Learn What’s Unique About Your Own, Very Personal Brain

What is it like to be you versus me… really?

Posted Feb 03, 2018

Neuroscientists sometimes talk about the human brain as if all of our brains were the same. We’ve all heard generalizations, such as “the human brain is very visual,” or “our brains evolved to value the present over the future,” or “the brain can only focus on one thing at a time.”

I was as guilty as other neuroscientists of lumping all human brains into one basket, as it were, until I got a tremendous shock one day while working at Walt Disney Imagineering, where we designed the company’s theme parks.

I was showing Joe, a senior creative executive, a novel 3-D visualization tool, sort of like the Holodeck from Star Trek or the artificial world in The Matrix. This tool, called a CAVE, was a five-sided room whose walls were rear projection screens onto which we displayed live, 3-D, computer-generated images of future parks.

In 2001, when this incident occurred, this CAVE was about as close to being inside a world that didn’t exist yet as you could get. I bragged to Joe, “See? We can create an entirely new theme park in the computer, place your viewpoint anywhere in that park you want, and instantly know precisely what it will look like from any angle.” I beamed with enthusiasm.

Joe said, “That’s really lame. Why would you go to all the trouble and expense to do that?”

My jaw dropped. “But Joe, we don’t need to build physical models anymore, or get nasty surprises about how things look in place after installing them. What’s not to like?”

Joe shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. All you have to do is look at a set of blueprints (like the ones below) and imagine what they look like in 3-D. Then place your mind’s eye anywhere you want to know exactly what things will look like.”

Eric Haseltine and CC0
Joe can take one look at the blueprints on the left, create an inner 3D image of the structure, place his mind’s eye anywhere in the structure and vividly imagine (e.g. the image on the right) what the inside would look like
Source: Eric Haseltine and CC0

All I could say was, “What? I can’t do that, and I don’t know anyone else who can.”

“Yes, you do know someone,” Joe replied, exasperated. “Me.”

Joe, a celebrated artist, went on to explain that his inner vision, where he imagined or remembered what things looked like, was vivid and real, and that he could rotate, scale, translate, or transform objects at will. Joe assumed that everyone else could do that too. Couldn’t they?

Well, no.

Joe, like all of us, never gets to go inside someone else’s head, so he can’t see what “normal” people can’t see that he routinely can.

But what if we could go inside someone else’s brain and experience thoughts, sensations, and emotions as they do? What other surprises would we encounter?

Individual differences in inner experience

Russell Hurlburt of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has tried to answer these questions using a simple set of techniques. He trains subjects to be very precise in how they describe their inner conscious experience, then supplies them with a device that beeps randomly. Whenever the subjects hear a beep, they are told to record whatever inner experience they were having when they heard the beep. This technique minimizes a vexing problem of consciousness research — changing your conscious experience by the simple act of actively being conscious of it.

Put another way, thinking too much about thinking changes your thinking too much, so you can’t draw valid conclusions about thinking. Got it?

Hurlburt and colleagues have found that people’s inner experiences differ markedly from one another. Here are some highlights of what they discovered:

While thinking, some people hear their own voice expressing thoughts as words, exactly as if hearing a live recording of themselves. These people hear each and every word clearly. (I am one of these people: When I write, I don’t form the words myself; I just take dictation from an inner voice that tells me what to type.)

Other individuals hear distinct words as they think, but skip over some words, while at the same time, somehow, understanding what those words are. For example, a “partial speech” person might hear, “I walked by the park -----, and saw a lovely sunrise.” The missing word is “today.” In place of the word “today,” these folks hear the rhythm and beat of “today,” but not the word itself, although they are aware that were thinking “today.”

Still other individuals experience “un-worded speech,” in which the beat and rhythm of a sentence plays out in their head. They understand exactly what they are thinking, yet they hear no actual words.

Yet another group of people hears no words at all when they think or read, not even rhythmic placeholders for words. Some of these people think in abstractions, void of any symbolism at all. Hurlburt calls this phenomena “un-symbolized thoughts.”

Visual people (like Joe, I suspect) mostly see images when they think. The vividness and realism of these inner visions vary considerably, from faint, ghostlike, black-and-white images to vivid, full-color, highly detailed scenes very similar to actual live images streaming through the eyes. (My wife falls into this category. She does not hear words in her head when she thinks or writes, but sees vivid, full-color images while reading, thinking, or listening to other people speak.)

A number of people in Hurlburt’s studies combine a couple of these modes, with some able to simultaneously hear words of inner thoughts while seeing inner images.

Some of Hurlburt’s subjects don’t report the awareness of any inner thoughts, images, or words. When they speak, or listen to someone else speak, they simply “just talk” or “just listen.”

Which, if any, of these descriptions best fits you? Did you realize that the way thoughts manifest in other people’s heads can be vastly different from the way thoughts play out in your own head? For me, it was quite a shock to learn recently that my wife, to whom I have been very close for years, has a radically different subjective experience of thinking than I do.

Source: stockfour/Shutterstock

Why understanding these differences matters

Apart from helping us understand and relate to our spouses better, there are several important benefits to learning how the people we interact with experience their own thoughts.

It stands to reason, for instance, that if we want to explain an idea or to persuade someone of something — at work, at home, or with friends — we might do a better job if we portrayed the idea in a way that aligns with that person’s inner experience. I find printed or spoken words persuasive, but my wife is more interested in images, and more likely to respond to them.

Wouldn't it be nice to know how someone you've just started dating sees (or hears, or feels) the world? It could make the perilous process of relating and mating less risky and more rewarding.

Another benefit of understanding a person’s inner experience could be found in something as prosaic as online advertising and promotion. In an era when each of us receives different online ads with the results of a Google search, based upon our browsing history, purchase history, location, age, and gender, why not also tailor the way these adds are portrayed based upon the cognitive style of the user, which could be inferred from the types of online information a user spontaneously consumes or dwells upon?

Perhaps most important, individual differences in modes of thinking probably show up early in child development. Teachers might reach individual students more effectively if they moved away from a one-size-fits-all method of instruction and somehow found a way (despite the many daunting challenges in today’s schools) to determine each student's thinking style — and to shape lessons accordingly.

Just a thought.

Learn more about what’s unique about your own brain in my new book, Brain Safari: 5-Minute Experiments to Explore the Space Between Your Ears.