In My Head

17 comments March 26th, 2007at 05:51pm Posted by Eli

(Before I get started, just so no-one gets alarmed, I do not hear voices. And even if I did, I would probably only pay attention to the ones that told me to slack off – killing people is waaaay too much hassle, and I’d rather just sleep in.)

This week’s NYT Magazine has an intriguing article about people who hear voices in their heads, but who aren’t necessarily psychotic or schizophrenic, and the ways in which they try to cope with them. The nature of the voices seems to vary widely from person to person: Some are companionable, some are adversarial. Some people view them as having potential insight to be heeded, some view them solely as tormentors. No-one really seems to know where they come from, or what cerebral mechanism creates them. I found one theory particularly intriguing:

In his 2003 book, “Madness Explained,” [psychology professor Richard] Bentall draws on the theory that auditory hallucinations may have their roots in what psychologists call “inner speech.” All of us, every day, produce a steady stream of silent, inward-directed speech: plans, thoughts, quotations, memories. People hear voices, Bentall argues, when they make faulty judgments about whether this inner speech is the product of their own consciousness or of something alien to their consciousness. Lapses in what researchers call “source monitoring” may occur for a number of reasons – because an individual is primed to expect a perception to occur, because the level of background noise makes it difficult to separate what is internal from what is external, because he or she is in a state of emotional arousal. But whatever the cause, Bentall writes, there is evidence to suggest that hallucinating “can be explained in terms of the same kinds of mental processes that affect normal perceptual judgments.”

This actually sounds pretty plausible to me – I can imagine my own internal monologue being rather alarming if I thought it was coming from someone else. It also reminds me of a mental version of this phenomenon, where people can actually lose track of their own body’s location, and perceive themselves as a ghost. I’m really talking out of my ass now, but I also wonder if in some cases it might be a milder variant of multiple personality disorder, where the extra personalities don’t have the strength to assume control, and can only howl at the primary personality through the bars of their cages.

This in turn reminded me of a fascinating science-fiction book by Greg Bear, titled Queen Of Angels. It’s primarily about the attempt to find the reasons for a famous writer’s psychotic break, during which he invited all of his students to his apartment and slit their throats one by one as they entered. What made this book so intriguing to me was its depiction of the way the mind works. Instead of being a single consciousness in charge of everything, the mind is split up into a complex hierarchy of subpersonalities and utility modules.

This conception really resonated for me, as it explained some quirks of my own mental functioning, aside from the obvious compartmentalization of personality, where I act differently depending on who I’m interacting with and where. My confidence in my abilities has always been rather shaky – people seem to think I’m good at stuff, and sometimes I’ll look back on papers or posts I’ve written or photos I’ve taken and think, “Hey, that was actually pretty good,” but most of the time when I sit down at the keyboard or pick up the camera, I don’t have high hopes.

I think the theory of mind in Queen Of Angels may actually explain this phenomenon, and it matches my internal perceptions perfectly: I have a central consciousness through which I perceive and interact with the world and maintain my internal narrative, and which is essentially “me,” but it can’t really do anything – it has no skills whatsoever. All of my skills and abilities are locked away in black-box modules which are only active when my central consciousness invokes them to carry out the task that they were designed for. The rest of the time, they’re tucked away and dormant. And since I can’t perceive anything outside my central consciousness when these modules are not active, I have a hard time believing that these skills really exist, and that I didn’t just get lucky somehow, or that they’ll be there the next time I call upon them.

Over time, my confidence has improved, simply because I have enough of a body of work that I’ve grown to trust in my abilities, even if I still can’t feel their presence. I’ve described this to other people, and for the most part I think I may be something of an extreme case – most people are more integrated and confident than I am, and feel their abilities more acutely, even when they’re not active. This is probably a good topic for audience participation: How do you perceive your mental interiors? Are all your talents right there in plain sight all the time, or do they just switch on when you need them, and then switch right back off again? Do you feel you have more or less confidence in yourself as a result? Inquiring subpersonalities want to know.

UPDATE: I should add, in case I don’t sound desperate-for-therapy enough already, that even when one of my various submodules is active, I still tend to perceive it as external to my central consciousness. Still within myself, certainly, but it’s coming from… somewhere else, feeding data into my somewhat-surprised central consciousness. My central consciousness is basically mask, narrator, and traffic cop.

Entry Filed under: Favorites,Science,Weirdness


  • 1. egregious  |  March 26th, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    Welcome to my world.

    Most people do not understand this level of creativity. It is a great gift, in between times when it is a great curse.

    Your explanations are healing to me and therefore saving many children’s lives in Russia. No pressure! Unless you wd like to continue sharing your mental Journey to the center of the earth.

    Thx, love, blankets & cookies,

  • 2. egregious  |  March 26th, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    ps The morning of my birthday one year I awoke with a complete piece of music in my mind, including lyrics. It was a race to write it down before I forgot. One other time the muse struck, the morning of my grandmother’s funeral I awoke with a complete eulogy in my head, scurried to find pen and paper. Those of you who know me well will find any brain function before noon to border on the miraculous.

    Is this something outside me? Or something deeply interior, that I can rarely experience?

  • 3. Ann in AZ  |  March 26th, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    I know that I write a better complaint letter or a better verbal argument when I am angry or fired up over something. I think that to varying degrees, we are all the way that you describe.

  • 4. Eli  |  March 26th, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Interesting, though, that in both your cases it’s not really “on tap”. I have some modules (analytical, photographical) that are always there when I reach for them, and some that are extremely elusive and unreliable (humor, the ability to write more than a few coherent sentences in a row).

    I do find that my writing is better when I’m really pissed off or (sometimes) really tired.

  • 5. lolo  |  March 26th, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Another brilliant piece. I really enjoy your writing. Keep up the excellent work.. Please don’t be so hard on yourself. You are truly gifted.


  • 6. Eli  |  March 26th, 2007 at 9:31 pm

    Is this something outside me? Or something deeply interior, that I can rarely experience?

    Being not religious, I would assume the latter. I think there are all kinds of hidden depths to the mind that are rarely, if ever, unlocked. If we were allowed full, unfettered access, we would probably burn ourselves out or go mad in a matter of hours or days.

  • 7. Eli  |  March 26th, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    Aw, shucks, lolo. Thank you so much. I can only manage a halfway decent non-political rant maybe one a year or so…

  • 8. charley  |  March 26th, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    at least your not a “looser”.

    i just count on getting lucky.

    so far that has not worked out so well.

    “Thinking, thinking, stupid thoughts.” Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • 9. Eli  |  March 26th, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    Dude, I’m pretty sure you can fall out of bed and take good photos looking up at the bed.

  • 10. elmo  |  March 26th, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    I’m not sure what triggers the “fire under my ass”; so to speak, but it would be nice to be able to call on it whenever I liked…

  • 11. Eli  |  March 26th, 2007 at 11:06 pm


  • 12. Ripley  |  March 27th, 2007 at 7:15 am

    I’ve always said: “I don’t mind the voices in my head – I just wish they’d get my name right.”

    Creatively, I’m completely tapped out, lately. I guess I should order some Absinthe. Then you’ll see – you’ll all see!

  • 13. Interrobang  |  March 27th, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    I’ve had a running interior monologue for years. It has long since stopped bothering me, and a lot of the time, I don’t even notice it. The part of my interior monologue I hate is when I’m reading some liberal argument and this voice (call it my Inner Wingnut) pipes up to tell me exactly what the wingnut response would be. (In some ways, that’s a valuable tool to have, because when I’m writing my own stuff, I can short-circuit objections before they appear. I don’t care for it as running editorial commentary, though.)

    If we’re talking about weird inside-the-head phenomena, I’m also synaesthesiac. I really dig the colours of certain music. I’m just glad I’m not one of those people who sees letters as colours, though…

  • 14. Eli  |  March 27th, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    Oh yeah, the Central Consciousness is *all about* the interior monologue, and it does occasionally say some mortifying things.

    And the Inner Wingnut? I have an Inner Contrarian which immediately marshals up counterarguments to any argument I make, whether political or otherwise. It’s sort of handy, and sort of undermining…

  • 15. flawedplan  |  March 28th, 2007 at 2:00 am

    Oh Eli you’re not talking out of your ass at all, this was great, your approach of this complex material, and respectful for all you left out.

    My first visit here comes via a link at firedoglake, and this post caught my eye, as I am active in psychiatric rights and reform, and the NYT has been doing fabulous work in this regard the last few months. I am so glad the story caught your interest, this is what is needed, personal narrative by regular, non-diagnosed people who are interested in the workings of the mind, and not afraid to run with their musings and speculation.

    The activist world of severe and persistent mental illness is a partisan and tribal clusterfuck of competing dogmas among people who have been laughed out of society, and I’m used to seeing us otherized when reasonable beings analyze the freaks, which is easier to do than think about the condition some humans get into of perplexing and extreme mental states, which is better, and what you did here and what I am praising, hooray.

  • 16. Multi Medium » Why &hellip  |  January 25th, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    […] This is exactly why I love sci-fi and have so much trouble reading regular fi – I’m fascinated by the universes that the writers create.  The what-ifs, the concepts, the richness and complexity and otherness of it.  I’ve read stories where people can create specialized one-day duplicates of themselves whose memories they can download before the duplicates expire (Kiln People); where everyone’s brain is backed up to a hard drive and can be re-inserted into a new “sleeve” if they die (Altered Carbon); where entropy works in reverse so that everything improves with use (The Practice Effect); where intelligent spaceships pose frozen passengers in historical dioramas (Excession); where aliens spell out messages with human pimples (oops, that was the Weekly World News).  And I’ve already gone on at length about Queen Of Angels. […]

  • 17. Multi Medium » Drea&hellip  |  November 10th, 2009 at 7:43 am

    […] I’m fascinated by brain stuff, especially anything that suggests that there are multiple semi-autonomous modules in there. […]

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