Friday Brainstorm 11 🧠
Exploring the individuality of our inner experiences
Happy Friday and welcome back for the eleventh issue of Friday Brainstorm!
This issue is all about the individuality of our inner experiences. You might think that most people have reasonably similar mental states, but it would be incredibly disorienting to be in another person’s head. We don’t even know if we all experience color in the same way, let alone more complicated feelings and thoughts.
Here’s an overview of what you can expect:
BCIs will help you better understand your emotions in 2022 ✨
what it feels like to be a visual reader 📖
how inner speech varies from person to person 🎙️
And away we go…
BCI 2022: Emotional Recognition ✨
This is the third and last installment of the BCI 2022 series, where I depict how brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) will change our daily lives by the year 2022.
This time, I’m exploring how BCIs will help you better understand your emotions.
Emotions are highly subjective and hard to pin down, largely due to the fact that our language is poorly equipped to accurately describe them. When someone says that they’re anxious, it could mean different things to different people.
In the words of Tim Urban, “[in the future] we’ll probably learn that the specific emotions people feel are as unique to people as their appearance or sense of humor”.
The failure of our language in depicting emotions not only causes us to misunderstand each other, but it also means that we know far less about our own emotional states.
Here’s a snippet from the article:
As you grow up, your vocabulary of emotions expands dramatically and you begin to notice the differences between similar emotions.
This larger vocabulary likely encompasses most of your emotional states, but there are moments where you might be unsure about exactly what you're feeling. Often times, these subtle emotions may be associated with mental or physical sensations that you don't have words to describe.
It shouldn't be a surprise that there aren't words to describe all your emotional states. Think about how words are coined - an experience has to be common enough that people decide to name it. By definition, we all have emotional states that are specific to us (and maybe 1,000 other people in the world) due to our unique set of traits and personality. Unfortunately, these atypical experiences will probably never get named unless they become more common over time.
So what if we don't have words to describe certain emotional states? Well, language actually plays an important role in our perception and thoughts.
We're often not consciously aware of the things we don't have words for. Think back to the time before the word "anxious" was popularized - you likely knew that you were feeling uneasy, but couldn't quite put your finger on what exactly was wrong. This ultimately makes the feeling harder to deal with.
How might technology help us be more aware of and better regulate our emotions in 2022?
Check out the full article to explore the possibilities that BCI technology opens up:
👉 BCI 2022: Emotional Recognition 👈
Reading is different for everyone 📖
I never liked fiction all that much as a kid. I would get bored reading descriptions of characters and scenes, so I mainly focused on the dialogue between characters to get a sense of the plot.
I thought that “getting lost in a book” was just something people said when they really liked the book. It had never even occurred to me that my experience might be atypical.
At some point, I was talking with a friend about a book they read recently. They were describing it as an immersive, cinematic experience. Vivid imagery of the characters and scenes would spontaneously appear in their mind as they read.
I couldn’t believe it - unless I actively tried to imagine a character, reading was not a visual activity for me. Is this why most fiction books were less immersive to me?
It turns out that some people are visual readers while others are not. According to recent surveys, about 20% of regular readers (and 33% of professional writers) experience very vivid visuals as they read, much like watching a movie.
There’s no consensus on why these differences arise. It might just be genetic OR it could the unique reading strategies that a child learns when they first start reading. Either way, having this experience is not inherently better or worse.
You might surprised to learn that there are many fiction writers who aren’t visual readers, yet still manage to depict intricate fictional worlds in their work. Catherine McKenzie gives a firsthand account of her writing process - she first writes out the dialogue and then goes back to add in the descriptive elements.
“I literally turn my character around in a circle (in my mind) and have them describe a few elements in the room and a few things about the person they’re talking to.”
McKenzie also uses a great analogy to describe her experience.
“To answer the person who questioned me closely about my ability to write without visuals, obviously, I do have them. It’s simply not my focus when I write. I have to remember to add them, just like I sometimes have to remember to ask someone how they’re doing in an email after I’ve written straight to the point.”
In closing, here are some questions to think through: Are you a visual reader? What types of books evoke the most visuals for you? How might this influence other aspects of your life, like learning?
Tuning in to inner speech 🎙️
Aside from visual reading, the same survey revealed that about 70% of survey participants describe being able to hear characters’ voices while reading.
Among writers, about 15% even report speaking with their characters directly:
“They sometimes tell me that what I have in mind for them isn’t right – that they would never behave or speak that way.”
One explanation for these experiences is inner speech, or the inner monologue or dialogue that many people have when thinking verbally. It’s often described as an internal narrator, the voice inside your head, or your stream of consciousness.
Inner speech varies heavily from person to person. There are people who report hearing their inner speech all the time, whereas others are barely conscious of it at all.
Among other functions, it plays an important role in self-regulation, problem solving, and planning. There are also a few different types of inner speech:
Narration. An inner monologue — for example, you might be rehearsing an important conversation in your head.
Conversational. A dialogue with yourself — like when you’re rehashing an old argument in the shower.
Self-reflective. Encompasses your inner critic, motivational coach, and self-evaluations of your mental state.
Simulating others. Hearing the voices of other people — like hearing your parents’ voice saying “you shouldn’t do that”.
Whereas the first three types of inner speech are fairly common (reported by more than 75% of people), only about 25% of people experience the presence of other people (real or imaginary) in their inner speech.
To clarify, this is different from deliberately imagining a person saying something. It’s more involuntary and intuitive, like being able to anticipate how a friend is likely to respond because you know them well.
As with real people, writers “get to know” their characters over time:
“First, there are the initial stages where the writer consciously determines what the characters do and say. Yet after a certain point, the writer’s greater familiarity with the characters provides the same kind of immediate and intuitive sense of what they would do or say that often applies to our imaginings of real people.”
It’s possible that these experiences allow writers to build more realistic characters, but this type of inner speech is not strictly necessary for writing great fiction.
In closing, ask yourself: How would you describe your inner speech? How often are you aware of it? What type of roles does it play in your life?
For more on inner speech, check out this article or this research paper (more rigorous).
I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Friday Brainstorm! What did you think? Anything that stood out or sparked your curiosity? Let me know by replying to this email.