Saturday, January 7, 2017

Voices In My Head


Is it okay to write a review of a review?  Well, with blogs anything is possible!  Besides, by “review” I mean the type like The New Yorker does, which isn’t fundamentally concerned with deciding whether or not a book is any good, but simply uses it as a jumping-off point for an examination of its topic.

I recently came across a New Yorker review of a cool-sounding book called The Voices Within.  The review, and the book, and the prospect of doing my own firsthand research on the book’s topic, have all given me food for thought.  If you’re mentally hungry, and particularly if you tend to talk to yourself, well—read on!

The Voices Within

The book, by a British psych professor named Charles Fernyhough, concerns people who talk to themselves, whether it’s just a reminder here and there or long rambling internal dialogues.  Whether or not they say things out loud, they have thoughts of a distinctly verbal nature.  Fernyhough talks to himself, and, while riding the subway once, “laughed out loud at a funny sentence that was playing in his mind.” 

What’s kind of unusual about the review is that its author, Jerome Groopman, isn’t really a book reviewer at all, but a doctor and a professor of medicine.  Is he qualified to review this book?  Sure!  Not only is he really smart, but he talks to himself, too!

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to study this stuff scientifically.  One method is called the “beeper protocol.”  The subject wears a beeper that sounds at random.  Whenever it does, the subject writes down what he or she was thinking about at that moment, and then the researcher analyzes these notes and the subject’s “inner speech.”  Another study methodology is to do an fMRI brain scan while the subject has a conversation in his or her head.

As Groopman points out, these methodologies are problematic.  For one thing, “being prompted to enter into an inner dialogue in an fMRI machine is not the same as spontaneously debating with oneself at the kitchen table.”  For another, “given that the subjects in the beeper protocol could express their experience only in words, it’s not surprising that many of them ascribed a linguistic quality to their thinking.”

Groopman goes on to explain how the book also goes into voices people hear that seem to originate from somebody or something other than the subject’s own mind.  Many of these seemingly discrete third party voices are recounted in the Bible; there’s testimony from Joan of Arc; there’s the case of an ancient mystic who reported that Christ spoke to her directly; and Fernyhough cites the authors of The Odyssey and The Illiad who said that a powerful Muse all but dictated their works to them.

A couple of more modern case studies are also explored, including that of the poet Robert Lowell, who suffered from auditory hallucinations that he says helped him with his writing.  I was surprised that Groopman didn’t mention Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous epic poem “Kubla Khan,” all the words of which, he says, flooded into his mind when he awoke from an opium-enhanced dream, so that he wasn’t so much composing his poem as transcribing it.

(By the way:  what kind of a name is “Fernyhough,” anyway?  Was somebody trying to rhyme with “anyhoo?”)

Groopman didn’t present what I think is an obvious criticism:  these biblical stories and case histories are just anecdotal evidence with no basis in science.  (Maybe he was just being nice.)  But whether or not the book is great, I was intrigued by the beeper protocol, and decided to become a test subject myself, to answer this question:  when we talk to ourselves, what is really happening?  Are the words the most substantial part of the thought, or are they more like guideposts?

My modified beeper protocol

I wouldn’t know where or how to buy a beeper in this day and age.  And even if I had one, how would I make it go off randomly?  I considered building something atop the Arduino that I got for Christmas, but that seemed like a lot of hassle, and besides, true randomness is very difficult to achieve, particularly for A.I. machines.

What I decided to do is to jot down my inner dialogue every time my phone or PC beeped or blipped at me.  This is generally a result of spam being received, which is a fairly random occurrence.  I knew going in that my beeper protocol would result in lots of data because, for whatever reason, my brain undergoes these inner dialogues a lot of the time.  Sometimes it feels like a curse.  Fernyhough should totally sign me on for his studies.  I hope he pays well.

My test results

I conducted my test over about a five-minute period the other morning, during a brief break from my workday.  I originally intended to do more, but realized this single session was enough.

I’ll start by saying that, on top of whatever internal voice I may be hearing, I’m frequently subject to random rap lyrics busting out on the scene (i.e., in my brain).  Sometimes they bust all the way out of my mouth, which isn’t really involuntary because I do like to startle my kids.  All will be quiet in the office, both kids staring intently at their laptop screens, and I’ll suddenly yell something like, “Pistol-packin’ motherfrocking bouncer six-two!” or “YES—the rhythm, the rebel/ Without a pause, I’m lowerin’ my level!”  (One day, when I live at the old folks’ home, I can really shake things up.)

But beyond those strange verbal eruptions, my internal dialogue is mostly silent; I don’t say much out loud.  But inwardly, my brain is a pretty noisy place.  Here’s what I jotted down from my session:

“Oh, hey, you should look for that car key.”
“Bet you anything it’s up behind the speaker.”
“Probably with my key.”
“If you do find it there, will you come clean about hiding it?”
“That’s a whole can of worms.”
“It’d be honest.”
“Yeah but I’d look like a jackass.”
 “Raise the heat level, break out your coal shovel, pump the temp, I’m sweatin’ like a devil.”
“Yup, here it is, right where you put it, dumbass.”
 “The humanity!”
“She’s leaving soon—maybe just hang her keys from the wall tree?”
“She probably won’t even remember they were lost.”
“But is that honest?  Are you selling out your soul to save a little face?”
“No punk, no chump, no fool, no toy/ Try to get ill and I’ll serve you, boy!”

Now, if I just turned this transcript over to Fernyhough, he’d probably have little idea what most of it means.  What would he try do discern, if anything, from it?  Would he throw it out, note its existence and move on, or solicit background info?  Well, being both the subject and the conductor of the test, I’m in a great position to gloss it all out.  Will readers get “gloss it all out”?  As in, glossary?  Man, even my dentist hates when I floss.  (Sorry, that was some late-breaking internal dialogue that I decided to transcribe here, even though I’m not officially doing the beeper protocol at the moment.)

Analysis of transcript

Wow, there’s so much to work with here, I don’t know where to start.  One thing that jumps out is that talking to oneself is not just a verbal thing:  we cannot ignore the massive efficiency the brain gets from being pre-populated with loads of context.  Background information—which isn’t “spoken” but infuses the mental environment—makes this internal dialogue quite potent.  The mental process of presenting private thoughts in words is a bit like running macros, with short phrases invoking big, complicated ideas. 

This observation suggests a fundamental dichotomy between, on the one hand, a truly internal dialogue, and on the other hand, any words that seem to come from an outside source, such as God talking to you, or the Muse, or the kind of voices that some schizophrenics hear.  Given the memory-rich backdrop of internal dialogues, lumping them in with any other kind of mental “hearing” would be a mistake.

Here’s the background information from my beeper protocol dialogue.  When I (seemed to) hear “that car key,” there was no question what key was being mentioned:  my wife’s key to our Volvo.  This  key had gone missing and I’d been the last to use it, after driving the family home from a party.  The next phrase I “heard,” which was “behind the speaker,” referred to the stereo speaker behind which I always hide my car key, but where I should never hide my wife’s car key. 

For me there wasn’t any mystery as to why this hiding place exists, because the two parts of my brain that were “talking” both knew the full story:  our car has this cool feature where the car keys are uniquely coded, so when I remotely unlock the car with my key, the driver’s seat automatically adjusts itself to where I last had it, along with the side mirrors.  I love this feature, but it only works if my wife doesn’t use my key.  And she always wants to use my key, because she can never find hers.  Why not?  Because she doesn’t hang it from the little hook on the wall tree like I’m always suggesting.  She chucks her key in one of the seemingly hundreds of secret pockets on this or that purse, and is too impatient to hunt for it later.  For years, she would always just grab my key off the little hook, and then afterward would squirrel that away somewhere, so that we were both stuck using the stupid non-coded valet key until we got around to digging through her purse.

So, to preserve that delicious experience of having the seat and mirrors auto-adjust to me, I took to hiding my key.  This has worked out pretty well for years.  The only problem is, my habit of hiding my key has gotten so ingrained, I’ll occasionally forget that I used my wife’s key (which happens when we switch drivers on a road trip or whatever), and then I put her key in my secret hiding place.  This is of course even worse than what my wife does, because at least when she squirrels away her key it’s possible to find it.  There is no way she’d find her key when I hide it (unless she reads this blog).

So when, inside my brain, I heard “It’s probably up behind the speaker” and “Probably with my key,” those weren’t just words.  They packed a punch!  They said, implicitly, “J’accuse!”  That is, though they’re simple words they ride a big wave of nonverbal embarrassment.  And they come with the mental equivalent of a file attachment, which is the image of the hiding place, with two car keys lurking there.  So the effect of this interior dialogue is far more powerful than just “hearing” the words spoken.  It sets up a full-on internal debate between my competing desires to save face (“I’d look like a jackass”) and being an honest spouse (“Are you selling out your soul?”).  The verbal nature of this debate probably plumbs the issue more effectively than the “unspoken” thoughts like you might have in a dream, or the image of the hiding place by itself.

(In case you’re confused about “pump the temp” and “try to get ill,” that’s a third voice in my head, belonging to the rapper Ice-T.  Those words, of course, serve no clear purpose.  They’re just there, pretty much all the time, like verbal garnish.)

Who cares?

Okay, so some people, including me, talk to themselves.  Big whoop, right?  Well, I had a strange realization about all this when I was reading Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, and he described the torturous bout of self-doubt he’d had after texting this girl—a romantic prospect—for the first time: 
      I’m so stupid!  I should have typed “Hey” with two y’s, not just one!  I asked too many questions. What the fuck was I thinking?  Oh, there I go with another question.  Aziz, WHAT’S UP WITH YOU AND THE QUESTIONS?
My realization was this:  our current crop of teenagers famously avoids talking on the phone, and conducts a huge amount of their conversation virtually, via texting, WhatsApp, etc.  These are very informal bites of text, limited by their length, the difficulty in typing them quickly, and the ultra-casual nature of the medium.  And not only have these texts replaced conversation, but letter-writing and epistolary e-mails as well.  Meanwhile, the online world is encroaching on the real one such that two people sitting together are all too often peering into their phones instead of actually talking—you even see people doing this while on a date.  It could be that the best days of deep human-to-human dialogues are behind us—which means these self-to-self dialogues inside our heads may now be the best ones we’re having!  A remake of My Dinner With Andre might just be called Andre’s Dinner!

Is this a good thing?  Probably not.  After all, a fundamental goal of Buddhist meditation is to quiet down the constant chatter of thoughts in your head so that you can achieve mental calm and inner peace.  Should those of us who talk to ourselves try to stop?

I don’t have an answer there, but I have three responses.  First, those who attempt to meditate are not always, if ever, able to completely eliminate the intrusive thoughts anyway; it’s the effort and the discipline, not just succeeding, that’s the point. 

Second, there’s a time and a place for meditation; if we were to always live right in the moment, such that we were always seeing the world as it really is in front of us, we might be very peaceful but not properly productive.  Executive function consists, after all, of keeping in mind the things that aren’t right in front of us but need to be dealt with anyway (which could be as simple as picking up bread or milk on the way home).  That inner voice is a bit like a personal assistant.

Third, I very much doubt it would be possible for any of us to stop talking to ourselves anyway, even if we tried.  That’s just my gut feeling, though; I shall have to talk this over with … myself.

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