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.

– Julian Summerhayes, A quiet space

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.

– Julian Summerhayes, A quiet space

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. ↩︎


Brain Explain

Interesting article on psychology wherein Robert Epstein tells us that “Your brain does not process information and it is not a computer.”

It is, as I say, interesting. But it’s also profoundly annoying in the way he asserts that the human brain is not an information processor, but then makes no attempt to explain what it is, instead. 

He asserts that the brain does not hold a copy of a song it has learned, for example, but instead “is changed in a way that allows the person to sing it” (I paraphrase).

But isn’t that just another way of saying that it has stored a copy? If that change does not in some sense denote making a copy, then what exactly does it mean? What is the brain doing when the singer recalls the song? Inventing it anew, exactly (or not) as the original composer intended?

I don’t doubt that what he calls “[t]he information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence” has its limitations; but he has completely failed to explain them or provide an alternative explanation.

The truth is we don’t understand much about how the brain does what it does; and this guy knows more than most of us. But he’s a psychologist. He no doubt has a deep understanding of the workings of the human mind. But I think if you want someone to explain what we understand of the workings of he human brain, then you want that person to be a neuroscientist.