The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

Talking to One's Self

Analyzing the hows and whys of our inner monologues

"The thoughts that come often unsought, and, as it were, drop

into the mind, are commonly the most valuable of any we have."

The English philosopher John Locke wrote the above in a letter to a friend, Samuel Bold, in 1699 and considering that Locke established the principles of modern empiricism–the theory that only the Five Senses could be considered the source of knowledge–it is quite remarkable that he should vacate this rational position when he writes, as in the quotation above, about thoughts arriving "unsought"…from "out of the blue", as it were.

Yet it has long been accepted by both philosophers and psychologists that both thoughts and feelings do move into consciousness despite–and often unrelated to–any prevailing sensory involvement with the outside world. Here is Plato, writing in his 4th Century treatise Ion, "For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and out of his senses."

And whilst we may not all be poets in the Platonic sense, I’m sure that many of us have experienced the loss of both clock-time, and of a sense of "place", when we have been–as is commonly said, "lost in one’s own mind"–listening in, so to speak, on questions and answers generated within oneself.

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Our ability to engage in such silent and internal "question and answer" sessions, when some voiceless aspect of consciousness is both asking the questions, and then answering them…is a remarkable psychological phenomenon: one described by Sir Thomas Browne, the 17th Century English physician and author when he writes: "Be able to be alone, lose not the advantage of solitude, and ‘the society of thyself…"

"The society of thyself": Have you ever thought of yourself as "a society"? For here, Sir Thomas in suggesting that a variety of internally generated thoughts and sentiments make up a consciousness in which more than one "self" is involved. Also, I believe he is implying that such inwardly generated levels of awareness constitute an extrasensory form of awareness–one functioning independently of the five senses, and generally described as aspects of the imagination. Albert Einstein writes about this dual (sensory and extrasensory) nature of human consciousness as follows:

"I have no doubt that our thinking goes on for the most part without the use of signs (words), and, furthermore, largely unconsciously. For how, otherwise, should it happen that sometimes we ‘wonder’, quite spontaneously, about some experience."

So, it seems obvious that if one wishes to gain some measure of "self-identity", it will help by developing the ability to silently commune with oneself. Yet it is not easy in today’s society to withdraw from Time and the goings-on in the outside world. However, have a go at it–give a chance for hitherto unknown questions and answers to "drop into" this inner level of self-awareness. Commune with yourself and come closer to knowing more about yourself. For it is a process that induces reflection, contemplation, helping to reveal the nature of one’s character and personality. It brings more clearly to mind the direction taken by one’s hopes, ambitions and fears…all of which help to answer the vital questions: Just who the heck am I and what am I about?

For myself, it is when walking the dog that this internal dialogue gets under way. The mechanical rhythm of walking relaxes the senses and opens the psychological door into one’s own world of thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I find myself talking out loud to myself and, from time to time, Gabriel, my dog, who is pulling ahead, will turn and give me a look, wagging his tail approvingly.

One of the most extraordinary statements concerning the onset of such illuminating states of awareness, comes from Mozart’s pen: "When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer…it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them."

He goes on to talk about his "ideas"–meaning the musical themes that come to mind–as follows: "When I proceed to write down my ideas, I take out of the bag of my memory…what has been previously collected into it in the way I have mentioned…And it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination…"

Mozart didn’t need to walk the dog in order to induce his creative powers. But we lesser mortals have a better chance can gain access to our inner selves by doing so.

So why not get a dog, do some walking and talking…to him and yourself.

 

 

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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