I engaged in a therapeutic exercise with a friend this Wednesday and discovered a level of introspection I’ve never had access to. This post is about what my mind feels like and a handful of unreasonable and laughable bugs that really hamper my decision-making.
Thinking feels like speaking to me. Whenever I am thinking, it feels like I am speaking to someone in my head. At the back of my throat I feel like I am pushing air through my voicebox in the same pattern as if I were saying those words out loud. If I am in a particularly animated mental conversation, my tongue and lips will move silently, or not so silently. I gesture at the air in front of me as if to better convey the direction, or more precisely, the shape of my thoughts. When something doesn’t come out right I repeat it several times in different ways until it does – this feels like what I imagine stuttering feels like and engenders a bit of embarrassment in me, even when nobody is in the room.
I am always speaking to an audience in my head. The closest thing I can think of is the Greek idea of a muse. Often that muse resolves mentally into the shape of a specific individual, and usually that person is someone with whom I disagree, or someone I am trying to impress or teach something to. In high school, my internal muse was usually my mother, or a teacher, or a girl I was interested in. Nowadays, it is usually my wife or the last person I had a conversation with, or someone I’m preparing to speak with. Usually, but not always, it is a woman. When I have a talk or class to prepare, the audience resolves into a group of people. Much of the time, especially when I’m walking and rambling, the audience is the generic point, the face of humanity at large.
The silent muse never responds. They are silently and condescendingly judging my words from metaphysical high ground. On occasion, when I feel as if I’ve finally seized on the correct line of reasoning or persuasion, I feel as if they have been convinced or defeated. They never admit to as much.
Sometimes I try to predict what other people are thinking or saying. This is difficult. In my head this prediction process feels like I am vocally imitating them right to their face and then asking them if it was a good impression. They never answer that either.
Thinking sharing mental room with speaking has real implications. I think better in absolute silence. When people are talking to me and I’m thinking to myself, it feels like I’m interrupting them – this might explain why I’m willing to interrupt people in real life, because I’m used to the feeling. When music or videos are playing, I often allow it to take over my internal monologue, in which case I’m usually trying to sing along or mouth the words in the subtitles. As a result I watch YouTube videos (except music) almost exclusively at 2x speed, because I speak much faster internally than out loud. Otherwise, I have to think extra emphatically in short bursts, like shouting over a concert.
The process of writing also blurs together with thinking and speaking. I have a weakness for stream-of-consciousness writing – one of the best examples is Anna’s internal monologue on the train in Anna Karenina – and because writing feels like speaking I dislike the backspace key and often prefer to correct myself – or perhaps elaborate – midway through a sentence – even if I might be better served to simply delete or revise. There are kinds of writing that don’t work so well when spoken out loud – I don’t do so well with those. Also, I find it impossible to write believable dialogue that differentiates itself from the surrounding text, because it seems as if everything I write is already dialogue.
I am usually tripping over words in my head, thinking faster than I can put words on the page, my writing style tends towards the frantic, my favorite literary device is asyndeton. Conversely, the way I speak has tended towards stodgy and pretentious because writing is bleeding back in the other direction.
Having described what it feels like in my head 90% of the time, let me turn to two mental “bugs” – roughly speaking – or aversions, which gives me a lot of clarity and optimism about fixing my bad habits.
Aversion to Collapsing Superpositions
When I make a decision like “I will write this paper tonight,” let’s say a decision between two exclusive options for simplicity, in my mind it feels as if I am collapsing the superposition of “I will write this paper” and “I will play Starcraft all evening.” As long as I don’t make such a decision, or don’t really believe myself when I make it, I retain the illusion that I can have the best of both worlds, i.e. have my paper written by midnight while also playing Starcraft the whole time.
Loosely speaking this is closely related to the notion of perfectionism and the idea that it can be paralyzing. The positive side of perfectionism is something like the old adage “shoot for the moon…”, and something like the heady old Eliezer quote (paraphrased): “I know I’m not perfect, but I’ll be damned if I act so imperfect that someone could tell.”
The negative side of perfectionism is that every time you do anything and the result doesn’t meet your expectation – which it never does – reality itself is telling you, “You aren’t what you could be.” That’s the kind of message that makes one dig a tunnel right back into Plato’s cave.
When it comes to decision-making, this perfectionism feels like “if only I were smart enough, I could come up with a way to have my cake and eat it.” I think about that, and I decide to put off deciding until later in case a better third option comes along. Instead what I should do is: make and stick to a provisional decision for now, think about better third options as long as you want later. The right way to fix the superposition overvaluing bug seems to be to value indecision as the average, and not the sum, of the values of the individual choices. Even attaching the emotional weight of the word “average” – ugh! – to indecision is enough to push me in direction of decisiveness.
Aversion to Silence
I’ve been thinking a lot about my inner monologue and its unintended consequences. In turn I realized exactly what it feels like to waste time and why I do it so frequently. I’m thinking about something difficult – a technical calculation or a sentence I’m crafting or human contact – and my inner monologue hits a wall. I’m stuck there and nothing is happening in my head. Instantly, there is a tightening in my chest – my muse is still watching and I’m just standing there silently like an idiot.
The tightening in my chest is followed by the instinct to fill the void with something – small talk, so to speak. This is what I have a dozen time-wasters lined up for at any given time, everything from reddit to Hearthstone videos to shitty fanfics to music. It’s a strange thing to admit, but my mechanism of wasting time seems to be internal stage fright from an imaginary audience, even though I’ve entirely conquered the same anxiety in real life in front of real people.
I frequently catch myself falling back on other people’s voices, and it recalls again a quote of Grothendieck that never stops meaning:
In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.
It was the easiest thing in the world for me to learn to be alone, even in the presence of other people. What I didn’t realize I needed to learn, or rediscover, was to become comfortable being alone and silent in my own head.