I will stipulate at the start of this post that I might be insane. That will save you the time of pointing it out in the comments.

Lately I've been contemplating the dual nature of my brain. When I think about almost anything, I do so in the format of a conversation with myself, in full sentences. But what exactly is happening when one talks to oneself?

People don't multitask well. You can't commit the same part of your brain to two distinct tasks at the same time. At best it's sort of a packet situation (excuse the geeky reference) in which you do one thing for a short burst, then quickly switch to the other, then back. It might look like multitasking but it's just quick switching.

It can seem like multitasking when you use one part of your brain for habit-based stuff such as walking while using another part of the brain for talking. That works because walking and talking don't draw on the same brain resources.

So what is happening when I talk to myself? As far as I can tell, the part of me doing the talking has full mental capacity while forming words, and yet I also seem to have 100% ability to listen to myself. Why doesn't the concept-comprehension part of my brain get confused when it is talking and listening at the same time?

Now you might say the listening-to-myself part is an illusion because I can't form sentences in my mind without understanding in advance what they will mean. In a sense, the listening is naturally integrated with the process of forming a sentence in the first place. That's clearly part of the explanation. But it feels as if something else is going on.

The part of my mind that seems to be listening to the other part talking is also doing some filtering and judging. I form my thought into a sentence, experience the sentence in my mind as if it had been spoken, and evaluate it for effectiveness after my mind hears it. That last step, where I evaluate and often reject my own thoughts has the feel of an entirely different person. It feels like a pitcher and a catcher. The pitcher might have the more active function, but the catcher is sending hand signals and performing a key function too.

It makes me wonder if the part of my brain that controls my speaking functions is tied to the same higher thinking part of my brain that my hearing/comprehension is connected to. In other words, is the part of my brain that knows that a chair is, and how it is used, connected to both my speaking and my listening parts of my brain? Or do I have two completely different areas in my brain that both understand the concept of a chair, but one connects to my speech center and the other is connected to my hearing and comprehension centers? How else could the hearing part of my brain sometimes disagree with the speaking part?

For purely practical reasons we count one human body as one "person." That makes sense for all sorts of legal and economic purposes. But it sure doesn't feel as if I have only one person in my head. It feels like a conversation between two friends.

Like most people, I'm also capable of holding opposing views simultaneously. One part of me argues that something is a good idea while the other firmly disagrees. I don't experience that situation as one mind that is sorting through the data. It feels like two people having a debate. Stranger yet, there might be a third me observing the debate and being a judge.

I often wonder if people who don't mind being alone - and I am one of them - have a more distinct feeling of the "other" in their own head. I'm never lonely when the two of my personality are having an interesting conversation in my head. But sometimes I lose the feeling of the other, or get bored with it, and then the loneliness can be overwhelming. Fortunately there are also real people in my life so the cure is always nearby.

My question for today is this: Do you feel the presence of two people who are both you at the same time? And if so, do you enjoy being alone more than most other people do?

My hypothesis is that people who can't feel the presence of another entity in their minds have a hard time being alone.

[Update: Two readers made reference to some actual science by Julian Jaynes supporting the bicameral mind idea. It's fascinating. -- Scott]

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +79
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Oct 20, 2012
My contribution: where do you "get" the thoughts you put into words?

It's possible that the very process of forming linguistic thoughts is dredging intuitions out of the right brain and spelling them out for the left to respond to, like dumping seaweed onto the floor of the boat.

The seaweed collector feels like he's "produced" the seaweed, but where did he "produce" it from? How far back can you trace these "ideas" you talk to yourself about? Seems to me they bubble out of the unconscious with their own agendas.
Oct 18, 2012
I HATE being alone. I get cabin fever really easily and I've never noticed a second voice in my head. In fact usually my first voice is out loud rather than to myself.
Oct 11, 2012
I have a question:
When you talk to yourself, who's voice is it?

If I actively think about it, I don't think it's my actual voice. It sounds cleaner and accent free. I don't think I've heard it anywhere, it just sounds neutral, calm and objective. I didn't think of it before, heck, I didn't even know I was doing it much less that there is a name for this.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 10, 2012
Yup on both counts--often have conversations with myself (including sometimes, as you say, feeling like I'm watching a debate and judging) and not only have no difficulty spending lots of time by myself but actually need it. And, like you, I can definitely hold two opposing opinions at the same time.
Oct 10, 2012
I definitely enjoy being alone more than anyone I know. I attribute that partly to having been an only child and yes partly to my mind being generally able to entertain itself endlessly. As for being aware of multiple personalities within myself, I attribute that more to "moods". I'm easily able to postulate conversations with other people in my head, however, they are usually real people that I know of in real life in some way. Often my mental model of that other person is so realistic and highly tuned to their particular quirks that it can almost seem like telepathy. Thankfully though, experimental evidence with friends has proven it is not. I don't think this is such an unusual trait, other people do it all the time. That's what sometimes happens when you're making jest of someone. You think of a particular friend or celebrity and put them in a situation of some kind in your mind and watch what happens.
Oct 10, 2012
Well, there is this guy in me who constantly agrees to deadlines, decides to wake early, plans trekking routes and makes other commitments. And then there is the rest of me who has to actually do the stuff, or sweat the explanations.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 10, 2012
Scott...I know exactly what you are talking about. I relate to it completely. However, in my case i don't have the conversation with two parts of myself. I sort of sense I am giving a presentation to an audience. I start off imagining I am correct. But as I am speaking I often have to add additional clarification in response to questions. Sometime it turns into a dialogue about how to evaluate conflicting data. Normally my initial precise is correct, but sometimes additional data offered up by the audience wins the day.

And I do feel quite comfortable being by myself. I am often criticized for liking to hike and bike by myself as opposed to going with minimally a partner....or god help a group.

I do some of my best talking to myself when I am exercising by myself.
Oct 9, 2012
I find this a very interesting piece, indeed. Here are some of my random thoughts on the question raised by you.

I don't think it is possible for anyone to be alone. Everyone has multiple personalities hidden within and some sort of interaction is always taking place with all of them at different points of time. It is also nearly impossible not to feel the presence of numerous 'other' !$%*!$%* within oneself. People having hard time being alone are not necessarily those who can't feel the presence of another entity in their minds but are those who don't feel comfortable with them. It is also possible they feel scared of them or simply feel they are insignificant and not worthy of their attention forget about the time. In your case, you look for other real people when you lose the feeling of the other, or get bored with it. A person who enjoys being alone or the one who is at peace with himself is the one who has been able to achieve a harmonious balance with all the diverse !$%*!$%* present within. May be he/she has overcome all the fear and matured enough to realize the worth (or worthlessness) of most of the routine worldly things due to which he/she does not feel desperate to look outside for fulfillment.

I end up by mentioning an anonymous quote which appropriately describes the mind of such people who have achieved this level of maturity. "The ultimate survival skill depends on the art of learning the importance of doing nothing." Dear Scot, I won't call you strange or insane. Your feeling, according to me, is the beginning of the above kind of wisdom that you seem to have started acquiring.


+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 9, 2012
My question for today is this: Do you feel the presence of two people who are both you at the same time? And if so, do you enjoy being alone more than most other people do?

Yes to both questions.

I recall the shock of hearing from a creative-writing professor in college that not everyone has long conversations with themselves in their heads. Really? How very odd. I also recall taking Strattera for a short time in the early 90's and thinking, "Wow. So this is what it is like to have one thought at a time."

Oct 9, 2012
Yes to both questions. I would go a bit father than enjoy being alone - I NEED to be alone for large swaths of time to perform this internal conversation - if I am not allowed this, the results are ugly in terms of productivity and civil relations. I wouldn't describe my desire to interact with others as a need for happiness purposes, though it probably is for sanity purposes.

I have spent tons of time and mental energy contemplating this issue over the last twenty years and you are the first person that has 1) broached the subject 2) with a hypothesis that mirrors my own thoughts. It moves me towards supporting your other theory that we are all living in a computer-generated illusion.
Oct 9, 2012
I don't feel any sense of dualism but definitely do the mental enunciations you describe. If there is a listener it is more like 'critical me' who is kicking the tyres of the ideas of the 'positing me'. Not sure if that is ego and id or somesuch.

Very much happy alone with my thoughts. That's kind of a programmer thing though.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 9, 2012
Almost the same for me.
I don't mind being alone (and I don't miss radio or TV either) and when my brain is idling, lots of my thinking is in the form of dialogue.
However, for me it doesn't feel like two persons. I /can/ turn around and push "the other" view but it's always me.

As for the connection between planning to speak and listening, that's probably normal. I think the way the brain decides what to do is by running simulations against its model of the outside world and observing the outcomes. For complex simulations like conversations or abstract issues, they might require so much computing capacity that the bit that is "aware" gets used as well.
Oct 9, 2012
I think I'm a counter-example. I don't mind being alone, but I also don't really feel like more than one entity. Not the way you do, at least. I don't form full sentences in my mind (Interestingly, I do form sentences in my mind when talking/typing English, because English is not my first language, so I have to "prepare" the sentences a bit. But in my native language I don't form sentences in my mind). I don't talk to myself in any way. However, I can consider several opposite opinions at a time, and I can "judge" myself. But I think that's normal Freudian stuff :)
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 9, 2012
I've wondered about this quite a bit.

I also experience being able to listen to myself and be critical of myself. This is in part why I never feel "alone" when I'm actually by myself for some period. I imagine that feelings of loneliness come from not being heard or validated, but apparently when you can do that yourself, you don't feel lonely (though its not always an advantage to be self-sufficient in that way). I pretty much never feel lonely, whether I'm with people or not. There's always something interesting going on somewhere, in someone.

But what actually happens in my head, I'm not sure. It doesn't feel like there's two people present, one talking and one listening. It feels more like my train of thought is twisting and turning, and I "talk" to myself as some sort of side-effect, a manifestation of my thoughts passing through and lighting up neural pathways responsible for communicating with real people, pathways already established long ago.
So when my listening side disagrees with my talking side, thats just my train of thought making a u-turn.

My best insights always come to me when I'm alone, so when I'm trying to make sense of something, I usually prefer to do it alone.
But I've also come to learn the advantages of being with other people. When I validate or hear myself, its often at an intellectual level, not emotional. Emotional validation only makes a real difference coming from someone who's not me.

The 5% brain usage thing is a myth. The proof for that is that there is no area of the brain can be damaged without impairing some sort of function (but maybe you could make an argument regarding brain efficiency).
Oct 9, 2012
I've never talked to myself, it's just me in my head.

(and me)

Shut up I'm not talking to you.

(no you shut up!)

{Both of you shut up, you're giving the rest of us a headache}
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 9, 2012
Read this:


Complicated stuff, I guess our brains are constantly struggling with themselves, most of it subconscious . And only 5% of our brains are actually used, which means there's room for lots of other people in there, too.
Oct 9, 2012
just like you said. it feels as if in my head, i'm twins. I also don't have any problems being alone, in fact i prefer it as i find my own thoughts (most of the time) more interesting than anything else another person can come up with. I don't think of it in pitcher/catcher terms though, more like a mirror and I've never thought which side of the mirror is 'real'.
Maybe one way to think of it is that thoughts emerge between two mirrors and both reflections are equal, although opposite.
Oct 9, 2012
I used to think I was just one person, but my parents have pictures of me when I was two.

[And there used to be 16 in my family but 7...8...9. -- Scott]
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 9, 2012
David Eagleman's book "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" changed the way I look at reality. He talks about the many factions within your brain, and how they compete for your consciousness, and how other processes, like walking, are written into your hard-wiring so that they very rarely need to ever enter your consciousness. He addresses how it is possible, and in fact necessary, to hold opposing views simultaneously, and how your brain sorts out those differences. Highly recommended reading if this sort of thing tweaks your fancy.
Oct 9, 2012
As a moist robot with no free will, you're probably just asking for instructions from the CPU on how to proceed with ambiguous data.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog