Suggested reading: I didn’t know my mind was so strange until I started listening to it

by Phil Jaekl


One fine spring afternoon this year, as I was out running errands in the small Norwegian town where I live, a loud beep startled me into awareness. What had just been on my mind? After a moment’s pause, I realized something strange. I’d been thinking two things at the same time—rehearsing the combination of a new bike lock and contemplating whether I should wear the clunky white beeper that had just sounded into a bank.

How, I wondered, could I have been saying two things simultaneously in my mind? Was I deceiving myself? Was this, mentally, normal? I silenced the beeper on my belt and pulled out my phone to make a voice memo of the bizarre experience before I walked into the bank; aesthetics be damned.

I was in the midst of an experiment that involved keeping a log of my inner thoughts for Russ Hurlburt, a senior psychologist at the University of Las Vegas. For decades, Hurlburt has been motivated by one question: How, exactly, do we experience our own mental life? … (continue at Nautilus)

7 Comments

  1. I would never have known about these capabilities of the mind because my common assumptions about what consciousness is and how we experience it precluded these possibilities.

    This touches on a broader and most insidious problem. Our common assumptions, about whatever, preclude many possibilities. So we become trapped in narrow views of the world.

    It was at once dispiriting and wondrous to realize just how unaware we are of what our minds are doing almost all of the time.

    That is necessarily true because our minds are the primary tool for our survival in a challenging environment. The focus of our attention during our recent evolution was on our environment and how we should deal with it.

    I now can start to imagine the vast oceans of potential experiences within our inner worlds—and the utter uniqueness of those to individual minds.

    There is no need to imagine it. We have a vast body of fictional literature revealing these experiences. Our fictional writing is an extraordinary insight into the human mind. Each author is revealing something of himself, while clothed as accounts of others.

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  2. Interesting. On things I did hold already, sorts of thoughts I would agree with, though, as I’ve said before, not necessarily exactly in the way voiced by their creators: subselves, no Cartesian theater (for either meaning or volition, per Wegner, contra Dennett).

    The “multiple voices”, when amplified and misinterpreted, would seem to be connected to schizophrenia, which in turn makes me wonder if something like this, combined with mindfulness work, could be a non-pharmacological aid to treating it. Ditto on overlapping or conflating inner speech and inner hearing.

    But, the idea that we are NOT in a constant stream of chatter to ourselves, whether unified or not? Interesting. So, per philosophy of mind, our consciousness is not so conscious, the flip side of our unconsciousness of sleep being not totally unconscious, eh?

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  3. How, I wondered, could I have been saying two things simultaneously in my mind? Was I deceiving myself? Was this, mentally, normal?

    To an IT professional this will seem straightforward and quite ordinary. We are accustomed to working with multiple threads of execution in our programs. The computer, of course, can only do one thing at a time(unless it is a multiprocessor). It will briefly give one thread its attention, save the context and move on to the next thread. Eventually it will return to the first thread, reload its context and resume processing at the point it left off. And so on. And then we have the other important property of computers, the ability to respond to interrupts of sufficient priority. These halt the current thread, saving its context and create a new thread to attend to the interrupt, and then returning to the point of interruption.

    If done fast enough it creates the illusion that all threads are executing simultaneously. I suggest the mind is something like this. Our consciousness can have multiple threads of attention and the mind can switch between them, saving and restoring context. When done quickly it can create the illusion of having two things simultaneously active in the mind, but never for long. Thus, as I am writing this, I am also taking appreciative sips of my glass of red wine. But I am slowing down the context switching to pause over my choice of words and also to savour the taste of my wine. I want to give each my full attention so I slow down the context switching. But in a dire emergency my consciousness will become a blur as I rapidly evaluate the situation, the threats, the available options and then act on them. Later I will hardly remember the details because my mind had so rapidly switched between multiple threads of attention. I will marvel that I had made the right choices and wonder how it was that I had done so.

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    1. Peter, the suggestion has been made that attention has to do with consciousness. Indeed, some philosophers think consciousness *is* attention. And I think you are right that we can only truly pay attention to one thing at a time.

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  4. Indeed, some philosophers think consciousness *is* attention

    Yes indeed.

    I think it has all to do with decision making. The highest goal of our cognitive apparatus is to make the best possible decisions. But decision making and the resultant control cannot be divided. It must necessarily be unitary since divided decision making and control would result in disastrous chaos. Our ineffable sense of being a single “I” is the result. Nothing else could work. Now divided attention would result in there being a multiple “I” with the chaotic problems of resolving their perspectives. It simply could not work.

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  5. This raises the question – what is ‘attention’? If I give something attention I am in the first place observing it. But it is a special kind of observation. It is evaluative. It is insightful. It is questioning. It demands some kind of inner response. I relate it to my store of similar observations and consult them to help determine the response. And finally it frequently has an experiential component. The sum of all of these things we might call conscious. Or, conversely, consciousness is what makes these things possible.

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  6. Thank you for posting this article. It seems congruent with the works of neuroscientist Anil Seth & philosopher Thomas Metzinger (among others) who highlight the bottom up, top down, left & right brain functions from which consciousness is an emergent property. Cognitive science has a true, important and partial contribution to our understanding of experience, with thought being one of its many aspects. Isn’t science a wonderful?

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