The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

8:20am on Thursday, 10th February, 2005:

Them's Thinkin' Words...


This is kind of a continuation of yesterday's entry about interrupts, but it describes something a little different about me that, whatever you think after having read my description, won't be "so what?".

OK, so I'm driving in my car, mulling over something I want to write, or something I plan on saying, or trying to figure out how something is put together (why do I always have to figure out how differential gears work from first principles instead of just remembering?) and I switch on Radio 4. Within a second, my train of thought is completely derailed and I'm listening to what the presenter is saying. Why is that?

When I'm thinking, generally I subvocalise. I don't mean I move my lips or larynx, I mean I have an inner voice that I can mentally "hear" which speaks using words. Maybe this has something to do with my being easily distracted by speech? Ask someone to count down from 200 in 7s and they can do it. Talk to them, and they can still do it (I could probably do it myself, although I'd be listening to what you were saying rather than counting). However, if you were to start saying nearby numbers at them randomly, it becomes a lot harder. Maybe that's what happens to me? Because the inputs are in the same format as the thought processes, it gets in the way of them? It's tempting to suppose this, but the trouble is that most people subvocalise (the psychological term is inner speech) and they don't get as easily sidetracked by speech as I do. Maybe there's something different about what I do?

Well, there is. Other people may subvocalise, but there are some mental tricks I can pull which I'm pretty sure most people can't. Primary among these is my ability to spin off separate (let's call them) "processes" to figure things out while I'm doing something else.

Everyone can do this to some degree, although they probably don't realise it. Say you're trying to remember something, like what the name of the actress was who played Connie Sachs in Smiley's People). Now you might know this straight away, or you might not know it at all. If you know you know it but can't bring it to mind, then what? You can either look it up, forget about it, or try remember. Suppose your efforts to remember were in vain and eventually you did have to give up. Two hours later, you might be doing something else then suddenly think "Beryl Reid!". It's as if part of your brain has gone off and thought about it for you while you were thinking about other things.

This is something that happens to me, but with a twist: I can do it deliberately. I'm not limited to the recollection of old memories, either — I can use if for anything that is mentally mechanical: figuring out how something is put together; generating random words; performing a mathematical calculation; planning how I'm going to take on the Aztecs in my current game of Civ3; considering someone's motivation; lots of things... I just "set something off" to do it. My guess is that people are alluding to something like this when they say that if you're trying to solve some problem you should think about it just before going to bed, then when you wake up in the morning you'll have solved it. With me, I don't have to go to sleep, I just set up in my mind what I want to know, then release some part of me to go off and do it. It toddles off, and a while later comes up with the answer or tells me it's having a real hard time of it and maybe I should direct my full attention to the problem instead.

What can I do with these "processes"? Well, I can poll them, but only if I remember I set them off. If I've forgotten that I set them off, they're a lot harder to track down (basically I have to set off another process to do it for me). This is one of the reasons I don't drink alcohol: if I got drunk, I can imagine its taking me two weeks to unearth all the little processes that could have been set off while I wasn't in control. If I am aware of the processes, though, I can shut them down or change them or kinda merge them so there's one that's using what its component processes had figured out. In this sense, they're not always distinct from one another; it could be that what I set off as (and think of as) two processes wind up being the same process looked at from different angles.

[Gawd, I'll have to think of a better word than "processes", but using a computational analogy is my best hope of getting this across. To me, they don't come across as if they're "doing" anything, they're encapsulated as a kind of very precise "feeling", like a distinct smell or signature but mental in nature. I could call them "songs" or "engines" and be just about as accurate as "processes". Actually, I do sometimes use them to play music to me, so "songs" is perhaps too confusing an analogy. I digress...]

I can also give the processes control of my body, which I occasionally do when I'm typing something fairly mindless and someone comes along and speaks to me — I set up something to finish up the typing while I'm conversing. Only once has a process done this without asking me first, and it was alarming enough that it's never going to happen again. This was in my second year as an undergraduate, when I sat down in the library to do some (I think) numerical analysis homework, but when I looked at what I'd written it was the inner loop for a multi-player space combat game I was writing as an assignment. I was gobsmacked: OK, so this was probably something I really did need to get written down while I held it in my head as a coherent entity, but still! No way did I want anything like that ever to happen again, so now it won't. Besides, I had to write out my numerical analysis homework "again". And the code was over-optimised, I really wanted it more general and was thinking I'd post-edit it before commiting it to paper...

What else, hmm... I could get a process to set up another process if I wanted to, in fact they probably do this all the time but I filter out my awareness of them. These sub-processes are more temporary, though, and I'm pretty sure most of them either terminate successfully very quickly or they just peter out at the first obstacle. They can't ever be as complex as the process that "launches" them, so I'm in no danger of getting into some kind of unstoppable recursive cascade that brings my mind to a halt. It's hard to explain why they're not as complex; the way I envisage it, it's like a river forking into tributaries, where each tributary can never carry as much water as the river it forms. It's not quite like that, though, because when I do set a process off to do something it doesn't diminish my main ability to think in any way — it's like a background thing.

I don't know what the upper limit is on the number of processes I could set off; I suspect that in absolute terms it depends on factors like how tired I am, but the main practical moderator is my ability to remember them. Here's the thing: I can't name them and write down the names, because the moment I name them they stop. I identify them by how they (mentally) "feel". If I label them, that brings them into my inner speech and they become the subject of my full attention. I'd have to set them off again and try to avoid thinking of the name. Right now, as I'm writing, I have four processes going on. One of them concerns the clique structure of MUD2 players in the late 1980s, or rather it did concern them, it's stopped now. By bringing it from non-speech form into speech form so I could tell you about it, I lost what it was doing. I can probably set something off to do it again, but it won't pick up where the other one left off, and the more I talk about it the harder it's going to be for it not to keep coming back into my consciousness.

How "intelligent" are these processes? Computationally, the same in power as me but generally slower (because they have to keep quiet). There are two non-me things about them, one of which I'll describe shortly and the other of which is that they're not detected by my internal emotion system. This means they won't ever upset me or excite me or bore me — I'm only aware of one if I want to be aware of it. If I find out through other means what one was set up to find out, it'll collapse automatically because its subject matter is now "named" — I don't have to shut it down explicitly. Indeed, it's rare that I do shut any down explicitly, as left to their own devices they'll always terminate "naturally" anyway; it's only if I change my mind about wanting to know something that I'll shut one down, and that's only going to happen if I decide I actively don't want to know the answer any more.

The longest I've ever had a process run before coming up with an answer was about a fortnight. Actually, I'd forgotten about it and was therefore pleasantly surprised that I could now remember the words written on the long, shallow vase standing on the small table at the top of the stairs of my grandmother's house. Most memory processes take maybe 30 minutes to come up with an answer, but in general it's quicker for me to bring to mind the answer myself. It's only if I get "blocked" because some other (usually linguistically) similar name keeps cropping up that I'll resort to setting a process off to recall something for me. The Beryl Reid example I gave earlier is real: I kept thinking of Dora Bryan, even though I knew it wasn't her, so I set off a process to remember the real name without the interference from a false lead.

I keep talking about "me" and "processes" separately. Aren't the processes part of me? Welllll yes, I suppose so. They don't have any personality or a "mind of their own" (which is just as well, otherwise we're in "the voices inside my head told me" territory), so I tend to think of them more like helpful pseudopods that I can grow when I need them; they're like a part of my body rather than a part of my mind, even though they're purely a mental phenomenon. There's a definite "me" in the centre, controlling the processes and possessing a self-awareness that the processes don't have. This is what I mean when I say "my full attention" or "I'm distracted". The processes, while not quite like computer programs (they have some ability for independent action, eg. communicating with other processes [groan, this is sounding even more like a multi-threaded operating system — it doesn't feel like that at all!]), urgle, too many sub-clauses, let me start again... The processes never get distracted, and never direct themselves off topic unless I specifically set them up to direct themselves off topic (which I might do occasionally for inspirational purposes or something). Whatever, there's only one, core "me" at the heart of all this, which I can be sure of because of the second difference between this "me" and the processes: I can subvocalise but my processes can't. I'm the only entity in my head that has access to language in addition to thought. Anything that involves the creation of language has to go through me. [Aside: this may be why I'm much better at understanding languages than I am at speaking them.]

OK, some caveats. I don't have to subvocalise — indeed I can't when I'm dealing with the processes or they'll collapse — but I can subvocalise. The processes can't, even if I want them to. They can deal with words as symbols, for example I might think something that could be encapsulated as a thought to "type this paragraph" and then my fingers would type the words while I was reading something or talking or thinking what to type after I've typed the words. Processes can't deal with words as language, though. Note that in my description just now, the "type this paragraph" isn't inner speech, it's just a thought to do that. What's more, it's a thought that implies action; in thinking about this paragraph I envisaged in my head exactly what I would have set off were I to want to type something while thinking of something else, but I didn't set it off. I actually have to want or mean to set if off  — let it go — for it to happen. This is akin to the way that you can brace yourself ready to run, but you don't actually run until you throw some kind of mental release catch.

As a longer example, I can bring to mind exactly what people sound like, as if Iwas listening to them speaking. This isn't unusual — most people's inner voice is a gifted mimic — so it's easy for the majority of people to recall what, say, a fond but long-dead relative used to sound like. What if it's someone fairly obscure, though? I don't know about you, but for me it might take quite some time to dredge up such a memory, during which period I'll get increasingly frustrated if I can't do it. The difference is that I might (well, probably would) therefore consciously set off a process to do it for me. Sometime later, I'll know that now I know what they sounded like, and can thereafter listen to them saying whatever I want them to say (using my inner voice) whenever I feel like it until I forget it again. In other words, the process has been able to draw on linguistic (and sometimes emotional) knowledge to aid its search, but it doesn't actually understand the words in my memories as words (or emotions as emotions), just as inter-connected symbols. It feels to me just the same as if I was trying to remember, say, what someone I vaguely knew from school looked like.

[Aside: after typing the above, I had the notion to try to do just that: try to remember what a particular person from school looked like. I plucked a random class from my mind, from when I was in the second year of juniors (what would now be called year 4) and recalled there was this girl who always used to want to hold the doors open when we came in after playtime. Her name was <something> Gill, but the instatiation for <something> I had was "Suzanne" — not right, but close enough to block me. I set off a process to get the real name, and about 5 seconds later it came back: "Susan", yes, of course. That was enough for me to remember she wore these glasses that were black at the top and clear at the bottom, from which right away I could see her — I didn't need to set anything up to retrieve the image. She left that year, but I don't know where she went. Hmm, she drags her feet as she walks, I hadn't noticed that before. I did set up a process to think of the name of her best friend, but then thought of it myself — Cindy Lawrence — so that process is no more.]

So, whereabouts in the above did you start having reservations?

I've described all this to people before, mainly when I was younger and wanted to know what other people called it when they "set something off" to do some thinking for them. My experience then was that some people were interested, some disbelieving, some skeptical and some thought that if I wasn't mad now I was in danger of becoming so. Even the interested people were a little disconcerted by it. I'm pretty sure that everyone does this kind of thing at a subconscious level, it's just that I have a conscious awareness of it and a high degree of control. I've no idea how common the ability is, but I suspect that people who can do it either don't realise that it's not a tool available to all or they do realise but don't like the reaction they get. The last person I told about it in any great detail was Jim Doran, my PhD supervisor, something like 17 years ago (he fell into the "interested" category, which I thought he would, otherwise I wouldn't have told him). Now I'm writing it down, in case anyone else who can do it hits the search engines looking for someone with whom they can discuss the subject without prejudice.

If you think I'm making it up, go right ahead — I don't give a hoot. If you think I'm making myself out to be some kind of mental colossus because I can do this and you can't ha ha ha, I do give a hoot: please stop. As I said, this is just a trick as far as I'm concerned, not some means of accessing untold depths of computational power unavailable to everyone else. You don't have to think about it before you do this kind of thing, and indeed I don't have to think about it most of the time, either. The only difference is that I can think about it if I want to. I've got marginally more range to my introspection than is usual, but that's all.

I doubt that anyone could be taught this trick, mainly because of the problem (well, feature) of its collapsing when verbalised. I can describe the mechanism of creating a process without losing my ability to create processes, but I can't tell people how to conceive of a process without having to serialise it as words, and that is enough to destroy it. It might be possible through analogy, but I've yet to think of a good one.

So after this rather long-winded explanation, am I any closer to answering the original question? Why is it that when I'm thinking and I overhear someone talking my mind immediately focuses on that rather than what I was thinking about before? It's not a lack of concentration, it's a change of concentration; however, it's not a change I always want, and most people aren't distracted anything like as much as I am. Why am I susceptible more than you?

My feeling is that it's due to the way my inner voice (ie. "me") operates in my head. It often gets non-linguistic interrupts from the processes it sets off, so it is accustomed to dismissing these if it's busy (the "results" are stowed in "memory" anyway, although that may be as a feeling rather than as a fact). Thus, whenever my mind is interrupted externally by something akin to its internal interrupts, it can be blasé about ignoring the signal. When it's interrupted by something it doesn't come across internally, though — speech — it immediately focuses on it. This is because the only voice it hears most of the time is its own, which it pays attention to; if it hears some other voice, it pays attention to that, too. [This other voice doesn't become my inner voice, I hasten to add; rather, it becomes the subject of my inner voice's attention. I try to understand it; I don't adopt it as if it were my own thoughts (thank goodness!).] Now, because I only have one "me" capable of understanding speech (the "me" that uses my inner voice), this has to suspend what it was doing if it's to listen to the incoming words — I can't simply spin off another process to do the listening, because my processes can't deal with language as language. Other people probably can do something akin to this (I can't see that my wife's "I'll just finish reading this article then answer your question" powers could work any other way), but because I'm more aware of what's going on inside my head, paradoxically I can't.

I'm not complaining. Often, having willed myself to ignore the interrupt, I get more insights in picking up where I left off than I would have done if I'd carried on as I was. It's a little annoying at times, though.

So that's that.

If you can do this kind of thing too, please let me know — especially if you have the same propensity to be distracted by speech that I do. If you can't, OK, just file it under "bizarre quirks of evolution" and move on. You're probably just as freaky in some way, too, only you're keeping it a secret...

Referenced by Probably.

Referenced by Streams of consciousness.

Referenced by Everyday Spookiness.

Referenced by Watch my Lips.

Referenced by Side Thoughts.

Referenced by Right Handedness.

Referenced by Advancing Years.

Referenced by Becoming a Polychromat.

Referenced by Synaesthesia.

Referenced by Places I'd Like to Visit #6.

Referenced by Ideas.

Referenced by Why I don't Drink.

Referenced by Music While You Work.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).