My Day.

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.

159 thoughts on “Head-voice vs. quiet-mind

  1. I knew this post was going to appear when I saw your comments on IP last night.

    > “Why do you head-voice people need a narrator to tell you what your own mind is doing?”

    The head-voice doesn’t tell me what my mind is doing; it *is* what my mind is doing. :-)

    • Correct, my internal monologue is me. Also I talk to myself often, so my external monologue is also me.

      But I can think of things as visualizations and patterns and in nonverbal ways. I think everyone has both of these abilities, but habit and personality makes them use one or the other more often. I do not dream in internal monologue, its color first person perspective visual stuff, but I have woken up, thought in internal monologue about the dream, and then fallen back asleep and those internal monologue thoughts have applied to new changes of the dream.

      I’ve actually though about the idea that if I had a better grasp of spanish (the only other spoken language I know), could I internal monologue in spanish. I’ve tried it, by my vocabulary is so limited it just doesn’t work, but if my vocabulary were stronger I think it could be done.

      However, ESR is right about some things are just not verbal. The thoughts in my head when I smell fresh cut grass are images of places and things and times and feelings, words don’t work for those types of though associations.

      • > I’ve actually though about the idea that if I had a better grasp of spanish (the only other spoken language I know), could I internal monologue in spanish. I’ve tried it, by my vocabulary is so limited it just doesn’t work, but if my vocabulary were stronger I think it could be done.
        Fits my experience with English; as my vocabulary and familiarity with English grew, I started having a bilingual internal monologue — specially when I started to learn concepts in English without knowing them in Spanish first.
        I suspect there are topics I think about mostly in English, and some mostly in Spanish. I’ll have to observe.

        • When I was taking French I would play with the language in my head by translating the thoughts I’d internally verbalized into it. I’ve learned enough Japanese to start doing it in that language too. When I was in Japan, I was “Clueless Tourist Speaks Perfect Mandarin” guy, but for Japanese and… less than perfect, but still good enough to surprise the locals.

        • Whether my internal monologue is in German or English depends a bit on the topic but mostly on how much input I had from each language in the last say 24 hours.

          One weird thing was when I was learning Dutch and started to have thoughts in Dutch which I couldn’t understand.

        • I do computer science mostly in English in my head :D And, strangely, a lot of internal discussions about ideology :D

  2. Google “ideasthesia”, “neuro-linguistic programming representational systems”, “vhiq vs uhiq”, should give you a few more insights.

  3. I sometimes have an internal monologue?

    Generally only when I’m doing verbal stuff.

    OTOH, I talk to myself (externally) when troubleshooting a LOT.

  4. If ESR hasn’t fixed the link in the article, this appears to be it:

    https://ryanandrewlangdon.wordpress.com/2020/01/28/today-i-learned-that-not-everyone-has-an-internal-monologue-and-it-has-ruined-my-day/

    I found this fascinating. I don’t have that head voice running either. And it explains a few things I thought were anomolies, but could not be, since they were so common. The biggest one being the comment, “I don’t know what I am thinking.”

    • > “I don’t know what I am thinking.”

      Hence Jordan Peterson’s comment along the lines of “How do I know what I’m thinking unless I explain it to you?”.

  5. Oh dear, you just ruined my life. Now I’ll forever be trying to figure out if I have a head-voice.

    (Kinda like trying to force count everything in threes. Nevermind.)

    Before this article I would have said I have one. But your description sounded familiar.

    I think in pictures/charts/diagrams. I refer to it as “engineer brain”. The only way I can understand anything, it seems, is to find a way to diagram it. That doesn’t lend itself to dialogue. (By contrast lawyers think in prose. Ugh.)

    I sometimes internally voice certain worthwhile thoughts/conclusions/ideas as a way to cement them into my memory … I think.

    I often replay or pre-plan conversations … what they said, what I said, what I should have said, what I’m going to say, what they might say. That’s done in full volume internal voice.

  6. Us head-voice people are just life’s NPCs :)

    I’m surprised you mentioned Feynman but not his collegiate experiment in which he discovered some students could count reliably to 60 by hearing “1…2…3…” in their head, while others could only do it by visualizing a “tape” with “1…2…3…” stamped on it scrolling by.

    Pages 13-16 here: http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/607/2/Feynman.pdf

    • >some students could count reliably to 60 by hearing “1…2…3…” in their head, while others could only do it by visualizing a “tape” with “1…2…3…” stamped on it scrolling by.

      I don’t think I do either thing, so that’s another weirdness.

          • You iterate? Concept one one, two, three, etc. as you need them, not wasting overhead with ‘visual’ or ‘auditory’ tags?

            • >You iterate? Concept one one, two, three, etc. as you need them, not wasting overhead with ‘visual’ or ‘auditory’ tags?

              Something like that, maybe. Whatever I’m doing is not apparent to introspection.

              • As Feynman tells it, it’s easy enough to find out. Simply discover what it is that you *can’t* do while you’re simultaneously counting.

              • I think I count because the words are chained together– it’s an auditory-kinesthetic thing. Definitely not visual.

                • If I’m counting time, I definitely need head-voice or real voice to establish the interval (one thousand one, one thousand two, etc.).

                  If I’m counting other things, I don’t think I strictly need the head voice if I have my fingers free, but it’s almost always there anyways. And if I’m counting syllables (or other units of speech), such as for a haiku*, I don’t need the head voice for the numbers, but I do need it for the syllables I’m counting. I guess the one situation in which I’m certain my head voice isn’t part of counting, is if someone says to me “He who crosseth the bridge of death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.” In that case I’m aware of the number of questions answered so far, without keeping an explicit verbal count. (Jon Brase, to seek the Holy Grail, Nineveh! No! Yelloooooow!).

                  *speaking of haiku:

                  “May the emperor,
                  living ten thousand long years,
                  become a small tree.”

                  In other words, Tenn?heika bonsai!

  7. I have a pretty constant head voice, and it’s mostly talking about ideas or rehashing old grudges. I’ve at least gotten it to drop coming up with imaginary irritants (what if someone said something awful?). That was fairly easy to shut down almost completely, but it took me a lot of years to notice that I was doing it and didn’t have to.

    • Voicing imaginary “pleasants” can alter mood, too.

      I think verbalization by System 2 makes the “possibilities” appear more “plausible” and that makes System 1 take it more seriously.

      Do you quiet-minders — camshaft thinkers — ruminate/fantasize about negative and/or positive occurrences in a way that changes your mood? How does this go down in your head?

      • >Do you quiet-minders — camshaft thinkers — ruminate/fantasize about negative and/or positive occurrences in a way that changes your mood?

        Yes.

        >How does this go down in your head?

        Not necessarily or even usually verbally. It could just be images.

        • For me it’s just “thoughts”… not a voice. I just “compare” possibilities and figure out what I like and don’t like. But it’s not a voice.

  8. I have an internal dialogue almost all of the time. In particular, for instance, I was doing a chore while planning to write this and I told and re-told portions of the text a few times in my head. As if working on a draft.

    I’ve noticed this verbalization before, and I’ve felt something akin to anxiety about it slowing me down — something similar to the “Why do you [..] need a narrator to tell you what your own mind is doing?” question has popped up in my mind several times over the years, and I’ve had bouts of trying to not verbalize stuff.

    This led me to notice that I don’t actually need to verbalize stuff in order to know or do them. In particular when coding, I don’t verbalize a lot — maybe variable names. But I _know_ what conditional I’m going to use, or what the algorithm looks like and where it’s going to plug in, before I’ve ever verbalized it.

    The way me figuring out stuff in code “sounds” in my head is exactly as if you’re looking at someone say “AHA!” and start doing stuff. I feel and verbalize “AHA!” or a same-meaning sound, and suddenly I know I can get things done and how I’d go about it. A similar thing is when I am confused. I know I’m confused, and I know why, and the first sound my brain does is something akin to “huh!” or “hmm” — but at that point I already know I am confused, and what’s confused me.

    Sometimes, in conversations, the first time I verbalize something is when I’m saying it out loud. So I have an idea of what I’m saying, but I have no idea of how I’m saying it until it’s coming out.
    This is very bothersome in some occasions where I notice I could’ve said things better.

    Now maybe I need to try some meditation practice in order to notice the nature of some other flow of information, but I seldom have non-invoked imagery in my head. I mostly “know” stuff and can “do” stuff without having to make it explicit in my head — it’s the drafting, editing, and exploration of ideas that uses verbalization.

  9. I’m definitely a voice-in-head kind of person. It takes immense amount of work for me to quiet that voice when I’m trying to do visualization-level thinking. I actually pose questions to myself — often in more of a shorthand rather than English speech — but the narration is there. I also subvocalize when I read.

    I didn’t know for a fact that some people think without the narration, but I assumed it was true, because I can force myself to do it for short periods of time. I can imagine someone who was operating at that level like you are having a harder time picturing people that rely on an internal narrator than the reverse.

  10. My head-voice is a tyrant. I was able to get myself diagnosed with ADHD and spend some time on Adderall. The head-voice is the cause of the ADHD symptoms, and the Adderall shuts it up.

    Still, I also do a lot of camshaft thinking.

    When I’m programming or building or designing something, I don’t have a head-voice. I see the result visually. Sometimes when I’m thinking in this way, I’ll move my eyes, head, or body for a different perspective as if I were actually seeing the thing I’m working on, though it’s not a literal hallucination.

    Sometimes, however, my head-voice breaks in, and then I can’t work. Or maybe I can’t get my head-voice to shut up, so I can’t even get started. When it takes over, my visual processing drops remarkably. Not only can’t I do camshaft thinking, but I stop absorbing things that my eyes are seeing. My situational awareness is much reduced.

    I largely can’t control it. It’s a compulsion. It doesn’t matter if I have important things to do, that voice keeps running until it’s done. It often goes off on tangents and gets into the weeds. Of course I can stop it, but it takes nearly maximum effort to do so. It sucks up most of my attention and working memory. I become very forgetful. This is how it produces my ADHD symptoms. I’m left with maybe 10% of my maximum capacity, so I’m functionally an idiot much of the time.

    My head-voice is like a teacher, constantly explaining things to some imaginary audience. It’s like that joke, “Somebody is wrong on the internet” https://www.xkcd.com/386/ I imagine that somebody doesn’t understand a thing and then I have to explain it over and over until I arrive at the perfect, most crystal clear explanation. And then I understand the idea, often at a much deeper level than others seem to. Perhap I am the audience after all?

    It’s like writing an essay. Essays are so named because you don’t necessarily know where you’re going when you start. You just start out on an adventure, on a journey you know not where. By the end of the writing, you’ve hopefully crystalized your idea into it’s simplest form. That’s what my head voice is doing.

    Sometimes when I’m particularly stuck on something, I’ll actually move my hands and mouth as if I’m speaking in front of an audience, much like I move my eyes when I’m camshaft thinking. I also subvocalize when I read. Certain kinds of ideas I don’t consider that I understand unless I can put them into words simple enough that even Aunt Maude can understand. If I can’t do that, the idea remains just a vague intuition. That’s the stuff my head-voice is usually chewing on, generating the “Why?” behind ideas.

    When it’s time to actually talk to somebody, I just flip the switch that engages my voice and my thoughts are vocalized. That switch is the about only difference between talking and thinking with my head-voice.

    Adderall shuts the voice up. It gives me control. I can still use it if that’s the kind of thinking I need to do, but I can also choose to make it stop and just … see. I’ve toyed with Vipassana meditation. I once sat with the goal of fully stopping the voice. After an hour and a half, it worked. The rest of the evening was like being on Adderall. I could control the voice. For the last couple years, I’ve been strength training. As a result, I’ve gotten bigger, to the point that I recently got a CPAP. The first night of sleep with that was, again, like being on Adderall. Maybe I’ve just been sleep deprived for much of my life?

  11. Flipping your question on you. I can’t imagine how someone who is such a good writer doesn’t have an internal monologue. Its baffling from my perspective.

    • >Flipping your question on you. I can’t imagine how someone who is such a good writer doesn’t have an internal monologue.

      I’ve mentioned a couple of times that writing is almost the only time I actually do the head-voice thing.

      For me, head-voice is a mechanic I use for certain kinds of tasks, but it’s not a habit. From hearing reports by other quiet-minds I think this is quite typical of us.

      • I think it may be that everyone can think in both ways. I mean its absolute that early in life we can’t have an inner dialogue because we literally don’t know words, so we must all start image thinking. But apparently, and this baffles me a bit like I said before, a lot of us establish enough vocabulary to begin to think with word stand ins for imagery and then just keep doing that.

        I didn’t actually know others would keep with pure image thinking, which I can do, but I think it must be the opposite of you turning on internal dialogue for writing where I turn it off to just imagine via images.

  12. My normal thinking mode not verbal. I don’t quite know what it is; it isn’t visual either, but that seems a bit closer. It is generally modal for me, there seem to be switching costs, and they’re getting higher as I get older.

    I know that I get more non-verbal when thinking about math. This causes me problems when programming, which I experience as extremely verbal – writing other types of code is fluid, and then I start translating something I think about as a mathematical structure to code and suddenly there’s this traffic jam in my head.

    Another way I experience the difference is that, after I’ve been alone for longer stretches of time, or if I’m thinking through something “fuzzy” (human relations, planning, or even stuff I’m just not sure how to think about yet), at some point I’ll try to force myself back into a verbal mode. I’m not sure if it is just the translation process or getting different parts of the brain engaged or what, but it tends to lead to minor “a ha” moments. Nothing earth shaking, much more, “Oh, well duh.”

    I mentioned this above, but as I age I find the switching harder. I also find it harder to really go deep into “math mode” like I used to – I can still do it, but it tends to take scene setting and a little self-hypnosis, where it used to be a light switch. When I noticed this was the first time I actually felt apprehension about getting older.

  13. This is splitting hairs but I wonder how much of this is an actual difference in how people think and how much is a subjective perception that differs but it’s the same thing. Maybe we all think conceptually but some of us are just attaching words to those thoughts without really doing anything different. I would think it also matters how one spends one’s time. I’m certainly not thinking verbally when I do something athletic and even our host says he is thinking verbally when writing or framing his thoughts to speak to others.

  14. Aristotle, pronounced them “deaf and dumb,” because they had no voice he felt that deaf people were incapable of being taught, of learning, and of reasoned thinking. To his way of thinking, if a person could not use his/her voice for internal monologue thinking in the same way as hearing people, then there was no way that this person could develop cognitive abilities.

  15. I think it’s a tradeoff of efficiency for correctness. It slows the cognitive process down a bit to express everything linguistically, but can impose better reasoning if your raw thoughts flow in ways that you can’t trust to be correct.

    I say this because I’m on the border between the two cases, and on reflection, the tolerance for erroneous reasoning is what influences me into one mode of thought or the other. Normally I reason well enough in raw-thought and can get away without expressing those thoughts as language, but under stricter circumstances I reason verbally to reduce errors further.

    In a programming context, that tends to be debugging sessions, where I’ve let some detail escape going through at full speed and need to iron it out properly (you know the joke which says if you are just clever enough to write a program, you cannot be clever enough to debug it? Switching head voice on gives me the variable cleverness to circumvent that trap). My overall error rate is low enough that it’s cheaper to go over the buggy areas twice than to write the whole thing slowly once.

  16. esr asked: “So why do most people further limit themselves by being in head-voice thinking most of the time? What’s the advantage to this?”

    The most important thing to me personally (and it’s totally subjective) is communicating and connecting with other people. So I practice that in my head as close to 7/24 as I can; imagining what I should say in potential upcoming interactions; imagining what I should’ve said in past situations so I can learn from that.

    When I’m coding or designing camshafts or whatever, my internal monologue/dialogue is mostly muted. But just because I have a monologue running doesn’t mean I’m not also visualizing and performing other sorts of thinking. It’s just a matter of awareness and focus. I simply mostly focus on that which is most important to me which is practicing communicating with others.

    • Now that I think about it, a lot of my head voice fits this pattern, too: rehearsing arguments, rehearsing descriptions of experiences that I might later explain to other people, etc.

  17. “Camshaft thinking” is what Temple Grandin called “thinking in pictures”, which appears to be the default thought-mode of high-functioning autistics like Grandin (and myself). The thing is, if I have a good idea I feel like communicating, I can consciously induce an internal monologue to put words to it.

    This sort of communication is best done in writing. Talking about my ideas, as one must do much of when one is a professional software engineer in $CURRENT_YEAR (introverts need not apply, we are a collaborative, fast-paced, Agile shop just like all the others), presents additional challenges. I first have to distill my thoughts, which can be approximated by a web (or graph) of multisensory (or perhaps abstract) images, into a linear series of words in short-term memory, then move them into my “speech buffers” so that I can speak them. The problem is, my “speech buffers” appear not to be dual-ported. I can speak about what I have queued up xor queue up additional thoughts at one time, but not both. It gets worse when I have to talk about complicated things like programs, math, or physics, because the webs for those topics take longer to search for salient info. So I often end up stammering like an idiot when discussing or presenting on such things.

    I think women are more likely to have dual-ported speech buffers than men are, which may partially explain why they make such great receptionists, spokespeople, and sales associates.

    Anyways, the internal monologue is like the bit where I’m queueing up words in short-term memory before sending them to the speech buffers. I find if I explain my thoughts to myself in my head, they may make more sense. Some of the connections in the “web” get stronger when I put them to words.

  18. Yeah, I just read about that, and then C asked me about it. Apparently she’s an internal-narrative person. I’m not.

    Oh, I’m a writer and copy editor, and I verbalize internally when I’m trying to compose text. If I’m editing a difficult passage, I may even read it aloud, word by word, because that can help me pin down what’s wrong with it. And sometimes I choose to verbalize. But it doesn’t happen spontaneously.

    So how do you think about things, C asked me. And I thought about that, and I noticed that I was changing the angle of my head, and moving my hands around. And that seems to be an important part of my mentation. It takes place kinesthetically. To be specific, it takes place via small-muscle kinesthesia, hands and tongue; I don’t have very good whole-body kinesthesia.

    I’ve talked with writers who describe a different thing: Experiencing a story as having a movie inside their heads, and frantically taking notes as the scene plays out. The focus for them isn’t on the language; it’s on the pictures. I first heard of this decades ago, at Mythcon 13, at a panel where Paul Edwin Zimmer was speaking, and he described the contrast between picture writers and word writers. Now I’m totally a word writer myself, and a lot of the writers I really like are those whose use of language is a crucial element in the story—Tolkien being the obvious example, but not the only one. But in my case (not everyone’s; Tolkien was a very visual man—take a look at his watercolor illustrations!), this is partly because I have very little internal mental imagery; I don’t even dream in pictures, most of the time.

    I think all this has a big impact on philosophy. Some years ago I read Paul Churchland’s book on philosophy of mind, where he talked about the idea that consciousness was made up of propositions as the dominant theme in philosophy. And at first I thought that was just crazy and no one could think that. And then I remembered Descartes saying that human beings were a union of matter and thought, and identifying thought with language—and drawing the implication that when you vivisected a dog, and the dog whined or howled, it wasn’t really feeling pain, or anything, because it couldn’t formulate the proposition “I am in pain”; it was just an automatic mechanism not accompanied by sensation. And a lot of the history of philosophy fell into place for me, in a disturbing way.

  19. I think I’m kind of in the middle. What Eric describes is close to my experience of the main loop in my mind, but there’s also a top layer of monologue that’s mostly there to keep me entertained – some of it is fantasy, some of it is putting the main loop into words so I have it cached when I need it (a process that’s like pulling teeth at times), some of it is imagined discussions, some of it is nerding out about random-ass camera lenses from the sixties or whatnot, and a lot of it is inner jokes/snarking and other stuff to keep me entertained (I like to say I can get bored in 30 seconds flat). The monologue is not 100% under voluntary control, especially when I’m tired and my head just starts nattering – part of why I find hiking so relaxing is that it reliably makes it stop – but I have it on for less time than I have it off, and it’s not where my main processing takes place. One interesting other use I’ve found is that, in situations where I’m not sure what decision to take, taking the time to pull all the details from the main loop to the monologue will jog the main loop into also providing a decision I’m quite sure of – rubber ducky debugging with an internal rubber ducky, basically

    It’s extremely strange, to me, to read about people identifying themselves with the monologue. For me, it feels …less me than my hand and more me than my face, so to say.

  20. I’m probably confused. I don’t really think about whether I have a head-voice or quiet-mind, which is surprising, given how much I think about how I think.

    Now that I am thinking about it, I think I have both, at different times, but I’m also very leery about drawing conclusions, because all such observations seem very prone to misperception. I’m unsure I could set up enough monitoring instrumentation of my thought process, outside of my thought process. I think it’d be part of the process and deceiving me about whether it was.

    That caveat said, I can say that I definitely think in images a lot. Per Feynman, I visualize the camshaft. Incidentally, this is how I’m good at spelling: I visualize words in typeface, and just read them off my brain. They look right when spelled correctly, and this is probably because I’ve read the word somewhere before.

    But then, it’s hard for me to imagine people seeing art, for example, and thinking nothing until it’s described by an inner voice, which makes me doubt that the linked claim is correct. There are probably at least two processes going on here, for most people. I think the linked author is forgetting that people probably do have camshaft thinking, or is forgetting to remind them that they do.

    ctag mentions people counting to 60 by a voice, and by visualizing a tape. I find I can easily do both, even at the same time, and both are useful. (I like the voice when tracking time in my head, for example.)

    I am aware of a roar of free association, but not all of the time. I think it’s good for my creativity, but also impairs my ability to conclude anything definitive. To do that, I have to temporarily shut down all but one channel. That sounds like what you’re describing as head-voice.

    I also camshaft-think while programming, when I’m in the Flow. I think I switch to head-voice when I want to prove the code is correct. I think it takes a lot longer, for the same reason one trickle takes a lot longer to fill a bucket than fifty.

    Head-voice feels like a part of me, but only a part, resembling a control nozzle. Sometimes I need more precision.

  21. I’m usually of the head-voice type, but I can silence it if I put will into it. When I do that, my thought processes don’t turn into images, diagrams or anything like that. Rather, it becomes silent and empty, although I can still feel a part of me in some way “thinking” and I can act following those invisible ideas. My hunch then is that, when I silence that voice, it’s kinda like turning off the speaker while the device generating the sound is still active, just unheard.

    Conversely, when I’m doing anything that’s cognitively intensive, such as programming or writing something dense, I don’t speak mentally at all. It all goes straight head-to-fingers.

    On top of both things, when I concentrate on my internal mental processes, I also notice a part of myself who is simply there observing everything silently, but not acting. If I were to actually practice meditation I suppose that part would be the one observing the flow of thoughts going and coming.

    Now, for an interesting complement to this: there are people who can “see” images with their eye minds with full clarity, as if they were looking at something with their actual eyes; there are those who can “see” in a blurry way, not as clearly as with their eyes; and there are those who absolutely cannot see with their minds at all, no matter how hard they try. These go with only their head-voices, as even remembering a face requires them to build a verbal description lest they become almost unable to reconstruct it from memory when needed. I even heard an anecdote from someone with this inability (condition?) who tried to overcome it with LSD but without success: he got all the physical effects of a trip, but no mental images at all…

  22. Obligatory link to relevant article by Scott Alexander.

    My old professor, David Berman, liked to talk about what he called the “typical mind fallacy”, which he illustrated through the following example:

    There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether “imagination” was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say “I saw it in my mind” as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

    Upon hearing this, my response was “How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn’t think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane.” Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.

    The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the “wisdom of crowds”, and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn’t. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn’t had simply assumed everyone didn’t, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question. There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images.

    • >three percent of people completely unable to form mental images.

      I remember reading about this debate, and boggling at the news that there are such people. Blind in the mind’s eye! Strange and tragic.

  23. “So why do most people further limit themselves by being in head-voice thinking most of the time?”

    Is it a choice? I certainly have a head-voice thing going on, but can consciously try visual/spatial thinking when tasked with something that requires it. It’s not “difficult”, per say, but it does require a conscious effort to do that. The head-voice just happens. It’s not like I’m consciously choosing to have that inner monologue though.

    Question for the pre-verbal camshaft thinkers: How do you experience reading? Or music (with lyrics)? Movies?

    When I’m reading, I definitely have head-voice. But now that I think about it, both movies and music can sometimes put me into a mode of thinking where the head-voice goes away and I’m getting a sorta gestalt of visuals and sounds. With music, this often translates to not really getting the lyrics at all except for the sound of the voice. Movie dialog tends to be verbalized, but the visual thinking can still be there.

    Often, if the head-voice is present, it’s because the movie or song in question is not connecting with me and my brain is trying to do something more interesting with the time.

    • >Question for the pre-verbal camshaft thinkers: How do you experience reading? Or music (with lyrics)? Movies?

      I don’t repeat what I read or hear in head-voice, if that’s what you’re wondering. Don’t need to.

      Being a quiet-mind in normal quiet-mind mode certainly doesn’t mean you can’t process incoming language. It’s about how you generate, nit about how you receive.

      • When I read, it automatically takes over the head voice, and thoughts about responses and stuff run underneath.

        In contrast to Mark, song lyrics definitely get processed, and can be annoying if I don’t like the meaning, or if sensible lyrics are not needed in the context of the music (e.g, game theme music). On that same vein, I don’t like voice acting in my games, I prefer text-only dialog, and have been known to select different audio languages and leave the subtitles in English (even if it’s German, which I understand well, and can think in, getting out of my native language cuts the annoyance factor significantly).

    • >Question for the pre-verbal camshaft thinkers: How do you experience reading? Or music (with lyrics)? Movies?

      I’m not sure I’m a pure quiet mind, and have other confounding issues.

      I think an example of a difference in quiet/narration mind can be shown by supercalifragilisticakesmealedotious. (sp?) It is a nonsense word. You can recall it or think it with the syllables, in which case thinking it takes however many beats per second your thought process uses. Or as ‘that nonsense word from Mary Poppins’, in which case it takes the thought time of any concept, or at least any concept of similar difficulty.

      Reading? Normally, take in the words, grab the concepts, and process the concepts. I’m a much less fluent reader of math. Have to have more energy and time to get the math reliably converted to concepts and understood.

      Many years ago, I would have told you I hated lyrical music, and sometimes enjoyed instrumental. After coming to hate the acoustic guitar, I realized that the key issues were volume and whether listening was entirely my choice. I tend to take several times listening to a musical recording before I start recognizing lyrics, and become able to extract meaning.

      I used to watch a lot of movies and TV, but that was with commercial breaks, and for saturday morning cartoons switching back and forth to other channels to see if those shows were more interesting at the moment. Now, without the interruptions, I find watching stuff more draining than just the time spent. I definitely have a huge processing cost over a similar story written in text.

      Writing a reply is often something I can do with the first analysis and response outline done as concepts, more or less by intuition. A word draft is necessary to verify it.

      Taking notes? Used to be that I could listen, or write, not both. Nowadays, I can be a little effective at taking notes.

    • For me singing in music is just another musical instrument. I do not register it as text/story/meaning at all. And yeah, I seem to be a quiet mind.

      People have always wondered “How can you listen to such a depressing/dull/agressive etc. music?” to which I respond with “Huh, what?”

      Of course later I do realise that indeed, I am the weird one, but nah… it’s just music/harmony/rhythm etc. to my ears :)

      Of course, it does not mean that I am not *able* to understand lyrics – I am able. It’s just that then it’s not listening to music, but doing a laborious task.

      • When I’m playing an instrument, I am 100% in quiet-mind mode…music is flowing imagery to me…to the extent that I actually find it a challenge to accompany myself by singing lyrics. It feels like a clunky non-maskable interrupt and context switch. I can do it, but I don’t feel good about it.

        Maybe I’m just retarded.

    • When reading, in order to grok harder stuff, I need to whisper so that I hear what I read. That’s also true when I write. Of course, I am able to do it without whispering, but then I have to imagine that I am talking to someone (someone talking to me), as if I am there. It’s very visual. I even imagine the body language, etc. even for people I have never met. I cannot just take it as a “voice”.

      Also, I very much prefer to watch a video (best) or a recording (not that good) of someone speaking, instead of reading the speech.

      When reading a book, I visualise it in “pictures” and often they are so vivid that I lose track of the text I’m reading. I have to go back frequently. Sometimes I visualise the author speaking to me, but more often, I just visualise the written story itself.

      I am very good at remembering the “essence” of a written text, but never can recall exact quotes or wording.

      • > Also, I very much prefer to watch a video (best) or a recording (not that good) of someone speaking, instead of reading the speech.

        I’m just the opposite: the head-voice automatically picks up text and holds my concentration on it. Most people speak slower than my head voice, and spoken language doesn’t hold my concentration in the same way: my mind tends to wander, and speeding up the audio (when available) doesn’t help. If given a choice between written text and a video, I almost always go with the text. In school, I tended to tune out the lesson and read ahead in the textbook.

  24. I have a pervasive head-voice. It’s always there, and it’s my standard mode of operation. The voice isn’t telling me about what I’m thinking – it *is* what I’m thinking. And I found it somewhat shocking that there are people who don’t have a head-voice (or at least don’t generally use it.)

    Except for when it isn’t. Sometimes I switch into camshaft-thinking mode. And some things I think about only in camshaft mode. And when I’m really focused, it’s nearly pure camshaft mode. That’s the part that I realized was weird some years ago.

    Apparently head-voice versus camshaft constitutes a continuum of sorts, with very few people purely using one mode exclusively?

  25. I normally have an internal monologue running when I’m not in a flow state, but it’s unquestionably an artifact of brain-architecture: I can suppress it actively if I want and think merely in abstract symbols (including the equivalent of graph nodes for examining analogies), but the narration arises as a side effect of the conceptual adjacency of concepts and the words for them, a form of free association that verges on automatic but isn’t the essence of thought.

    • >OT: Have you considered moving off ibiblio? They’re still suffering random HTTP 500 errors.

      All the inbound links to my posts would break.

      • The standard solution here is to keep a stub webserver at esr.ibiblio.org handing out 301 redirects to whatever the new domain is.

  26. I am a head-voice-only thinker. I have literally described camshafts with words (in OpenSCAD, for 3D printing) and have trouble visualizing one without mentally reading the definition of a camshaft to myself first. Even using GUI tools for drafting, I hear the names of the functions I’m invoking and describing the constraints I’m adding to the design with each mouse click.

    When reading a diagram I have to boil it down to the constraints and relationships that it represents. e.g. “The blue circle has to be above the red circles because the colors represent levels of hierarchy” and “Each blue circle may be connected to at most one red circle because each blue structure has only one red-structure pointer.” Drawing a diagram is the reverse process: I used to grab some nearby objects, place them on a table, and move them around until their positions reached a point where they embodied all the properties I knew about them, then I’d copy that onto a page and put labels on it. Now I have more practice, I have a bunch of diagram pieces memorized and can slap them into most simple diagrams.

    When explaining things to other people, I will sometimes start involuntarily drawing a diagram in the air, usually when I notice that they are not getting useful information from the raw dump of definitions, relationships, and constraints I’ve just given them. The air diagram is useless to everyone, including me, except as a signal that I need to properly translate the concept for camshaft thinkers and try again later.

    I learned to read at a very young age. I had problems on my first days in public school when teachers tried to give me directions that disagreed with printed signage, like entering the school building through a door marked “EXIT.” On the first days of school, all the teachers were strangers, and the door signs were the most familiar authority I recognized, so I wouldn’t go into the school through the EXIT doors–I’d always duck out of line and go through the adjacent “ENTRANCE” door. This caused a few problems as usually another class was trying to use the ENTRANCE door to leave the building at the same time–the doors weren’t wide enough, there was a lot of bumping into other kids, etc. Eventually my exasperated teacher confronted my parents over this. My parents said to the teacher, “We told you, he knows how to read.” (the teacher did not believe this at the time, had never met a 4-year-old child who could read before, and had refused to admit the possibility in several earlier meetings) To me, they said, “If a teacher says it’s OK, you can ignore the words on things.” I was a model student after, like, 8 or 10 similar parent-teacher exchanges.

    There were trade-offs. Other students my age didn’t have problems with proper social weighting of passing verbiage because they couldn’t read any of it without great effort. I took an extra month to learn what “left” and “right” meant, and why those words might be useful for reasons other than hand labelling.

    A long time ago I heard that (most) humans have little difficulty remembering stunningly complex relationships between soap opera characters, but have difficulty reading diagrams. After reading that, I started mentally processing object models as networks of cooperating soap opera characters (albeit characters with extremely specific motivations, behavior, and knowledge of each other). Previously I wasn’t ever able to “get” object-oriented programming, which I had always been exposed to in the form of diagrams (I still can’t read a UML diagram even after years of trying). It seemed like a useful mental hack, but maybe it was one I was able to take advantage of unusually easily.

    I suspect I am using more than what you would call “words” as units of head-voice conversations. Each word has a very precise meaning associated with it, and I can vary the precision of that meaning to accommodate different levels of abstraction. This is handy for programming languages–I can think and fluently self-narrate directly in C, C++, bourne shell, Perl, vi, and so on. When I see the ‘&&’ operator it comes with all the C language rules about possible and mandatory optimizations, implications of side-effects, precedence, and other mental metadata attached directly to the symbol.

    A big variable I manage when talking to other people is the strictness of definition of the words we use. When using a word, I get every random fact I’ve ever known about the word in my head at once (I assume the process is parallel given the short time over which it occurs), and I have to remind myself that not everyone else gets the same facts or has the mental bandwidth to prune the irrelevant ones. There are sometimes objects in my head that are like words that can’t be spoken or written, sort of a generic placeholder for abstract concepts that don’t have linguistic labels. Those things are like free ions floating around my brain, and they attach themselves to sniglets pretty quickly so I can use them in proper head-voice conversations.

    As you might expect, I’ve done a lot of work in databases, filesystems, automation, tooling, safety, and networking–areas dominated by rule-following and constraint-solving. For some reason I’ve also done a lot of work graphics and imaging, but to me a GPU is just a CPU specialized do a lot of vector math at once.

  27. You mentioned that you narrate while writing – for me a lot of my more abstract thoughts come in the form of mentally composing a blog/forum post like this one, except I’m answering a question no-one actually asked, and don’t actually post it anywhere. It could also be an imaginary conversation or interview. While I’m doing that I might also be doing some physical activity in pre-verbal mode.

  28. I’ve got nearly constant head-voice but when thinking about stuff that is difficult to represent in prose I always have additional visualizations and the voice goes a bit into the background. I think the reason I default to verbal over visual reasoning is that I have[1] almost complete control over my verbal thoughts but when I try to control my imagination it always slips away into something else. This leads into me identifying with my inner voice, however this illusion is sometimes pierced when I know the meaning of what my inner voice is gonna say before it actually has done so. I usually let the inner voice finish anyway, not doing so feels slightly uneasy like not closing a parenthesis.

    [1] The relevant part is that I _feel_ in control of my inner voice. Since I can’t even observe the process that actually decides what words are gonna appear in my mind the notion that I’m in control seems a bit silly.

  29. Is it possible that this is related in some way to your mystical practices? I recall a moderately recent Slate Star Codex post (can’t find which one, sorry) in which he mentions a patient who tried meditation for their stress and found their internal monologue shutting down, returning when they stopped meditating…

    • >Is it possible that this is related in some way to your mystical practices? I recall a moderately recent Slate Star Codex post (can’t find which one, sorry) in which he mentions a patient who tried meditation for their stress and found their internal monologue shutting down, returning when they stopped meditating…

      It wouldn’t astonish me if there were a connection. OTOH, I was a quiet-mind before I was a mystic.

  30. I notice the discussion of the experiences as choice and as compulsion.

    I have sensory processing issues, and compulsive or fixated thinking. A sensory issue might manifest as a strong memory of a sound, that I cannot force from my awareness. The fixated thinking can be in terms of words, if the words were what my brain keyed onto in forming the fixation.

    But my thinking without words can also be fixated.

    Outword communication is difficult enough for me that I would have stopped, or never really started, if I had not learned to be obsessive about putting in the effort. To some extent I can choose topics to obsessively work on; doing the effort it takes to put my thoughts into effective words. As opposed to confused, boring, or unpersuasive words.

    I think the choice/compulsion aspect is descriptive, but may not be the same as the sound/vision/concept/other cues aspect.

  31. I have the voice. But I am constantly aware of other layers at the same time. The first comment here, from RJ, says “The head-voice doesn’t tell me what my mind is doing; it *is* what my mind is doing” which isn’t exactly right, at least not for me. But I understand why a voice-minded person might think so – I think I thought so before I started thinking about thinking, ~20 years ago.

    Question for ESR: Do you ever experience “song stuck in my head”? If so, is it you singing, or someone else?

    “Tenser, said the Tensor.”

  32. Yeah, that’s pretty much me as well. I learned this about myself in flight school back in the 70’s.

    Another thing I learned is that I could follow 2 time count-downs in my head. This happened when coordinating strike runs with flight lead. His break and I start counting down to my break and his attack, separately. It is like two different channels for two voices.

    But hey! Just now I realized something new that I hadn’t formally noted before: when I switch between counts I’m visualizing something akin to a two-channel fader or mixer board in my mind! sliders and everything. It’s a mixed-mode interface.

    • Let me get this straight, (Switching to programmer mode)you can keep to counters, running simultaneously, decrementing down.

      Does the rate have to be the same? Can one value count down faster / slower than the other?

      Can one start at a different value and thus finish early / later than the other?

  33. fwiw – my above was in response to RJ’s “The head-voice doesn’t tell me what my mind is doing; it *is* what my mind is doing. :-)”

  34. This isn’t exactly on-topic, but since we’re discussing things that go on inside your head it’s probably as good a time as any to bring it up.

    Back in your “Gratitude for Beto” post we discussed the nature of combat no-mind. While you agreed with my analysis of how it works you didn’t like the alternate names I proposed. I still think names like “no-mind” and “serene mind” are misleading, and having thought about it some more I think I’ve come up with something better. I’ve got two names for two closely related concepts that I think cover it and I want to see what you think.

    My name for the general case is “task-mind.” I define that as the state of being so hyper-focused on accomplishing something that it prevents introspection and memory formation. I make no assumptions about the kind of task involved here.

    The other name is “battle-mind,” which is essentially task-mind under extreme time pressure. This is when you have to choose a course and act quickly. Battle is the obvious example here, hence the name.

    Do these work for you?

      • Yeah, inertia’s a bitch sometimes. But if you want to make it clear to a student what’s actually going on I think these work much better.

        But leaving aside the issue of replacing the existing terms, is there room for improvement here or do you think these two names and concepts cover it? In particular, are there other sub-types of task-mind besides battle-mind that are worth considering separately?

  35. If you haven’t done so already, you may want to read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes. He theorized that the rise of uniquely high intelligence (rooted in consciousness) in species Homo sapiens may have originated as a consequence of co-evolution of complex language skill and it’s role in cross talk between each cameral section of the brain, hence the internal dialectic at the root of higher order problem solving. Chicken and egg paradox.

    • >If you haven’t done so already, you may want to read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes

      Read it years ago, found it very thought-provoking.

  36. As others here have noted, head-voice is more a running commentary than a form of thinking. It explains why so many otherwise intelligent people are absolutely terrible at processing novel concepts: they’re reacting to their own commentary, rather than the thought presented to them. Like high school students writing papers on the cliff notes version of a book.

    Incidentally, I do some of my best work in a sweet spot where I’m somewhat sleep deprived but not exhausted. It shuts down my inner monologue without significantly impairing my faculties.

  37. I experience three separate threads:
    1) a direct feed-back inner voice which mentally functions exactly like a silent mouth, temporally processing verbal (and verbal symbol complex) expressions at roughly the rate of my natural speech or typing, with outputs sent to (2) and (3); when idle this thread generally runs music if none is playing in my environment, and when known music is playing this thread can completely idle (quiet-mind),
    2) a spatial/visual front processing thread that wraps the core of my conscious self; not temporally rate-bound; thinking here feels something like a quantum or recursive vector processor; can consciously feed data to (1) and (3), though sending to (1) has considerable overhead due to non-linear symbol/visual structures needing to be temporally serialized for verbal string complexes,
    3) a background thread, comprising all my subconscious and autonomous monkey-brain stuff; I can consciously send some problems down to it (by actually queuing a symbolic Ctrl-Z and bg in (2)), go rest for 30 or 45 minutes, then query it and get an answer, without anything more happening in (1) and (2).

    The separations between the three are not especially conscious, as most day-to-day is spent with all three operating in tandem, and required altered mental states to map the edges of.

    • >3) I can consciously send some problems down to it (by actually queuing a symbolic Ctrl-Z and bg in (2)), go rest for 30 or 45 minutes, then query it and get an answer, without anything more happening in (1) and (2).

      Dang, I *wish* I could do that!

    • >3) a background thread, comprising all my subconscious and autonomous monkey-brain stuff; I can consciously send some problems down to it (by actually queuing a symbolic Ctrl-Z and bg in (2)), go rest for 30 or 45 minutes, then query it and get an answer, without anything more happening in (1) and (2).

      I sometimes do this too. The tricky part is knowing what sorts of problems can be handed off this way.

      “There’s something I should be seeing that I’m not. What am I missing?” is a good candidate.

      • > The tricky part is knowing what sorts of problems can be handed off this way. “There’s something I should be seeing that I’m not. What am I missing?” is a good candidate.

        Indeed. I find it works on problems where the required data is present in my head somewhere, but I can’t quite get a useful solution with direct, procedural reasoning for whatever human reason.

        The pre-conscious dream-mind free-association chaos is great at quietly cycling over large fuzzy mental data sets until matching the pattern I’m looking for and throwing an interrupt, very roughly analogous to a map/reduce.

        I can use this to intuit the first-approximation of a complex algorithm, say, but the bounds of the system need to be very well understood in order to get a meaningful return. And, I have to have already been spending some foreground energy on the problem for my background mind to be in a state where this will work reliably. It might be that I’m setting up neural pathways that then get handed off to the low-level squirrels to bang on.

        • >It might be that I’m setting up neural pathways that then get handed off to the low-level squirrels to bang on.

          Exactly. I may do a post about this.

  38. Do you quiet-minders get earworms? Do you experience spontaneous emanations of any sort in your mind? (Uncalled images, sounds, ideas?)

    Context – it seems that possibly redundant context here is important since we’re exploring things completely outside our realm of experience and normalcy.

    It happens often to me that I have music playing in my head; in fact, I can go back and tweak some of it to some extent and play at creating music by doing that. Sometimes I can’t get the music to stop reliably, although most of the time I can; being unable to stop the music, specially when it’s the same song playing over and over, is what the earworm is all about. I don’t know that there are any analogs to that, but there may be…

    • >Do you quiet-minders get earworms? Do you experience spontaneous emanations of any sort in your mind? (Uncalled images, sounds, ideas?)

      Yes, I experience these things. I think it’s likely that the mechanisms that produce these are indepemdent of head voice.

      >It happens often to me that I have music playing in my head

      I have a music generator as well; it entrains itself to the last style of music I actually heard. I can’t shut it off, exactly, but I can choose to not pay attention to it.

    • I have very little internal visual imagery in general, either spontaneous or intentional. But I have a thing that happens repeatedly, especially when I’m getting ready to go to sleep: I have internal visual imagery of walking on an outdoor path that leads to a high place, often with the ground rising underneath me, and with no safeguards against falling over the edge. If I try to descend to lower ground, THAT ground rises under me too.

      I have tricks for getting this to stop, involving change of physical posture, but it doesn’t seem to stop of itself, and I can’t just choose to stop it. So it seems sort of like an “eyeworm.” (Eww, that’s a gross metaphor.)

  39. >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.

    I have the free association and filtered-pre-verbal levels going strong in the background, but the two things that dominate my consciousness are video in and the *verbal* stream of consciousness, at about the same level. Internal video comes after those two, and is definitely part of my conscious cognition, but I can’t bring it to nearly the level of clarity of video in while awake. The verbal stream of consciousness is just *there*, I don’t *need* it, but it’s incredibly difficult to silence. If there is text centered in the video in image, it automatically finds its way into the verbal stream of consciousness. “Stream of consciousness” may not be the right way to say it: I have several consciousness-level verbal threads, but, OTOH, one of them (not always the same one) always has focus. The free-association level always has a significant number of threads backing up the consciousness-level verbal threads, of which a good chunk are backing up the thread that has focus. As a result, every word and sentence that passes through my brain gets parsed in every possible way. The most sensible parsing result is selected, and all of the nonsense ones get run through my sense of humor, which then evaluates them on their suitability as puns.

  40. Thank you for this post. It is intriguing, thought-provoking.

    Reflecting, I use head-voice, quiet-mind, and camshaft thinking depending on circumstances. For example, as I type this, head-voice is on. As with you, when I program, it’s camshaft thinking. When listening to music, it’s quiet-mind; however, when analyzing the music, it’s back to head-voice.

    My social skills are largely not innate, but learned. I rely heavily on head-voice to role play scenarios, before and after social interactions, and look for ways to have a better outcome in future.

  41. > 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.

    (First time commenting here).

    I have been diagnosed as pathologically verbal*. Most of what Zygo has said is true for me also with the major exception that my visualizations are “underexposed and out of focus”.

    Anyway your question prompted me to realise that my faculty-of-will is silent but can’t recognise a task as complete until the correct verbal formulation facts has been made. For practical tasks it is something like “There is no wood left to chop” whereas for a more abstract problem the completion state is more akin to a program built using deeply nested macros.

    To turn the question on you, how do you actually covert algorithms to code? Does it appear written in your minds eye? For me a voice starts dictating what to type (“foo equals bar times baz”) once I have stated to myself why a function is needed.

    On a related note my brother has mentioned that his thoughts are structured like language but without corresponding to anything either spoken or written. Just raw manipulation of categories.

    * Misleadingly named Non-verbal Learning Disorder (NLD).

    • >To turn the question on you, how do you actually covert algorithms to code? Does it appear written in your minds eye?

      I…think so. I’m certainly not speaking the code to myself as you do, but I’m not aware of visualizing before I type so I cannot say with certainty that I am doing that.

      >On a related note my brother has mentioned that his thoughts are structured like language but without corresponding to anything either spoken or written. Just raw manipulation of categories.

      Yeah, I do that a lot. Information received over the last few days causes me to believe that this is common in quiet-minds. Good odds your brother is one.

    • > To turn the question on you, how do you actually covert algorithms to code? Does it appear written in your minds eye? For me a voice starts dictating what to type (“foo equals bar times baz”) once I have stated to myself why a function is needed.

      I think I have a strong component of both thinking modes, so I can say at least a little: Data structures I visualize, then formulate the code linguistically, but with the syntax of the language, not of English ( if foo equal equal bar, var equals function(), var2 equals function (parameter), var3 equals var plus var2), though parens, brackets, etc. don’t generally get “pronounced” in my mind voice, they just get inserted by “write()” where needed, as with periods, commas, etc. in English. Matching/balancing parens and brackets is done visually, often with a semi-linguistic “da da da, duh, duh, duh” to aid in counting when there are enough to be confusing. Bracket highlighting in my editor is a huge help, if I have that then matching is entirely visual.

      • > though parens, brackets, etc. don’t generally get “pronounced” in my mind voice, they just get inserted by “write()” where needed, as with periods, commas, etc. in English.

        Same, however I’ve mapped the rising-stop of my New Zealand accent to that role. As my inner monologue says “const long int num = 83;” its tone gets higher and higher with each word returning to its natural resting point in the next statement.

  42. I am quite baffled your description too. And no, I don’t have an internal monologue, though I often speak to other people in my mind (visualizing them). Something like a rehearsal. When I’m alone – often vocally.

    As to what happens in my head with regards to myself… nothing I just think and act. No visual or verbal “formation”. At least I fail to recollect something.

  43. This is…bizarre. I’m definitely a head-voice person and I can’t even comprehend not having one. I struggle to even imagine how thinking without it even works. I don’t think I can ever really turn it off, though if I’m “in the zone” at some task, my thought process and physical actions align well enough that it might seem, for that time, to disappear.

    Comments about early childhood and development and hypothesizing that head-voice must be a learned (or developed?) trait seem plausible to me, especially before a grasp on language is acquired. Naturally I can’t actually remember far enough back to know what it was like :)

  44. For me, the ‘head voice’ is perhaps the echo of my linguistic cortex interpreting my thoughts as fast as it can. It can be very annoying and cacophonous at times.
    Yet when I am thinking analytically, for software frex, my thoughts are mostly symbolic mathematical abstractions…no verbal content at all.
    I guess I straddle the line. My mind is distractingly active at times…I often wish I could just have some peace.

    • >My mind is distractingly active at times…I often wish I could just have some peace.

      Duuude. Learn to sit zazen. Seriously, Buddhists are really good at solving this problem, even if you don’t buy their premises.

      • That invites the obvious retort “Easy for YOU to say”.

        Quieting the monkey noises is actually a lot more effort than you’ve ever had to experience.

        Sheesh.

        • >Quieting the monkey noises is actually a lot more effort than you’ve ever had to experience.

          Why do you think you know that? Admittedly, you’re sort of half-right, I don’t have to expend a lot of effort now. But that’s after 50 years of cultivating a mystic’s mental disciplines – I can remember when the effort to quiet the drunken monkey was a huge and difficult one.

          You can’t learn the discipline if you never start. But starting isn’t easy. Thus: learn to sit zazen. Baby steps.

          • OK, so — I’m pretty sure he was talking about literal monkey _noises_, as in inner-sound/inner-words; but I’m not sure at all what you mean when you talk about “quieting” the drunken monkey! I get the feeling you’re talking about the “making it still” rather than the “making it not noisy” sense of the word.

            • >I get the feeling you’re talking about the “making it still” rather than the “making it not noisy” sense of the word.

              You’re right, but I also believe that’s a distinction without a real difference. The “noise” is a consequence of the not-stillness.

              Analogy: If you have excessive engine noise, it’s not much good to just stuff rags around the noisy bits. You need to figure out what mechanical problem is causing the engine to turn input energy into decibels rather than output power and fix that.

              Similarly, if you want your mental life to be more peaceful – less noisy – you need to go to the source of the problem, which is that the filters between your conscious attention and what I have called “the roar” (the noise of the predictive-processing collision, the sound of the drunken monkey) are not set properly.

              Before you can fine-tune them, you usually need to learn the trick of attention required to zero the freaking filter. Thus, sitting za-zen (or an equivalent).

            • No. Not at all.
              Think of the scene in the first x-men movie where Xavior puts on his helmet and all the consciousness of countless human beings swirls around him.
              Clearly, I am not like that, but that’s the kind effect…a torrent of my own thoughts where it is extremely hard to wrestle them down to any particular coherent channel. The cacophony is awful.
              I have even resorted to alcohol to anesthetize myself.
              This is not good.

        • >Oh yeah. I’ll look great in yoga pants ;)

          No, no, that’d be Soto zen. For you I prescribe Rinzai, the badass samurai warrier/philosopher version. No yoga pants required.

          I’m being funny, but I’m not really joking.

          • OK…ya got me…I could carry that off ;)

            I did actually google zazen, and realized that – although I didn’t know the term – I knew the concept.

            (long history with japanese martial arts)

            I am going to experiment.

            • >I did actually google zazen, and realized that – although I didn’t know the term – I knew the concept.

              The posture isn’t the most important part, actually. Breath control is much more important. Slow, even brthing is the ticket.

              • I get that (about the breathing)…but I was actually referring to the concept of attenuating everything else out to the point of ‘zero mind’ where your only focus is on the self.

                I have managed to get there only a couple of times in unexpected situations, and the experience was alarming…yet I have never been able to accomplish it intentionally

        • Look into “mindful meditation” instead. Mostly the same thing, but with the religion stripped away.

          The Marine Corps was using it (or at least experimenting with it) in Aghanistan, and there’s a picture out there somewhere of a bunch of Marines in BDUs with rifles slung meditating.

          The Marines found (at least initially, IDK if any followups were done) that it helped Marines stay cooler under fire with less problems afterwards.

          • I just found it hilarious that they were describing all these fancy ‘oriental’ meditation positions…then finally “fuck it just sit in a chair”

            • Yeah. But there is another aspect of it. Hyperlordosis / anterior pelvic tilt is a common problem for people sitting a lot in a chair. Leads to back pain and all that. The purpose of the fancy positions, say half lotus with the edge of the pillow under the tailbone is create what would actually be the healthy natural lumbar spine position if we weren’t overcivilized desk workers, lower pelvic / genitals tilted a bit forward, upper pelvic bone backward, the lumbar curvature much less pronounced. It stabilizes and relaxes the spine, the upper body, helps with breathing and all that.

              So actually we should be sitting at our desks all the time like that and would not have herniated discs by 60…

              Currently I am trying to fix it with front barbell squats because stretching is boring, without really much success.

  45. I only hear words in my head when using words: reading/writing/listening/talking. This can actually mean I am slow to speak, as I have to formulate my words first, whereas my wife just says them. It also makes it hard when she asks me what I am thinking — I am not thinking in words, so first I have to convert my thoughts into words, then work out how best to say them, then say them.

    When reading, I often “hear” the words in the voice of the person who wrote them, which may well be my voice if I am working on my writing, like now.

    As a programmer, I do a lot of “camshaft thinking”. I can see the solution, in terms of connections between data elements, and orderings of events, and possibly how it looks in code, rather than formulate it in words. I have at times found this to be at odds with how others work.

    It’s good to see that others think in non-verbal ways too.

  46. Lots of interesting reports, here. Having had a recent ASD (Aspergers’) diagnosis, I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering how and why I think or express myself the way I do.

    There seem to be two branches of thinking for me: verbal and sensory. In the “verbal” mode, it’s like having a conversation with myself, two parties debating things that are difficult to solve, or perhaps just being lonely and wanting a “friend”. I’ll even do it out loud when I’m completely alone.

    The “sensory” one is a combination of every other sense that I have, just eliminating the verbal part. At best, it’s like watching an entertaining movie or screen-capture (for imagining technological things) with everything but dialogue in it as a future-scenario-predictor, even adding emotion as an extra dimension. At the worst, it’s like feeling burned, blinded, deafened, and nauseous all at once.

    How I think in the sensory mode is difficult to translate to words, and unfortunately, the two styles of thinking don’t seem to cooperate.

    The sensory thinking tends to dominate, but verbal is sometimes necessary to temper the intensity and confusion that comes with thinking as a whole-body experience, and it often needs to be a conscious action. Sometimes particularly poignant or difficult thoughts will be verbal, as if to emphasize the importance of that moment.

    Hope someone finds this pondering out-loud useful. :)

  47. Once I was hallucinating in abstract concepts. So I know what abstract concepts feel like.

    I was in bed with the usual double whammy of getting a viral cold and then a bacterial infection on top of it, very weak, kept passing out, and my mind was just too weak to do the usual verbal or visual narration of abstract thoughts. And even after waking up they lasted a while. So whatever I dreamed or thought had only the abstract part.

    In both cases, one part was a kind of a “we must”, a sense of strong urgency.

    Then the first one was “multiply the things”, except without any idea what those things are, just the verb (not verbally) and undefined objects.

    The second one was scary because it was “disassemble and reassemble” and somehow it felt like that the things, the object is everything, including people. So imagine waking up with an absolute conviction that everything including people must be urgently disassembled and reassembled. I kept pacing up and down telling myself release it, it was just a dream kind of thing.

  48. I think in words a lot—not mainly, but also not just when I’m attempting to compose speech or writing. But I don’t “hear” the words, I “see” them.

    I’d guess this relates to learning to sight-read about as soon as I learned to read at all, except… Even my recollection of melodies feels visual in some indescribable way rather than auditory. I can imagine tastes and smells better than I can imagine sounds.

    What surprised me was how common it is for people not to actually, literally, “visualize” things.

    • I feel you; I don’t think it’s related to sight-reading — I learned to sight read rather early — probably on the latter side of 3. Yet I don’t see the words.
      On the other hand, I’ve known for a few years that, say, my father (who learned to read at a later age than I did) visualizes music — melodies and chords and all the stuff, while I don’t.

    • I don’t remember whether I was an early sight-reader, but I was quick to learn to read and yet I do have a weirdly auditory memory. I am describing because I wonder if I am alone with that. Somehow my mind interprets rythm as tune/melody, the faster the rythm, the higher the pitch. Long syllables lower pitch, short syllables higher pitch. So when we had to memorize a lot of hexameter or pentameter rythmic poetry, I have always memorized the words with this invented tune. This partially meant that when I was supposed to recite them I always sung. Just could not not sing. But it also made it far easier to memorize them. This also made me a terrible singer because instead of the actual tune, I was singing this rythm-derived invented tune. It also helped a lot in learning languages, I always remembered this rythm-pitch of a word and it was a useful mnemonic. Like the teacher asked me how is “hard” in Latin I remembered it is ti-taa, ti-ti, ti-taa, ah, okay, durus, dura, durum.

      • I’m a fast, auditory reader. I can sight read without the internal audio channel in short bursts, but it’s really hard to keep up. I don’t tend to musicalize poetry spontaneously, so it doesn’t get in the way of keeping a tune when singing actual music, though it’s not hard for me to improvise a tune for non-musical poetry if I choose.

  49. Absurd question but here goes:

    Did you ever see the movie Firefox where it was expressly stated to Clint Eastwood’s character that he must “think in Russian” to control the plane’s rockets and other capabilities? Did that make you wonder “shouldn’t he just visualize the missiles firing.”

    When I saw that movie I implicitly understood “think in Russian” as pertaining to mind-talk.

  50. > 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.

    Me too. The more difficult a thing is to describe, the more I’m aware of the process, as one might expect.

    Once upon a time I dealt with that uneasiness by self-medicating. I remember joking that I would drink ’til my IQ was low enough to match my vocabulary. (That joke was funnier when I was drunk.)

  51. > There are exactly two circumstances under which I have head-voice. One is when I’m writing or consciously framing spoken communication.

    With a bit of an exaggeration: that is like the whole point of thinking. Human intelligence is evolved for social intelligence (Environmental Dominance – Social Competition etc.) the very fact that when we think in words we think in sounds that were optimized for our throats and thus speech was there before thinking and thus thinking evolved to control speech, speech and intelligence being all about social coordination and so on.

    Imagine being a waiter. What are you thinking about? Which wine to recommend, what food to recommend if what is ordered out of stock and so on. All communication. Imagine thinking about solutions to problems you know you will have to justify, explain, document or teach. If it not only has to work but also has to be explainable or even sellable of course you use the verbal aspect as well.

    The point is your life is very unusual in the sense that you are spending a lot of time thinking about hard technical problems. For the most part the purpose of thinking is precisely communication. Even in technical matters that are not very difficult – I generally have technically easy problems to solve but as the problem very often exists between the keyboard and chair I need to solve them so that they are easy to explain and thus the problem-solving thinking goes hand in hand with thinking about how I will explain it, and any part of the solution that is not easy to explain is not an ideal part.

  52. I’d like to clarify the head-voice experience a bit. My mind isn’t a “head voice” OR “camshaft thinking” it’s an AND.

    The real hard-core processing is done in a non-verbal way (a lot of inductive reasoning, models, code maps) but there is ALSO a running narrative that kind of is summarizing results or preparing those results for communication. It’s just another layer on top.

    At any rate, as with most things mind-related, I suspect the true situation is more a gradient than any kind of stark 10-option binary choice.

  53. I wonder if rubber duck debugging has greater value to those who aren’t already running an internal monologue.

    • I think it probably does, because you still have to cover the basics and context the duck doesn’t know, where you skip that stuff when you think you already know it.

  54. For me I often have an idea and then I struggle to put it to words – with my internal narrator.

    I have impression that I have monologue often consisting of unverbal, half-verbal and fully verbal parts. My internal narrator never sleeps and tries to switch on whatever I work on; and sometimes verbalizing helps to clarify some ideas or thoughts. It’s not that it “explains to me” what I thought, it’s more like having full blown discussion with myself, as having several partners which react and comment on my own thoughts not-verbally, and the part of me which I identify the most with is talking to the rest of my mind :D But no, it’s not schizophrenia. Rather I feel like having several modules with inputs and outputs and my internal narrator being a module doing the agreement protocol between them.

  55. This head voice thing narration thing — people are actually hearing a voice which is their own voice or something very close to it?

    We’re not talking about some type of metaphor but these folks are actually perceiving sound? I understand that they can tell the difference between a sound that originates from within their mind vs. the environment…but these head-voice folks would describe these internal monologues as actual sound?

    • Yes, as actual sound. Not my actual voice — not in timbre, intonation, and expressive range. I can make it sound different, too — think voice acting, I guess? But yeah, it’s actual sound and I think it is processed in the same place as heard speech is processed because sometimes, when I’m trying to think through something specific, people talking around me can make it hard to “hear” that voice and process “its words” — ie: it’s harder to think in that mode.

    • >but these head-voice folks would describe these internal monologues as actual sound?

      It’s probably significantly variable what different people actually perceive, and even for the same perception it’s likely that different people will describe it differently, but for my part it doesn’t really come across as sound, but there is a very definite perception of what the sound would be if spoken aloud, including timing, intonation, and accent.

      • Irving, Jon –

        Thank you for the response.

        My mind is completely blown away by your descriptions. Which should I be more surprised by – the fact that this type of difference amongst humans exists? Or that I was totally unaware of it?

        I need to sit down.

    • In my case, not as actual sound. I understand the words as if they were spoken aloud, but silently, with a volume set to zero. It’s unlike my occasional hypnagogic auditory hallucinations which I do perceive as having sound. OTOH when I dream, all the talk and sounds are in this zero-volume head-voice.

      My head-voice is very clear when I read, or read-as-I-type. It’s a form of synthesia where I both see and head-voice-hear (at zero volume) the written words. The head-voice also there when I’m thinking in a format suitable for being expressed as speech or writing. (Which is most of the time.) But it’s absent or overwhelmed when I speak aloud or when I listen to someone else talking.

      My head-voice is diminished when I do arithmetic. It’s less diminished when I do arithmetic in my head, more faded when I do it on paper, and almost completely gone when I do algebra. It’s also gone when I’m thinking about non-verbal things, such as when I’m drawing or crafting. Or, back when I had my day job, when I drew molecular structures and chemical equations.

      I think I can visualize. Maybe. Barely. It takes and effort, the results are poor and brief. I can’t hold a visualization in my ‘minds eye’ for longer than a flash

      • That “zero volume” thing is what happens when I read too, never heard it described so well before! Kind of spooks me.

        At least, I recently discovered that I *need* to perceive the voice so that the words are properly absorbed into my brain. Less head voice, less processing of the information, like the emphasis is needed so that learning from the reading happens. Otherwise, the words don’t really process as well, sometimes at all, and I’ll have “read” without comprehending a thing and have to redo the reading from wherever the voice went silent.

        This whole conversation has shown that humans can process information in very different ways from one another. Not sure that translates to more difficulty communicating with one another, but it does make one wonder if the differences help or hurt, and if so, why.

      • > It’s unlike my occasional hypnagogic auditory hallucinations which I do perceive as having sound. OTOH when I dream, all the talk and sounds are in this zero-volume head-voice.

        Weird, my dreams have more-or-less full sight and sound, to the point where I don’t really differentiate between hypnagogic hallucinations and dreaming (hypnagogic hallucinations do tend to have an attenuated or absent* quality to the visual element, I presume this has to do with the visual signal from the eyes, which are still closed, being asserted over the dream). Even in regular dreams there is a bit of something odd to the visual element, though, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s not apparent to the mind as a sign of unreality while asleep, but easily allows me to distinguish the dream from reality afterward. Touch is present in at least some dreams (probably with similar frequency to my awareness of it in waking life), but I can’t ever recall having tasted or smelled anything in a dream.

        *absent in the sense of a black or near-black image, not in the sense of vision being entirely absent, a possibility which I suppose some people may experience, but which I can’t really comprehend.

    • Yep.
      The internal experience is almost exactly like real speech. The only difference is physical… I know, and can feel, that my ears and mouth aren’t doing anything.
      But other than that, I’m hearing and speaking, full stop.
      What will really bake the noodle of anyone who doesn’t do this is that, very often, one of the voices not only doesn’t sound like me, it doesn’t think like me… It is, in a very real subjective sense, not me.

      –Shannon

  56. I think lately we’ve basically proven “philosophy of mind” is just people arguing the other’s thought patterns are impossible. Personally, when I code I write out comments to figure out what I’m trying to do. I do have a narrator, which I have to consciously activate. I would describe my resting thought processes as thinking without thinking. I know what I’m trying to attempt, without having to think about it.

    Look up aphantasia as well. In the far end, apparently, there is no concious thought process, and those people still seem to function just fine. (curious if it’s possible to have a gifted IQ without any concious thoughts) Most just have any monologue, though.

  57. The fact that that surprised you shows that
    you didn’t believe me when I emailed you,
    “There’s enormously more diversity in ways
    of thinking than most people realize. And
    different doesn’t mean pathological.”
    (That was seven months ago, but I’ve said
    the same thing in different words for
    decades.) I’m not very introspective, which
    is why it took me a few days to respond. I
    don’t think I have an internal monologue
    except when I’m rehearsing what I plan to
    say or write to someone. Whether I’m a
    visual thinker depends on what counts as
    visual. I don’t see things in my mind’s eye
    as if I were a camera or an eyeball.
    I “see” all sides of an object at once, and
    the object is neither in color nor in black
    and white, nor does it have chirality. I
    sometimes wish I could quiet my
    (non-verbal?) ruminations on my wrongful
    conviction of 43 years ago, as it soaks up
    far too much of my mental bandwidth and
    accomplishes nothing. I’ve already long
    since concluded that I pleaded guilty
    because, in my confusion as to what was
    going on and why, I had mentally abdicated
    to the authority of my court-appointed
    lawyer, which is by far the most shameful
    thing I’ve ever done. Is there *any* way to
    split a reply here into paragraphs?

    • > Is there *any* way to split a reply here into paragraphs?

      Many HTML elements work here, including the <p> element. Unlike real HTML, LF characters inside the element just pass through; I think WordPress is inserting <p> and <br> tags automatically.

      Normally, though, I just put an empty line between one paragraph and the next.

      I’ve noticed the weird wrapping in your comments. Are you using something that automatically inserts a \n after a certain number of characters?

  58. Eric,

    Are you familiar at all with Oliver Byrne’s rewrite of Euclid’s “Elements”?

    Or the “Completing” work that Kronecker Wallis recently published?

    My wife gave me a copy of the latter as a Grav-Mass present, and I was so enamored with it that I showed it to a maths-tutor friend of ours who responded (much to my surprise) with “Wow is that ever confusing. I don’t think I could handle that–I’d be stuck having to name all the things and then spending so much effort converting back and forth that I wouldn’t be able to get anything out of it.”

    Perhaps Byrne was the “quiet-mind” type–and if the book did not initially find a large audience (I’m not sure, but it sort-of sounds like it did not), that could well have been that “there actually aren’t that many quiet-minds out there” lesson manifesting….

    • >Are you familiar at all with Oliver Byrne’s rewrite of Euclid’s “Elements”?

      I was not. It’s a cute idea, but one detail jars on me enough to take most of the fun out of it. If you’re going to reimagine Byrne for a new century, with color and diagrams no less, why keep that damned long s? My eyes kept tripping over it, because it doesn’t belong there.

      I say it doesn’t belong there because it was already more than 50 years obsolete when Byrne wrote in 1847, having fallen out of general use by the late 1790s and found by Byrne’s time entirely as an affectation, a deliberate archaism. There might be some thin case for it in a facsimile edition, but not in a redesign intended to make Byrne’s work more accessible.

      • Oh, I didn’t mean to ask if you had seen that specific website, it was just the best online rendition of Byrne that I could find.
        I really did mean if you were familiar with Byrne’s `reimagining’ of Euclid (not Rougeux’s reimagining of Byrne!).

        What I was trying to ask was: what do you think of Byrne’s choice to use `direct analog’ references to the sides/lengths, angles, etc. in place of the letter-naming reference style used more typically in maths education?

        (maybe I should have cited a less interesting facsimile publication, e.g. Bill Casselman’s page about “Byrne’s Euclid” or Taschen’s web-page about their facsimile printing? And FYI, Kronecker Wallis did in fact do away with all of the antique text-styling conventions in their update….)

        • >What I was trying to ask was: what do you think of Byrne’s choice to use `direct analog’ references to the sides/lengths, angles, etc. in place of the letter-naming reference style used more typically in maths education?

          Don’t have an opinion yet. Would need to study it more.

  59. Adding to my point http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=8558#comment-2354284 that thinking in order to speak or write is sort of the vastly most common reason humans think and thinking in order to solve some actual hard hands-on technical problem is far rarer and not having to explain, sell or justify it to others in which case you sort of work parallely on the solution and the communication is even rarer:

    Because my work does not really challenge me in non-communicational thinking, every technical problem I deal with needs to be explained etc. the best way to test my non-verbal ability is a Raven’s Progressive Matrices IQ test. For example the Mensa uses a series of 36 puzzles. And I find I have three modes of thinking:

    1) first 25 or so is just immediately obvious.

    2) Then I take a piece of paper and a pen and work them out. There is a strange school reflex that I think better with a pen and paper. Sometimes it does not mean actually working out, just putting a note or two down. Sometimes it is actually working out. In multiple-choice tests like Raven one way of working it out is reverse-engineering, just testing all the likely candidates and seeing if they fit. Or there was this think PISA question “We traveled to a city at a speed of 20km/h and traveled back at 30 km/h , what was our average speed for the whole journey?” And very few people get it right and not because they are stupid but because they do not use pen and paper to work it out. Why? If you just go “assume they are 100km away” or “assume the trip there was one hour” and work it out on paper there is no way you get it wrong. Seriously. I don’t know why people don’t do that. Anyway, in this second case, it is not a kind of thinking, but doing work on a paper with a pen.

    (In questions of economics, I draw accounting T-charts. I have a conviction that just like math is the language of physics, accounting is the language of economics. Want to convince me commercial banks create money out of think air? Show me a plausible set of accounting transactions, which account to debit, which to credit. Sadly economists don’t really do this. Anyway, same thing, pen and paper being an integral part of the thinking process.)

    3) And then from 31 on on a 36-question Raven, I have no idea whatsoever. Even reverse-engineering does not work. I can only guess and the only trick I can use is to NOT choose the answer that seems likely to me because there is surely some hidden twist.

  60. Hi Eric,

    there’s a famous German hacker. A Wikipedia article on her was denied by some dumbass, so if someone who reads this is involved in writing Wikipedia articles, please create one.

    Her name is Elektra Wagenrad and she wrote a whole book about this topic. She says that most people are trapped in a bicameral thinking where the spoken word in their heads acts as their guidance. It’s an evolutionary thing. These people tend to obey the people speaking, because they are used to commanding themselves in their head.
    For being good at programming and at several other disciplines I think one needs to be able to think abstractly without any words. How bad would one be at coding without abstract thinking? One needs to be able to think in code…

    Unfortunately her book “Die Philosophie des Nicht-Denkens oder: Der kleine Homunkulus möchte im Vorderlappen des Großhirns abgeholt werden” hasn’t been translated to English, yet.

    The title means: “The philosophy of not thinking or: The small homunculus wants to be picked up from the front lobe of the cerebrum”.

    Fun fact: “The small homunculus wants to be picked up from the front lobe of the cerebrum” is an allusion to the loudspeaker announcements in IKEAs when kids want to be picked up from Småland, because they likely pissed their pants (I think there is no toilet in Småland).

    • > Her name is Elektra Wagenrad and she wrote a whole book about this topic. She says that most people are trapped in a bicameral thinking where the spoken word in their heads acts as their guidance. It’s an evolutionary thing. These people tend to obey the people speaking, because they are used to commanding themselves in their head.

      Hmmm. I can’t rule this out, but I find this unlikely. My head voice is always there, but I certainly don’t process every action through it before acting. I do find others to be excessively guided by groupthink, but I don’t think that just blindly following the head voice and then reacting by instinct to anything that one hears is why. For one thing, from the way I’ve seen others act, groupthink has a lot more to do with what people are *afraid* that other people will think or do, not with what other people actually say or actually do. The head voice is certainly involved in role-playing the scenario, but it’s not direct obedience that causes them to be biddable. Someone puts forth a course of action, and they start thinking about what their friends will say if they dissent, rather than it just being a matter of obeying what they hear without processing. I even have some experience with this myself: if I see an ad for something on TV, I become afraid to buy the product for fear that people will think I was stupid enough to fall for the ad. In reality, of course, that’s not what everyone around me is thinking, but nor is everyone thinking what the groupthinker is afraid that they’re thinking.

      • > My head voice is always there, but I certainly don’t process every action through it before acting.

        I don’t think this is a black and white thing. My personal opinion is that people who think more “verbally” than they do in abstract ideas need that confidence. Similarly they feel more secure when someone commands them. I remember when I was younger I was quite confident and didn’t think verbally often. Later this inner dialogue became prevalent and I became bad at many things like programming, because I started to overthink and wait for that inner voice to give me directions. It needed much discipline to trust myself again, but I think I’ll never reach that level of autonomy again, because I fear it can bring me into dangerous situations and let me make more bad decisions if I don’t wait for the inner voice, the inner dialogue to confirm my actions. Thus I think the optimal state lies somewhere in between, in the gray area. But what I’ve learned from talking to other people is that by far the most of the average people need that voice before knowing what they think and they are not really able to think abstractly while most if not all programmers I’ve talked to rarely think verbally especially when programming. From a superficial view the “average” people seem to find it easier to chit-chat than programmers. Just my observations…

        I think you’re completely right with the group thinking. When looking at primates there is this group reaction mechanism, too… When e.g. an alpha male attacks a member of the group, the other males look at each other to find out how to react as a group (join the attack or mediate). Even if some very brutal groups emerged due to this mechanism, the group has a lower selection pressure due to its unity. Individuals that tend to ignore the group thinking even if they tend to mediate are a danger to the unity and thus might be expelled and become the next victim. I wish someone taught me social psychology before I attended school :-D…

  61. Interesting post. Couple of thoughts on it all.

    First of all, I think that you folks who ascribe to the “silent mind” idea are not accurately correct in how you conceptualize and monitor your internal thought processes–And, I say this simply because of the fact that if you were, your verbal skills would be non-existent. Not to mention, if this were the case, namely that you “don’t think in words/language”, then every time you went to articulate your thoughts to someone else, you’d be virtually unintelligible. The fact that you can speak and write shows that you do, indeed, think in words. It’s the difference between reading out loud and reading silently, a skill which would have seemed uncanny (so they say…) to the ancient Romans and Greeks.

    Another way we know this to be true is that you supposedly “silent thinkers” don’t often come up with entirely new linguistic terms or usages–You stay within the same bounds that most of us do, using the language we learned in childhood. If you were truly “non-verbal” symbolic thinkers, then we should expect you to both demonstrate problems verbalizing your thinking, and to see a consistent, steady flow of creative language coming from you in an attempt to get your meaning across. We don’t see that, sooo… I think most of you who claim you lack an “inner monologue” are merely just those of us who don’t move their lips while reading.

    Every language is a tool for thinking and expressing those thoughts. As such, language both provides a shorthand and a straight-jacket for those thoughts and their creation. There are words in other languages that succinctly and clearly express ideas and concepts that you need entire sentences to get across in other languages–The fact that “silent thinkers” aren’t constantly coming up with new words like this in their native language is a clue that there is still language going on in the under-layers of cognition.

    Another issue with all this is that we don’t really have a good idea of just how it is that the human mind bootstraps itself into consciousness in the first damn place. Every one of us has had a subtly different experience of “mind” than everyone else, and we can only imperfectly describe what’s going on inside our heads to anyone else. I’ve had discussions with people where I’ve brought up something I’ve long struggled with, mentally, and asked them “Hey, how do you do this…?”, only to get flat stares of bewilderment as to what I’m talking about–Those persons have never, ever thought about how they think about something. As in, ever–Zero introspection and absolutely no “theory of mind”, on their parts. They just are, in some sort of mental zen-state, a satori of no-thought.

    Case in point–I once asked someone how they visualized the passage of time, how they thought about it–Did they see it as a clock, ticking down? A calendar, with pages flipping, like in some old movie?

    Turns out, that person (who was, I thought, fairly intelligent and intellectual) had never done such a thing, and my question came completely out of left field for them. Why would they need an internal model of time? Look at a watch, a calendar… They didn’t see the need for such a thing, at all. So, they’d never thought about it in those terms.

    For whatever reason, as a small child, I felt the need for such a mental tool, and created one: I visualize time as a helical spiral built out of other such spirals, going down from a single year-coil filled with months, to months spiraled out of weeks and days, to days consisting of tighter spirals of hours, minutes, and seconds. This helps me to keep track of things, and model about where I am in relation to other events along that helical staircase of time.

    Apparently, that makes me strange and unusual. I can’t see how the hell you can orient yourself along the axis of time without such a mental tool, but many of you apparently get by without such a thing, because every time I bring that idea up, I get stares and a sense that my conversational partner thinks I’m insane.

    I suspect that we all come up the winding path from non-existence to consciousness via slightly variable paths. There’s some contiguity, and a general shared set of things, or we would all be utterly alien to each other, and unable to communicate–However, every one of us takes a different route from “unaware” to “aware”. Or, so I surmise. Some of us don’t have to work at thinking about some things, and some of us do; this is why we each build out our own unique mental toolsets, and why some of us never do grasp certain things that others find easy.

    What I suspect is going on here is a general lack of awareness of what goes on in our own minds; it’s like that friend of mine who flatly refused to believe he was moving his lips as he read. It took someone finding a video camera, taping him, and then showing it to him on TV before he’d believe it–If he looked in a mirror, he didn’t do it, but when he was focused solely on reading and by himself…? Lips moved.

    Cognition is a difficult thing to describe and think about, from the inside. Some of us use internal monologue to do it, some don’t. In the end, however, I think the evidence is pretty clear that language plays a key role in it all, whether or not we are fully aware of that fact. Consider the dispute over the ancient Greek idea of color, for an example.

    Supposedly, they (and, more than a few other ancient language groups) did not have a word for the color blue. Does this mean they didn’t see that color, or did they just not conceive of it? Considering that blue is one of the primary colors, this fact is pretty damn bizarre when you try to make sense of it. I would submit that this apparent deficiency would serve as a discussion point as to whether or not language was a critical element to thought–After all, if the language doesn’t have a word that breaks out a primary color, then how did they manage to work with things like pigments? So, that argument goes towards symbolic thought underlying verbal, but the converse would be, with no word for it, how the hell did they talk about it between each other? Especially when describing what pigments to mix for paint, and the like.

    What I suspect is that there are multiple layers to cognition; some purely symbolic, and others that require language to address. The fact that we all do this differently is not surprising, because we’re all by ourselves in our heads when we first bootstrap our way into consciousness. There are probably as many different ways to do that as there are people to do it, and while I’d be willing to acknowledge that some of us may have found better and more efficient pathways than others, I would still submit that language is far more heavily engaged with it all than our supposed “silent thinkers” are actually cognizant of. Self-knowledge in these regards isn’t at all easy, and I suspect that if many of us weren’t actually using some form of language in their internal thinking, then we’d have a hell of a lot more trouble communicating than we do–And, as a side-effect, we’d see a hell of a lot more “out-of-language” expression from a lot more people than we do.

    • >I think that you folks who ascribe to the “silent mind” idea are not accurately correct in how you conceptualize and monitor your internal thought processes–And, I say this simply because of the fact that if you were, your verbal skills would be non-existent.

      The quiet-mind experience is that we don’t think in language, but can approximate our thinking in language – downsample it – readily enough. And indeed automatically do so when formulating speech to others.

      Your claim that a really quiet mind would be unable to speak seems deeply silly to me. You assert it but don’t give me any reason at all to believe it, much less any reason solid enough to stack up against my experience that I have both non-verbalized thoughts and verbalized ones.

      • We’re not discussing some question of virtue here, so there’s no need to feel attacked by what I’m saying. It isn’t like the lack of consciousness of an “inner monologue” is some sign of original sin, or the like.

        What I think is going on here is akin to that problem that a lot of half-ass educators had when they looked at reading–They saw that the advanced kids were not using phonics and sounding things out, and mistook what they observed in them for a superior approach to teaching people how to read. What they missed was the fact that those kids had started out with phonics, and progressed to the point where they were no longer sounding out letters, and were just recognizing words on the fly from their overall appearance. They were still using phonics, but they’d gotten so far past the basics of it that they and the observers were no longer cognizant of them actually doing that as they read. It appeared as though they were processing phonic words as though they were Chinese ideographs, but what was going on was that they had developed their reading skills to the point where they could process the words at such speed that it looked as if they weren’t actually using phonics to do it.

        It’s like a dyslexic guy I helped with his math, once upon a time. I’m so used to the idea of 3X3+9 that I just do it in symbology, and never really “do the work”. The progression usually goes “count three, three times, that’s nine…”, and a lot of people apparently start off by visualizing three objects in lieu of the number symbols. As time goes on, once the symbols are internalized, it’s 3X3=9, and you think in terms of “three times three is nine”, using words to yourself as a bit of a mnemonic device as you go. Eventually, there comes a point where you see the symbols and evaluate it instantly on the fly, without conscious thought and you go “3X3=9”, recognizing that is automatically nine units.

        I’d submit that this is what’s going on with a lot of us that report no internal monologue going on. There are underlying layers to our perception of the world around us and the way we think about it, and because we’re so used to doing it, we don’t consciously perceive the second layer of symbolic abstraction any more–Unless we consciously go looking for it.

        It does have to be there, still, because otherwise you lot that deny the inner monologue would betray that fact with an overall difficulty in communicating novel ideas, and you’d show places where your understanding of things is not a part of our shared instinctual pattern-recognition process.

        Think about how you order things when describing them: In English, the adjective order is going to be: size, shape, age, colour / origin / material / purpose. You don’t say “dog black old big collar”, you say “big old black dog collar”, and I dare say that that is the same order you think of and observe those characteristics in your presumed “quiet mind”.

        Language is going on, even if you’re not aware of it. If you grew up in a language that lacked terms for things, you’d likely find that thinking about them was a hell of a lot more difficult than someone who grew up in one that did have the terminology to do it. It’s like the way Chinese language speakers have more facility with learning basic math than many Western language speakers have growing up–Chinese is simple and consistent with number names, which our languages mostly… Aren’t. Or, so I’ve been told by people–I don’t speak Chinese, but I’ve had it described to me, and from what my informants tell me, the naming conventions for numbers in Chinese are short, consistent, and flow right into doing basic math. There’s none of the crazy crap like you run into with French, for example, or the inconsistencies we have in English, where you have “eleven” for 11, and “twenty-one” for 21, which serves to confuse the shit out of small children.

        I don’t think it’s really that big a deal, except when you get into things like semiotics, and trying to describe precisely how you think to others. We all got to “here”, which is presumably more-or-less self-aware sentience, by slightly different paths, and it’s natural that we think differently. But, I really and truly doubt that all y’all describing “quiet mind” are really doing what you think you are, at all–I suspect that what is going on is that you’re all unconscious and unaware that you’re skipping the steps analogous to sounding out letters when you read. You may think you’re not using words, but what is going on is, I suspect, that you’ve done what an intermediate math student has, and you’re thinking abstractedly in symbols instead of the groups of units those symbols represent.

        The crankshaft question is something else entirely–That isn’t something that’s amenable to visualizing in terms of language, anyway. If you had to describe a crankshaft from someone who had zero background in the mechanics of such things, you’d have to resort to a blueprint and a series of numeric descriptors in order to get the idea across, but if you went to order a new one for your engine, you’d simply use the abstraction layers available to you down at the parts store and tell them which engine it came out of and what part number you needed–No need to have the dimensional blueprint and explain the role of the damn thing, because they already know, and you share an abstract symbology layer about that crankshaft with the parts department guy.

        Try talking to someone who doesn’t have that linguistic abstraction layer you are unconscious of, sometime–It really blows your mind to realize that there are people out there who lack that layer, and who can’t access all that well. The guy I was trying to teach math to was dyslexic as all hell–He simply could not access the symbology of it all, but what he could do was essentially create a matrix in his head to think about numbers, to where he was basically visualizing objects and counting them–Which explains why he could never get very far past basic math, because once you get out of the basics, you have to be able to abstract and manipulate the symbology of it all to arrive at your answers. The way I observed it with him was like he was trying to do algebra with Roman numerals.

        It’s an interesting discussion, and I would submit that there’s rather more to it than what we’re batting back and forth. Try to think of something, some abstract concept, that doesn’t exist in the English language or any other one you might speak: Can you do it? Don’t you have to name it, or create some sort symbol just as a marker to manipulate it?

        The question of color in language is a telling one; if you don’t have a name for it, how the hell do you describe it or use it? Imagine trying to tell an ancient Greek to push a blue button, when you lack a shared idea and symbology for something of that color…

        • I think you may be combining two ideas.

          One: How the mind communicates with itself.
          Two: How that same mind communicates with others.

          Admittedly, without language, it becomes very difficult to describe things to others. Languages are the most direct way that people relay their thoughts and ideas to others.

          To say the mind can’t communicate with itself in a way that isn’t involving language, however, is pretty presumptuous. What about quick reflexes, for example? Does one have to think: “I have to catch that fastball or it’ll break my nose!” before catching it? I’m not sure if the body would move instinctively to protect itself without any internal narrative or not.

          Does the mind have to utilize language to conceptualize its own life experiences, or only to relay those experiences to others?

          • We’re not talking reflexive reactions to the environment here. That’s a different thing entirely–What we’re getting at is how we do abstract cognition. My contention is that without language, it is very hard to do any abstract reasoning at all.

            This is the gist of the argument I make–The “silent mind” sorts are not cognizant that their thought processes are based on and require language to happen, while the “internal monologue” types are either more observant or they’ve done a poorer job of internalizing the symbolic underpinnings.

            Where we’re all going off the rails is the idea that this is signatory of some mad “virtue”, when in fact it’s merely a sign that we’re coming to about the same state of cognition via different paths. You don’t have an inner monologue going on that you’re aware of? No big deal; it means nothing, really. Same with those of us who have one.

            There’s been a fair amount of research on this, and I’m convinced from the evidence I’ve read that language underlies most of our cognition. It has to–To say that you don’t use language when you’re thinking is the equivalent of thinking your programs are all written in machine code because you forgot about the compiler you used to turn your work in assembly code into something the processor could understand.

            Note the difficulties cultures with no words for higher numbers have even thinking about things they have no words for–The Wiki has a decent summary:

            “Perhaps the most different counting system from that of modern Western civilisation is the “one-two-many” system used by the Pirahã people. In this system, quantities larger than two are referred to simply as “many”. In larger quantities, “one” can also mean a small amount and “many” a larger amount. Research was conducted in the Pirahã culture using various matching tasks. These are non-linguistic tasks that were analyzed to see if their counting system or more importantly their language affected their cognitive abilities. The results showed that they perform quite differently from, for example, an English speaking person who has a language with words for numbers more than two. For example, they were able to represent numbers 1 and 2 accurately using their fingers but as the quantities grew larger (up to 10), their accuracy diminished. This phenomenon is also called the “analog estimation”, as numbers get bigger the estimation grows. Their declined performance is an example of how a language can affect thought and great evidence to support the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.”

            Whether you realize it or not, language is what you’re “thinking in”, and if you don’t recognize an internal monologue as you are doing it, that’s no big deal–It’s just that you’ve pulled off that same trick a proficient reader has, and you’ve transcended the symbology to the point where you don’t need to think about it any more.

            Frankly, it’s no different than the way we used to read–Ancient Romans and Greeks would have been severely disturbed to observe the way we read silently, per some of the sources I’ve seen. This is just another example of the same phenomenon.

            • >Where we’re all going off the rails is the idea that this is signatory of some mad “virtue”

              Nobody is talking “virtue” but you. Your claim to understand my experience of my own consciousness better than I do is irritating, and I’m not buying it.

              We know that there are people who reason visually about spatial geometry and mechanics using iconic 3-D visualizations in their heads (I am myself one of those people, so this knowledge is not abstract to me), which demonstrates that there are some kinds of thinking that are not grounded in linguistic or para-linguistic representations, whether “compiled” or not.

              Since we know that, you have no warrant to assume that any given kind of thinking is necessarily grounded in language. In fact, language production itself cannot be so grounded – hello, infinite regress?

              For all you know, different parts of the brain could routinely use several different iconic, non-linguistic representations for different kinds of reasoning. That kind of internal diversity is what I think I’m noticing when I introspect.

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