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You Are Your Thoughts (I Think)

Quiet Thoughts

Colin Walker links to a post by Julian Summerhayes1 about silence:

You see, I’m missing the silence of early lockdown.

No, I’m really missing it.

I can’t say everything’s back to normal but as soon as I step outside, BOOM, there it is! That infernal, torrid background noise, cars everywhere (the air smells dirty) and it’s like nothing ever happened.

I can relate. I haven’t noticed the increased noise yet, but I have been enjoying much about lockdown, and the general quietness of things, especially when I sit out in the garden, is part of that. As is the cleaner air here in London.

Unthinkable Thoughts

But Julian goes on to say something that just seems so bizarre, so alien to me, that I can scarcely comprehend it:

But when you realise that you’re not your thoughts, notwithstanding the apparent hold they have over us, and see that they flow naturally much like my beloved River Dart and there’s nothing we can do to orientate them one way or the other, life becomes a lot easier.

Emphasis very much mine. We are not our thoughts? I can’t help but think that there’s a missing pair of words in that sentence: ‘nothing if’:

… you’re nothing if not your thoughts…

Now that makes a lot more sense to me. If we are not our thoughts, then what are we? If our thoughts are not us, then who is doing the thinking?

People sometimes use phrasing like, ‘My brain told me to…’, which raises the same question: you are your brain, surely? If not, then what? We are our whole bodies, certainly, and perception and experience encompass all of our physiology, not just our brains. But the brain is the seat of consciousness, and we are conscious beings.

Perhaps — just possibly — people are making a distinction between brain and mind. Maybe that would make sense for the latter formulation, but I’m not convinced that’s it. And certainly it doesn’t explain Julian’s concept of thoughts. Because whether thoughts happen in the physical organ we call brain, or the somewhat more metaphysical and amorphous mind: thoughts are what we are.

In Other Heads

Or so it seems to me. But I shouldn’t dismiss alternative perceptions. Over the last few months I’ve heard several conversations on podcasts, and read a couple of articles, about the different ways people’s brains/minds/psyches/consciousnesses work.

There is aphantasia, which names the fact that some people do not form images in their minds. They have no ‘mind’s eye,’ in effect. Just yesterday I read an article about it and severely deficient autobiographical memory, or SDAM, which seems to be related.

There has also been talk about whether or not we think in words. That can get confusing when people with different experiences discuss ‘the voice in your head.’ One will ask something like, ‘Whose voice is it?’ The answer — from my perspective — is that the voice in my head is my thoughts. That’s how I think. Hmm, except when I think in pictures, as I’m not aphantasic (aphantastic?)

It’s hard to talk about these ideas in ways that someone whose experience is dramatically different will understand. And I find it surprising that we are so different. I wonder if we are just hitting the limitations of language (of English, at least). Maybe people’s experiences are not that different, but it’s just so hard to describe what goes on inside your own head in a way that is meaningful inside someone else’s head.

Or not. After all, some people do hear voices in their heads which appear not to be their own. We generally categorise those people as having a mental illness, and sometimes medication changes their mental experience. And of course psychoactive drugs cause us to have experiences in our own heads that are different from our normal state, so it’s clear that thoughts and perceptions are at least partly chemical.

This is all both fascinating and confusing, and I have no conclusions about it.


  1. And fascinating to learn that someone is still using LiveJournal. Good to know. 

Assignment in Eternity vols 1 & 2 by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 12 & 13)

I should probably start a special tag for all this Heinlein rereading I’m doing (I have another one in progress). These books are so short that they hardly count as one novel between them, never mind each, but I’m counting them as two because I have two physically separate books.

Plus they’re not only not one novel, they’re not even two. They are, in fact, four stories — the longest no more than a novella — loosely connected by the idea that humans don’t use all of their brain power, and we could do incredible things if we did.

Oh, and an early analysis of what it is to be human, and whether human rights should be accorded to uplifted intelligent animals.

All in all, a good enough, if slight, set of stories.

It’s funny when you hear the DJ on BBC 6Music saying, ‘I borrowed some records from the John Peel Archive’; and then you realise it’s Tom Ravenscroft. ‘I got some records from my dad’s collection’ doesn’t sound quite so… distinguished.

Site Update

As you might notice if you look around here, I’ve made some changes to the layout and presentation of the site. Nothing very dramatic, but the header and sidebar look a bit different.

I’m open to — and seeking — constructive criticism. How does it look? Is anything misaligned, or confusingly laid out, or hard to find?

Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter.

The Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 11)

A set of linked short stories, this, all part of Heinlein’s Future History. In these days of companies launching rockets to the International Space Station, the title story seems slightly relevant. In it, businessman DD Harriman attempts to launch the first mission to the moon — it was written in the 40s, long before Apollo.

They’re all decent enough stories. But we are in a very masculine world. The dodgy sexual politics of the last one are largely ignored by the almost complete absence of women. Except in ‘Let There Be Light,’ in which a women is effectively co-inventor of solar power panels.

Heinlein’s writing of women characters is generally considered to be poor, and I’m sure that’s true. But it’s interesting to think how he developed from these early stories to the later novels, where at least there are women, and they are major characters.

What Must Be Said

I hope I don’t need to say this. But silence is complicity, so:

Black Lives Matter.

My daughter went to the London demo on Wednesday (note: there was no riot, contrary to some bullshit hashtag that was trending yesterday morning). I am so proud of her. Her whole generation seem so thoughtful, so engaged.

Why didn’t I go? To be honest, it’s because I was scared. Not of the demo, or anything that might have happened there. I was scared of the virus. Of the close contact that was sure to happen.

I gave her a lift to her friend’s house. They walked for two and a half hours to Hyde Park. I picked her up in Camden afterwards. But part of me wishes I’d gone myself. She said it was a much younger crowd than the Trump or Brexit demos. sure, it was a weekday, but more of us olds — me included — should have been there.

Listening to the Bikini Kill Peel Session, and it does have Peel’s intros. So good to hear his voice again.

How Iceland Beat the Coronavirus

Great piece in The New Yorker, by Elizabeth Kolbert, about how Iceland handled the coronavirus. Which is by actually being guided by science. The experts decided what needed to happen, and it happened, without interference from politicians.

Of course, it’s a country of less than 400,000 people, so the scale is different from even the UK, never mind the US. But it does make you dream of what might have been.

Peel Sessions

Warren Ellis draws our attention to this incredible listing of links to Peel Sessions. They’re on YouTube, so there’s always the chance that any of them will go away, but in the meantime, what a resource.

Got to ask, why doesn’t the BBC make this available officially?

I have only one complaint about that page: it needs use stop-words in its sorting, or otherwise deal with bands called ‘The’ Something. I scrolled down to the ‘F’ section and thought, ‘Well there’s a bit of a large gap here, surely?’ Until I scrolled down to ‘T’, where we find The Fall.

Also, it would be even better if we had Peelie’s introductions, but I guess those aren’t in the released versions.

I’m listening to Dolly Mixture as I write. Who remembers them? Well, hardly even me, to be honest. But they introduce themselves in their very first track.