Tag Archives: interiority

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.

Finding ‘Interiority’

We are the species that ponders, muses, worries, fears, wonders, hopes and ruminates.  It follows that we are also wired to make estimates of another’s state of mind based on almost anything they to say. 

We know humans have rich inner lives, and that values and concerns are  indirectly signaled to others in what we say. There is a sub-textual ‘meta-language’ that is embedded in the thoughts we express.  Expression naturally reveals residues of the mind in motion. Not surprisingly, our skill at “reading” each other turns out to be one of the crucial markers of a person’s social intelligence.  State-of-mind inferences are what make discourse possible. Our estimates usually mean that we can adjust to meet an interlocutor half way.

                                 Wikipedia.org

Our skill at ‘reading’ others is a crucial attribute, separating humans from other species, even smart robots. We might expect that Alexa, Siri and their counterparts will be able to answer truth-based questions.  But we are usually going to come up with blanks if we look for signs of some sort of inner life.

This is why interiority is such an interesting idea.

A robot can be programmed with words that mimic feelings; it can also be programmed to have a kind of synthetic past.  But ask Alexa what kinds of topics are most difficult to discuss, and we are probably going to get some version of it’s programmer’s interiority.  Shift toward the stuff of everyday human life–feelings, experiences, a sense of self–and machine intelligence begins to founder as a pretender to the human mind.

We routinely act on the belief that we are mostly transparent to each other.

All of this is a useful reminder of how much we depend upon what is sometimes called “theory of mind” to infer mental states in others.  The trigger is almost always our statements and their accompanying physical expressions: even simple cues like frowns or smiles. These are enough to turn the mysteries of another into estimates of apparent needs and aspirations. For example, if a friend tells us that someone we both know seems “on edge,” it’s entirely possible that the rhetorical signs of that state were inferred from statements ostensibly about something else. We assume there is a meta-language even in the most prosaic forms of rhetoric.  What we sense is easily passed on in similar statements like “She seems lonely,” “I think he lacks self-confidence” or “She says she’s fine, but she doesn’t seem fine.”  In short, we use the evidence of another person’s words to fill in a larger picture of their preferences and predilections.  And while this is not psychoanalysis, it is a survival skill for a species that lives in communities.

All of this means that we act on the belief that we are partly transparent to each other. We count on our inferences to build out the bonds we seek with others. To be sure, most adults maintain a screen of privacy that can seem impenetrable and not easily inferred. In addition, our inferences can be wrong.  Friends can surprise us with unanticipated feelings or reactions we didn’t expect. Even so, the daily business of making estimates of what others are thinking demonstrates a kind under-appreciated mindfulness.

And yet. . .

A Trump Caveat in Four Questions

Most of us are somewhat opaque. We keep a great deal behind a scrim that decreases our revealed vulnerabilities.  We know more of our successes than we might say. We sense our fears, but suppress the impulse to speak about them. We rein in the rampant narcissism that once flourished in childhood.

But what happens when a person lives their life in a cognitive glass house? An absence of self-monitoring can mean that elemental needs, fears and resentments are likely to be on display with technicolor vividness.  No inference-making by another is required; the person is psychologically naked.

This rarer form of what might be called “interiority at the surface,” is evident in the psychic transparency of Donald Trump. Even if we set aside his politics, it’s apparent to most Americans that obvious needs for status and affirmation float to the top of everything he says, like bubbles rising from the bottom of a pool. He’s the rare leader who has grown to adulthood seemingly unaware of the near-total display of his core motivations. To be sure, the surface bluster is convincing to some.  Yet there is a far more common counter-narrative of something amiss just underneath, a chronic vulnerability made worse because he lacks awareness and self control. Without doubt, many chronic self-promoters can be blind to their obviousness.  Even so, the problem of Trump’s externalized interiority poses stark questions for him and citizens alike:

  • Does he not notice that his words so obviously betray his needs and fears?
  • Has he never found reasons to admire the stoicism and mental discipline of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King or John McCain?
  • Is there ever an impulse to lash out that’s worth suppressing?
  • And should it always fall to ‘minders’ and citizens to worry about a leader who presents himself to the world as hopelessly insecure?

In a more usual case we will have to infer aspects of a person’s inner life, and that living with a certain degree of grace means keeping a filter in place between private resentments and public words.