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Thinking about thinking

by Greg Krehbiel on 16 February 2017

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about thinking, and about what goes on inside my head. What, for example, does “mind reading” mean?

In the popular imagination, someone who can read your mind hears an intelligible flow of dialog. But my mind is rarely like that. There are times when I’m intentionally thinking my way through something, and it’s as if a conversation is going on in my brain. But most of the time my head is full of a constant mix of things I would hardly call “thoughts,” and they’re interrupting and stepping on top of one another, sometimes merging and sometimes breaking apart. It’s almost like the sound an orchestra makes before the show, when everyone is warming up their instruments. From time to time a tune will rise above the din — oh, the French horn is playing some Mozart — but most of it is just a tangled mess.

Something similar is true with my emotions. I can tell that I’m feeling some emotion, but I’m not always sure exactly what it is, or why I’m feeling it. It’s as if my feelings live in a place that’s not quite accessible to my mind, and it’s very hard to put them into words. The idea of “talking about your feelings” is simply frustrating.

In a way it’s like asking how, precisely, you throw a football to a moving receiver who’s being double teamed. I don’t know. Through practice the brain learns to do some weird calculus in the background. You’re picking up all kinds of signals that you’re not aware of, most of which you couldn’t explain if you wanted to. You might make up an explanation for it after the fact, but there’s no guarantee that’s what you were actually thinking at the time.

And that brings me to intuition. I have an uncomfortable relationship with my intuitions. When I have some intuition — that someone is upset, or that it would be wrong to buy this particular gift for this particular person — my rational mind wants proof and evidence, and wants to dismiss anything that’s not so supported. But I often find that my intuitions were right after all.

On the other hand, when I trust my intuitions too much, not only is my rational mind appalled, but I am sometimes embarrassed for having acted on something with such slim evidence. (I.e., just a feeling.)

Generally speaking I find it is a mistake to demand too much of my intuitions. Demands of “why?” and “what’s your reason?” tend to miss the point — which is (I like to tell myself) that my intuitions are my subconscious mind telling me something that my conscious mind has failed to notice or take into account. It’s like completing a pass in just the right spot — low and to the outside, for example — and only afterwards realizing why that was the right place to put the ball.

And then there’s the baby on the Metro. I see some drooling little kid in a stroller and I notice that I and three quarters of the adults in a 20 foot radius are smiling at the baby. But most mammals are solicitous of their young, of other young of their species, and even of other young of other species. It’s hardwired in our brains because it helps the species to survive. So is this my biology tricking me?

The same can be said about sexual attraction. Why do I like certain features and not others? Some of it is cultural and environmental, but I realize a lot of it is a trick of my biology to perpetuate the species. (But I tell myself, with apologies to Mick Jagger, “I know it’s only flesh and bones but I like it.”)

This is all crazy enough. But then we have the prospect of our minds being taken over by alien influences. Not aliens like Klingons, but aliens like gut bacteria.

There are a lot of situations where parasites cause creatures to do self-destructive things for the benefit of the parasite, and there is some evidence that the bacteria in our stomachs influence us to eat things that are good for the bacteria, but not necessarily for us.

It all adds up to a complicated mess, and some people come to some rather radical conclusions — e.g., that we don’t really think at all. We do things for reasons we don’t understand and then tell ourselves stories after the fact to make us feel better about the things we do.

That’s three steps too far, in my opinion. If that was the case, then what is the point of the post hoc explanation? Why are we telling ourselves stories about what we did? Couldn’t we get along just fine without all that?

No, we couldn’t, and we all know perfectly well that we couldn’t.

Sometimes we are consciously deliberate in our actions. Other times we’re not. In some situations we have to stop and think, “Why did I say that?” or “Why did I do that?”

My opinion is that all the time we spend thinking about things we’ve done — consciously mulling it over — is training that silent guy in the back to know what to do next time, when we don’t have time to think first. In a sense we choose some of our own actions predictively, or futuristically, and not necessarily at the time we choose. And even at that, it’s still a muddled mess.

2017-02-16  »  Greg Krehbiel


  1. Robin R.
    16 February 2017 @ 2:06 pm

    Usually when I have so-called intuitions I am convinced that there are reasons somewhere in there, but I have to perform intellectual labor to dig them up and formulate them. Last year i had a vehement disagreement with a scholar about how to translate certain German words into English. He is a very quick-witted guy who often overwhelms his opponents, but I need to get away from the conversation a while to dig up my reasons. It is as if the external chatter discourages the digging-up process. In solitude I of course have to deal with clearing away internal chatter, but that is easier for me. When I got away from that guy, I rather quickly dug up my reasons, which I find very satisfying. Then again, that could be illusory. Too late now though, I have already submitted the manuscript of the translated volume for publication.

    A lot of people don’t seem to have as much of a problem with external chatter as I do. But I think that I often have less of a problem with internal chatter. All I usually have to do is to focus resolutely. That could be very abnormal. I just don’t know for sure.

    Sometimes I sit together with my collaborator in Prague to check his papers in English. I sometimes run into an awkward sentence, but initially I can’t explain what is wrong with it. So I have the “intuition” that something is wrong, but I need a little time to dig up the reasons for why it is wrong and consequently the solution of the problem. But I often have to tell him “just let me think for a moment”, as politely as I can to deal with the situation. (He is very talkative.)

    On a somewhat different note, I have recently had an very interesting experience. I woke up in the midst of what I can only describe as a dream-that-was-about-to-happen. It was as though a rough script had already been given, but the casting wasn’t quite decided. There was definitely a role for a sinister character, for which different acquaintances of mine or composites of them were being fitted, each of which would change the script in some way. It wasn’t so much like an orchestra before the performance, but rather more like a semi-coherent jam about to emerge into something more structured and definite. Maybe a lot of thinking really occurs in that manner.