Philosopher René Descartes famously declared “I think therefore I am” as proof of his existence.
However, when I studied that proposition years ago, I just assumed that everyone else had a little voice – an essential “me” – that provides a constant stream of consciousness in their heads, too. Usually speaking in full sentences or at the least in understandable fragments.
Imagine my surprise when a friend on Facebook posted a viral tweet that blew up that idea.
“Fun fact: some people have an internal narrative and some don’t. As in, some people’s thoughts are like sentences they ‘hear,’ and some people just have abstract non-verbal thoughts, and have to consciously verbalize them.” (Tweet by @KylePlantEmoji)
So not everyone has a “narrator” who is constantly thinking every minute of every day?
Of course, I had to check this out. Turns out we all have what’s known as “pristine inner experiences,” or what makes up that first-person “me.”
A Psychology Today article related a study in 2011 that found that most people do have what it called “inner speech,” but many also have the non-verbal variety of “seeing” pictures, “hearing” things or just having feelings.
That same article quoted a leading researcher in consciousness science that said some people even have their inner narrator going while they dream.
I can confirm this phenomenon because I often try to identify the people in my dreams and comment on the likelihood of things happening and sometimes even tell myself to wake up because things are getting a little too intense. Happily, this does not happen all the time.
The article didn’t even touch on another thing that I just assumed was part of everyone’s consciousness: the ability to “hear” music seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes I’m sure it’s just that my brain is latching onto something that it heard recently. Other times, I have no idea where some of this stuff comes from. For instance, my brain is forever dredging up obscure songs from the 1980s.
Recently, I found myself hearing “O Shenandoah,” an American folk tune, in my head over and over again. I looked up the lyrics and listened to the song in an effort to get it out of my head.
I mean, I sang that song in grade school, but why would that be in my head now? Then, as I was watching TV, I discovered where my brain had heard it: a health insurance commercial.
All of this talk of “people thinking differently” probably shouldn’t be such a surprise because of a conversation I’ve repeatedly had with my husband about something similar.
Before his Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, Tony and I had a habit of asking each other what we were thinking. Invariably I would have to choose from the many, many things going on in my head. He, on the other hand, a lot of the times, would answer: “Nothing.”
How is that even possible, I would say, only half kidding. He would insist that he really could be thinking nothing at all.
I never believed him fully, mainly because I just can’t get my mind around it. If I want to give my brain a timeout, I play solitaire or some word game. So it’s not turning the brain off as much as distracting it momentarily.
Still, I found all this talk about inner narrators fascinating. Did you know that deaf people have narrators, too, but they often “see” things in ASL?
Insert sound of an explosion here. That is my mind being blown.
• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.