Tag Archives: consciousness

Quieting Brain Chatter

          The Conscience       A. N. Mironov

There is the old joke about the New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker, who often turned to drink to quiet her own inner demons. “Bartender: What are you having? Parker: Not much fun.”

In these times many of us may feel the same way.  It is a challenge to escape the chatter of negative thoughts.  But heavy lubrication is probably not the answer, even though the sale of alcohol is up nationally.

A Google search using the three words that title this piece yielded 1,670,000 results.  And using just the last two words increased the hits nine-fold. There is obviously an interest to explore our own recurring streams of “self-talk” and their more compulsive forms that psychologists label “rumination.” All the more, given these stressful times when unvoiced thoughts and worries may follow us through the day.

In a basic sense, self-talk is simply thinking. An active consciousness is partly what makes us human. As Jonathan Smallwood and Jessica Andrews-Hanna note:

Although mind-wandering may be unpleasant for the individual who experiences it and disruptive to the tasks of the moment, self-generated thought allows consciousness freedom from the here and now and so reflects a key evolutionary adaptation for the mind.

Indeed, consciousness is the gift that allows us to have an active interior life. We implicitly recognize this power when we refer to the active minds in ourselves and others: the vast but partly unknowable store of accumulated experience and personal insights that we all carry around with us but do not necessarily voice.

And yet it is common to hear stories about how disabling a person’s interior thoughts can be. The culture’s justifiable interest in stressed individuals now often comes with the caution that we can dwell too much on challenging circumstances. Solutions include seeking more exercise, turning off the news, or connecting anew with a friend or relative.

But it is useful to remember that our preoccupation with brain chatter is not a new concern.  Novelist Tim Parks has argued that we have long had a crippling obsession with the literary device of the interior monologue.  It’s been used by many of the twentieth century’s writers.  Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is a representative case. Others such as Christopher Lasch have made the same point more broadly, seeing an inward turn in the American character. In the same century, he argues, our focus on our own needs made us a more narcissistic and self-obsessed nation.

And there is also our cultural romance with figures who seem to go against the grain and set their compass on their own passions, often at the cost of barely letting others into their lives. Socially challenged innovators—perhaps Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs—are often admired for showing a kind of single-minded preoccupation that plays out in desultory conversations with family and friends, but intense conversations within themselves. Scientific American’s Farris Jabr isn’t so sure, at least with regard to a fixation on interiority in modern popular fiction. He also challenges the idea that there is a culture-wide weakness for stories built around unexpressed thought. “Yes, we talk to ourselves—our minds chatter incessantly—and we are the saner for it.”

We just have to find creative ways to keep the demons at bay, at least for a little while longer.

Islands of Isolation

The present moment has created more self-isolation than most would like.  We know what it means to be alone with one’s own thoughts. Chatter with others may be in short supply. But our consciousness can easily take the chatter inside.  We may share a common culture and lineage, and we can build bridges to each other, but can our reservoirs of self-reflection ever be made transparent? 

Climate scientists warn that it will be just decades until areas of South Florida will become a watery archipelago. The level of the sea rises about one inch a year in Miami Beach, inundating streets that some residents continue to believe are flooded by water main breaks.  Even in denial, those residents must sense that a chain of islands makes continuous connection with the rest of the community an insurmountable problem.

Interestingly, communication scholar John Durham Peters makes the same observation about human communication (Speaking Into the Air, 1999).  We are, he says, our own islands of consciousness, forever separated from others.  We may share the same culture, but we can never fully know another person’s world.

All of this is Peters’ way of reminding us that we have oversold our abilities to make things right through communication.  He notes that problems of connecting with others are “fundamentally intractable.”  Our attempts at doing so creates a “registry of modern longings” that can never be satisfied.  Disappointment is a natural part of the effort.  As Peters notes:

Our sensations and feelings are, physiologically speaking, uniquely our own.  My nerve endings terminate in my own brain, not yours.  No central exchange exists where I can patch my sensory inputs into yours, nor is there any “wireless” contact through which to transmit my experience of the world to you. . . .  In this view, humans are hardwired by the privacy of experience to have communication problems.

                    Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Wikipedia.org

Of course the theme of humans physically together and psychologically apart is universal, reflected in everything from Edward Hopper’s lone figures in the painting, Nighthawks (1942),  to virtually any film or play that treats individuals and relationships in all of their complexities.  The tensions inherent in coupling and adapting are shot through most country ditties about loneliness as frequently as recurring film narratives of abandonment.

This perspective only seems pessimistic if we believe in a kind of communication that is so stipulative or stripped of complexity as to be uninteresting. I can say with great accuracy that the Ketchup in our household is in the refrigerator, and know I can be understood.  But who cares?  The things that usually matter–feelings, values, aspirations and needs–all hide more easily out of sight. Could it be otherwise when we engage with other living souls with different life histories, memories, fantasies and fears?

Another part of our common over-optimism about communication is that advances in technologies are themselves reasons to mitigate communication confusion. Our devices make it possible to talk or text through every waking hour.  But, if anything, opportunities for sending and receiving messages only increase the chances to see the differences between us that remain.

The trick here is to accept the challenges that human complexity creates, without descending into the view that the outside world is mostly a mental mirage. To fall into that trap is to deny the chances that are still possible when words, images and music make sometimes durable bridges to others.