Reflections on Thought and Expression

For me, it’s been a particularly difficult and traumatic last few months of 2021. Not simply because of the whole covid situation, or the usual stresses of work; but because I started taking therapy over the Summer. I know that I’m a mess of hang-ups and inhibitions, and have a lot of difficulty expressing myself emotionally: I’ve spent over two years trying to address those issues with a variety of self-help techniques; but with very limited success. So I finally realised that I needed professional help if I was going to make myself more open.

I found a therapist here in Amsterdam that takes on English-speaking clients; and feel like I’ve been making progress with her. It’s been a painful experience, she seems to have an instinct for homing in on the things that I don’t say; and perhaps it’s the traditional Dutch bluntness, but she’s exposed a few memories that my mind has preferred that I forget, and made me explore them and the effects that they’ve had on me. One in particular going back to my teenage years; another from the mid-90’s when I was living in Manchester; and most recently a third incident in my life from about 25 years ago, which is germane to this post.

I’d just had a particularly difficult week, and received some news that I was dreading; and my mind simply couldn’t focus or concentrate on anything; so I decided to treat myself to a spa day to help clear my mind. I booked in for a full day at Spa Zuiver near Amsterdamse Bos, complete with meals and a relaxation massage; and found that they had a regular schedule of löyly (or aufguss) sessions in the Finnish sauna, which I particularly enjoy. The smell of the scented oils, the blasts of heat: it’s a wonderful, invigorating experience. It was also fun trying to identify the aromas; and amusing that I was identifying the individual smells (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, almonds) aloud in English; and the guy on the bench next to me was putting the ingredients together to get speculaas. The last oil was the trigger for me: I identified anise and liquorice, and when I realised it was sambuca, I had to leave the sauna early to get some cool, fresh air. I don’t drink alcohol, I haven’t done so in over 30 years; but that wasn’t the issue: my mind was just swamped by memories of that incident from 25 years ago.

I’d spoken with my therapist about my intent to visit the spa in my previous session; so naturally in my next therapy session she asked how it had gone: my telling her about walking out of the aufguss is where things got particularly interesting.

Therapist > But you said that you always enjoy the aufguss; so why did you leave the sauna early?
Me > It’s hard to explain; but it triggered a wave of memories that just overwhelmed me, and I needed to escape.
Therapist > Try to put it into words for me. What was your Inner Monologue saying to you?
Me > My Inner what?!?

That’s when she had to explain to me what an Inner Monologue was. And it took some explaining; because I’ve never experienced an Inner Monologue, so the whole concept of the mind giving a verbal commentary on its thought processes was very difficult for me to understand.

Inner Monologue

I’ll add that my therapist was surprised that I didn’t have an Inner Monologue, but quick to assure me that it didn’t mean that I was unusual in any way… though I’m not totally convinced there isn’t a contradiction in that… my biggest concern there is whether she’s the right therapist for me because she made the assumption that I would have an Inner Monologue; but that’s another question for another time.

What did intrigue me was the whole concept of an Inner Monologue, “do people really have a Greek Chorus in their minds narrating what they’re thinking?”, so I did a quick (totally unscientific) straw poll on twitter:


inner-monologue-vote

Admittedly only 163 votes, and probably not a good cross-section of people; but with 72% having a constant Inner Monologue, and 25% sometimes hearing their own thoughts, I do feel that being a part of that 3% puts me in something of a minority despite my therapist saying that it wasn’t unusual.

Some of the comments also made useful reading, helping me understand the concept a little better. The language of that Inner Monologue was interesting, with most people thinking in their native language, but others in a second language or even multiple languages. I wonder if thinking in words and sentences actually helps people with learning a new language.

And I subsequently discovered long discussions about the whole topic both elsewhere on twitter and on reddit.


Thought

My own thoughts are a stream of visual (sometimes realistic, sometimes abstract or surreal), auditory (sounds, music, possibly snippets of conversation between people), tactile, taste, smell, and other non-sensory impressions such as “feelings” or emotions; sometimes interwoven, sometimes separate; and not always time-linear, they’re not telling a obvious story; but I have no self-dialogue or verbal self-description of the stream.

When I’m thinking about a person – especially somebody that I know well – the imagery is fairly obvious. Typically the visuals are photorealistic: I can see the tilt of their head, the way that they move; I hear the tone of their voice, feel the texture of their clothes, smell their cologne or perfume, see the way the light dances in their eyes. When I’m thinking about places, I see the people walking through the park or skating on the ice rink, hear the breeze rustling through the trees and the laughter of children, feel the slight chill or winter wind, smell the tang of wood smoke in the air, and hot chocolate. Even if I don’t know the person or place well, my mind fills with imagined imagery based on pictures I’ve seen or what I’ve read about them… the clamour of a crowd, the colours and smells of an marketplace, the warmth of the sun. It may not be geographically accurate; but it’s recognisable, and I know where my mind is thinking about.

It’s a bit different when I’m thinking about ideas or concepts; the imagery is often more abstract, and can even be completely surreal – perhaps it’s a reason why I enjoy the art of the cubist and futurist movements. Or it might be like a series of seemingly unrelated sensations: as I’m writing this, I’m envisaging sunlight rippling on the waters of the river as a swan takes off, its wings touching the water with each beat; the sound of a string quartet; the sharp acidic taste of grapefruit juice; and the feeling that I’m sitting on a velvet-covered sofa. There’s no obvious correlation between those sensations; but it’s telling me that I’m hungry, and should get myself some breakfast. That might seem confusing; but I know what my own mind is telling me.

And sometimes the same visual imagery can have different meanings based on tone or colour, or other context elements of the thought stream; and the imagery may start with one tone, and then switch to another in a moment. A dog bounding down a grassy hill would generally have a positive interpretation, particularly with the smell of flowers or freshly-mown grass; but the same image in monochrome would be much more ominous, invoking a sense of foreboding, especially if accompanied by the sound of thunder, or the smell and salt taste of a storm at sea. If I’m working, one would be my minds way of telling me I’m on the right track; the other that I’m doing things incorrectly, and probably need to backtrack and try a different approach (unless I really want to explore where that rabbit hole takes me).

I’ve never worked out how my mind interprets those thoughts; it just does. I know I’ve built up filters over the years to visualise only what I need; and that I can generally adjust those filters as I’m thinking to incorporate more or less of the impressions that are being depicted by my mind: if I don’t sometimes reign them in, it can feel like my whole mind is being overloaded, like that afternoon in the aufguss at Spa Zuiver (and that is a very scary sensation). The fact that I was overwhelmed that afternoon shows that even now, my filters don’t always work as well as they should, particularly at moments of emotional extremes.
That’s another one of the things I’m trying to change with therapy: I want to be able to accept and embrace that overload rather than be afraid when it happens.

Drawn by the undertow
My life is out of control
I believe this wave will bear my weight
So let it flow

James, “Sit Down”

When I read a book, I’m visualising it – almost like watching a movie, but filling in all the additional details in my mind. When somebody is talking to me, I visualise what they’re saying; if they’re explaining a technical architecture or design, I’m seeing it as boxes and dataflows, and seeing question marks appearing where something doesn’t seem to fit correctly. And broadening out those filters I’ve mentioned, I see so many “what ifs” (both potential flaws, and new options and possibilities, and it shows me correlations between different components of the system). Perhaps that’s why I’m good at grasping concepts, but not always as good at implementation, because that requires being able to express the concept in the limited languages of computers… it’s difficult enough in human language.


Expression

To actually think in words and sentences requires a positive effort, like when I’m trying to write something down, or explain something to somebody, and having to convert that stream of thoughts into words. My mind understands what I’m thinking, but expressing that isn’t always easy. I’m rarely satisfied with the words that I do use, because they always seem such an inadequate expression of the thought.
I see what I’ve written, or hear what I’m saying, and my mind compares the imagery that it evokes with what I was trying to capture in words, and it falls so far short. At least if I’m writing, I can try again and again until I get something closer; but that’s not really an option with the spoken word.

I enjoy writing, particularly fiction, but am never really satisfied with my work. I’m a lucid dreamer, and normally remember my dreams which gives me a wealth of inspiration for writing fiction, and I have so many story ideas in my head that never see the light of day because I can’t express them in a way that I feel captures what I wanted to write. That’s a real frustration!

I could always try visual art; but I just don’t have the talent for drawing or painting, even abstract art. I enjoy looking at art; but trying to be an artist myself, and my work is worse than that of the average child. At least with writing fiction, I’m just trying to convey relatively simple images, sounds and sensory impressions; but with art, I’m trying to convey something much more emotional rather than simple visuals; and that’s even harder.

I collect tarot cards: I love some of the artwork on the decks. On the very rare occasions when I do a reading with them, I allow myself to be guided by the imagery of the cards as I weave the story, rather than the conventional “meanings” associated with each card. My mind is making connections between the images that link the cards in the spread.


I’ve heard people with an Inner Monologue complaining that they have difficulty getting to sleep because the voice in their head won’t stop. I don’t think that’s unique to having an Inner Monologue: the imagery that’s still running around in my own head when I go to bed can make sleeping just as difficult, even though it’s non-verbal.

Would I prefer to have an Inner Monologue? It might make it easier to express myself verbally (in written or spoken words) if my mind was thinking verbally, just saying what my Inner Monologue was saying. It might make it easier to learn Dutch.

But I don’t think that I would.

The way that I think is a part of what makes me what and who I am, with all my flaws. Expression might be difficult; but the way that I think gives me imagination (which can be both a positive and a negative), it allows me to make jumps of logic, and see correlations where they aren’t obvious; and I’d be concerned that an Inner Monologue would constrain my thoughts. I could be wrong, having never experienced it; but having an Inner Monologue just seems so linear.

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