Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Why do we talk to ourselves, and why can’t we stop?

When I say “talk to ourselves”, I don’t mean out loud in the manner of the homeless man who lives near the shopping centre, shouting abuse at himself and anyone else who comes closer than a bus length away.

I just mean the regular “internal monologue” that we are mostly all having with our selves all the time, except perhaps when we are sleeping. (Thank Ggod for sleep!)

We are mostly all so used to the endless commentary on ourselves and others and the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the immediate experience we are having, and having that “voice inside our heads” order us around, take over our mouths and start making itself heard in the world whenever it feels like it, that we often and mostly come to think of that little voice inside our heads as being “my self”. There is an absence of other candidates available in the application process for being called “my self”.

Even though when asked who I am, I don’t say: “I’m the little voice who lives in my head, and is secretly in charge of my body and all my affairs and actions in the world including my bank account and my willy”, despite this for the most part I operate consistently with this being so. I tend to treat this little voice as the final arbiter of who I am, even though I may not be consciously aware of doing so. When there is a decision needing to be made, I tend to refer to this little voice to make the decision on my behalf. Despite having found in the past that the little voice quite often makes LOUSY DECISIONS, I still tend to let it have its way with me for most of my waking hours.

Why do I let it do that? Because for the most part I live in such a state of trance that I don’t distinguish between myself and it. In fact the suggestion that I actual might not be that little voice after all is confusing to the little voice. It’s not sure if it likes that suggestion. Possibly it quite likes being in control of my life, or at least believing that it is in control. It likes believing that it is me.

When I ask myself the question “Who am I?” it is in a sense not me who answers. The question is automatically passed on to it (the little voice in my head) and it answers on my behalf. Naturally enough, when it gets asked the question “who are you?” the little voice inside my head responds by saying “I am the little voice inside Andrew’s head”. I say this, of course, but a lot of people when you ask them that question will tell you about their “personality” and what they like and don’t like. But that is a whole additional layer of self-deception, and I’m not even going to bother talking about that.

In a sense, the reason I am getting a misleading answer when I ask the question “Who am I?” is because I don’t know who to address that question to apart from the person who always answers on my behalf. And the person who always answers on my behalf is that little voice. Consequently I am not addressing the question to the right person in the first place. I am not addressing the question to myself. I am addressing the question to it. In order to be able to answer the question “Who am I?” authentically, I first need to be able to find who I am, so as to be able to ask the question of that person.

The task becomes impossible; I need to know who I am before I can ask the question of the right person, and therefore get back the right answer.

Despite all of this, for many of us who have stopped to think about it for while, and at least gone deeper than the notion that I am my personality and my set of likes and dislikes and circumstances and abilities and so on, for those of us who have got this far into the question it is nevertheless understandable to ask: if I am not that little voice in my head, then who on earth am I?

Sages down through the millennia of human history have experimented with making the voice inside our heads “STOP”, and have developed methodologies of meditation, physical and mental and spiritual growth that they have discovered can help a person to tame that beast within (or at the very least a methodology that helped to do that in their own particular cases).

The common experiment that is often suggested to anyone who is starting to experiment with taking charge over that voice in their heads is to try to make it stop. If you have never tried that before, it is worth trying it for a moment. Stop reading this, and just try sitting quietly for a moment and stop thinking. Try to see if you can stop hearing the series of thoughts that pass through your head one after the next.

Bhikku Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk.Image via Wikipedia

If you actually do the experiment, and you are a typical human being and not a Buddhist monk who has devoted a life time to the practice, you will have discovered that you have no capacity whatsoever to make it stop. It will not stop. In fact as you bring your attention to it to try to make it stop it just gets louder. You may try to exert your will over it but that does not help at all. “Stop! Damn you!” you exclaim, but it turns out that that is just the little voice shouting “Stop! Damn you!” inside your head. It hasn’t stopped at all. Quite the opposite. Instead of stopping it is now shouting “Stop! Damn you!” at the top of its voice.

What to do?

Well perhaps it might help if we took a step or so back from where we find ourselves in the middle of all of this.

Firstly let’s consider: Why might we want to make that little voice stop?

The concern for many people once they discover they have no control over their internal monologue is that we feel that we ought to have control. Before I tried this experiment, I hadn’t even questioned that that voice in my head was me. The voice just took it for read that it was me. It just assumed that.

Now I am having to deal with the worrying question of who I am if I’m not that voice (and what’s more so is the little voice having to deal with the worrying question of if it is not me then who is either of us), and to make matters worse it seems to be the case that I can demonstrate to myself that the voice in question is NOT UNDER MY CONTROL. If it WAS under my control, then surely I could make it stop. That seems right, doesn’t it? If it’s not under my control, then it is bothering to me that I am letting it run my life. In conclusion, Yep, it does seem like there is a problem here.

In addition to this nagging concern that the voice in my head is running amok with my life, and needs to be taken control of (along with my bulging waistline) another strand in the usual kind of thinking that I ought to be able to make it stop is that it would make life better for me. There is a notion that a quiet mind is a peaceful mind. Everyone knows that meditation is good for us, right? Although I may not have the patience to sit on the side of a hill, I’m sure I would be more peaceful and happy if I could just turn my internal monologue off for a while every now and then, and take a break from it… doesn’t that sound nice? No wonder people join Buddhist monasteries! How about when I am trying to get to sleep, like the night before an exam, or an important meeting or that presentation I am giving to a hundred strangers next week. Wouldn’t that be great! If at bed time I could just turn off that chatter in my head, surely I would get a better night’s sleep! And then I could just turn the chatter on again when I start to miss it or I’m getting bored sitting in an NHS waiting room. Actually, thinking about it, the thing that is most tedious about sitting in an NHS waiting room is the voice in my head saying over and over “What a waste of time this is!” If I could just turn off the voice in my head when I wanted to, that ability would have to be WORTH ITS WEIGHT IN GOLD.

Ok, so we have established that it would indeed be a useful skill, let’s think about how we might get it done.

And that brings me on to my secondly…

Secondly, where is the chatter in my head COMING FROM?

And it is here that I am going to make a suggestion which is probably controversial in a lot of quarters. I’m thinking that for lots of academics it is going to be a bit jarring. On the other hand probably not many academics are reading my blog, so I probably should not worry. (More about which in a moment.)

Here is the suggestion:

We tend to think that the little voice in our head is “us thinking”. What if it is not that? What if the voice in our head is more like “us remembering”? That is to say what if the chatter that goes on in our heads is a regurgitation of the conversations we have been having lately, the books we have been reading, the discussions we have been participating in, all on top of the series of however many years of personal history and experiences we have lived through.

In other words, the chatter that goes on in our heads is much more like a memory of conversations we have had in the past than it is like the generation of anything new. While we tend to think of it as being an active thing (“I am right now thinking”) what if it is more of a passive thing (“It is right now remembering”) or (“It is right now processing”) or (“It is right now self-re-organizing”).

Why is this useful?

The reason this is useful is because it points a way to us taking control of what goes on or doesn't go on in our heads.

If the chatter in our head is a consequence of thinking and conversation that we have done in the past, a way to take control over tomorrows brain chatter is to improve today’s thinking. (To see what I mean by “thinking” in this last sentence you need to read my short essay “The Location of Thinking”.)

As an example of how this could work, there are a couple of categories of mind chatter that typically go on in a person’s head (at least they go on in my head) that I think are particularly useful to address. I mention these two because they can be particularly unproductive and distressing mind chatter.

Category 1: Worrying. Everyone knows what worrying is. “What if X happens?” “Is something awful about to happen?” “Does that pain in my side mean I have cancer?” Et cetera.

Category 2: “Arguments I am having with myself”. I want to do X, but if I do X, then Y will happen, on the other hand if I don’t do X, then Z will happen, but I really want to do X, but it will be really awful if Y, but… Et cetera, et cetera.

How can this kind of brain chatter be dealt with?

In my short essay called “The Location of Thinking”, I suggested that productive thinking is usefully thought of as an activity that a person does in the world (rather than in their heads) by interacting with an information space that is located in the world.

This kind of thinking that happens by interacting with an information space that is located in the world can be used to settle the arguments we are having with ourselves, and determine the appropriate action to take or not take regarding any given worry. The result is not necessarily immediate or all encompassing but the consequence of this work reflects back into our mind chatter. The mind naturally quietens down when we settle the arguments we are having with ourselves. When there is nothing for us to argue about, we stop arguing. The result is silence… a quiet mind… a mind that is ready and able to be put to good use doing something usefull, a mind that is ready for something new.

By settling the arguments that we are having with ourselves and resolving best possible courses of action regarding worries the mind chatter becomes modified in a way that reflects this work having been done. Someone who goes through these processes discovers that their minds start to “quieten down”. The arguments they had been having with themselves are no longer being played out on the airwaves in their heads. The worries that had previously seemed to be on a tape loop have now been assigned with appropriate and well considered actions. The mind starts to disappear from the person’s awareness, not it turns out by acting on the mind, but by acting on the problems that their mind has been trying to deal with (and not doing so well in its attempt at dealing with those problems). When I say "acting on" I mean applying productive thinking in the world of the type that I discuss in my short article “The Location of Thinking”. As a consequence of this the mind starts to feel like a quiet and empty space. A space that is available to work on what is right in front of us and what we are doing right now.

A good role for chatter in our heads does in this way start to get revealed: the role of the chatter starts to be seen not as the mistaken notion of being “my self thinking”, but as measuring device alerts us to the necessity to do some real thinking (thinking that is located in the world). The amount of noise going on in our internal chatter is a measuring device that measures the need for us to do some real thinking. The internal chatter in our heads may turn out to not be a requisite for powerful thinking at all, nor to be a constantly necessary part of the experience of a self. A self may exist from time to time quite happily without such chatter, and still be just as much a self as it ever was.

In addition this synthesis starts to suggest a possible answer to the question “who am I?”, “who are we?”; if we are not after all the voices in our heads, it might be worth considering the possibility that Self could better be characterized as a meeting between the internal and the external, a meeting between ourselves and the world.

1 comment:

Tom Evans said...

Learning vipassanic as opposed to samathic meditation is one of the best ways to make this stop. That is, instead of meditating on an object like the breath or a candle, meditate on the monologue itself. This has the effect of making it stop very quickly - listen to this visualisation if you want to experience it