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How Many Are You?

How Many Are You?

    I will stipulate at the start of this post that I might be insane. That will save you the time of pointing it out in the comments.

    Lately I’ve been contemplating the dual nature of my brain. When I think about almost anything, I do so in the format of a conversation with myself, in full sentences. But what exactly is happening when one talks to oneself?

    People don’t multitask well. You can’t commit the same part of your brain to two distinct tasks at the same time. At best it’s sort of a packet situation (excuse the geeky reference) in which you do one thing for a short burst, then quickly switch to the other, then back. It might look like multitasking but it’s just quick switching.

    It can seem like multitasking when you use one part of your brain for habit-based stuff such as walking while using another part of the brain for talking. That works because walking and talking don’t draw on the same brain resources.

    So what is happening when I talk to myself? As far as I can tell, the part of me doing the talking has full mental capacity while forming words, and yet I also seem to have 100% ability to listen to myself. Why doesn’t the concept-comprehension part of my brain get confused when it is talking and listening at the same time?

    Now you might say the listening-to-myself part is an illusion because I can’t form sentences in my mind without understanding in advance what they will mean. In a sense, the listening is naturally integrated with the process of forming a sentence in the first place. That’s clearly part of the explanation. But it feels as if something else is going on.

    The part of my mind that seems to be listening to the other part talking is also doing some filtering and judging. I form my thought into a sentence, experience the sentence in my mind as if it had been spoken, and evaluate it for effectiveness after my mind hears it. That last step, where I evaluate and often reject my own thoughts has the feel of an entirely different person. It feels like a pitcher and a catcher. The pitcher might have the more active function, but the catcher is sending hand signals and performing a key function too.

    It makes me wonder if the part of my brain that controls my speaking functions is tied to the same higher thinking part of my brain that my hearing/comprehension is connected to. In other words, is the part of my brain that knows that a chair is, and how it is used, connected to both my speaking and my listening parts of my brain? Or do I have two completely different areas in my brain that both understand the concept of a chair, but one connects to my speech center and the other is connected to my hearing and comprehension centers? How else could the hearing part of my brain sometimes disagree with the speaking part?

    For purely practical reasons we count one human body as one “person.” That makes sense for all sorts of legal and economic purposes. But it sure doesn’t feel as if I have only one person in my head. It feels like a conversation between two friends.

    Like most people, I’m also capable of holding opposing views simultaneously. One part of me argues that something is a good idea while the other firmly disagrees. I don’t experience that situation as one mind that is sorting through the data. It feels like two people having a debate. Stranger yet, there might be a third me observing the debate and being a judge.

    I often wonder if people who don’t mind being alone – and I am one of them – have a more distinct feeling of the “other” in their own head. I’m never lonely when the two of my personality are having an interesting conversation in my head. But sometimes I lose the feeling of the other, or get bored with it, and then the loneliness can be overwhelming. Fortunately there are also real people in my life so the cure is always nearby.

    My question for today is this: Do you feel the presence of two people who are both you at the same time? And if so, do you enjoy being alone more than most other people do?

    My hypothesis is that people who can’t feel the presence of another entity in their minds have a hard time being alone.

    [Update: Two readers made reference to some actual science by Julian Jaynes supporting the bicameral mind idea. It’s fascinating. – Scott]

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