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 9, 2012
But there are at least two of each of us, the 'me' in the reptilian hindbrain, and the 'me' in the mammalian forebrain.
Oct 8, 2012
Read Julian Jaynes' book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 8, 2012
You must have really loved that show 'Herman's Head'.


Oct 8, 2012
I don't experience what you describe; my experience seems to be completely different. While I do often think in complete sentences, my thoughts tend to be either monologues, with no conversant at all, or full-blown cinematic narratives. The narratives are complete with a setting, cast, dialogue, conflict, and resolution. The cast, and the usually-present lead antagonist, are often based on people I know who bear personalities and worldviews I'd like to solidify or vindicate my stance against.

While I am, naturally, responsible for the dialogue of the cast inside my head, it does not feel in the least like I'm speaking with myself. I deliberately imbue the imaginary people with as much independent, legitimate personality and personhood as I can, as that is necessary to properly test my ideas.

All that said, while I do not feel anything close to a duality or presence of another mind inside my own, I am quite comfortable being alone with my thoughts for extended periods of time. I agree with whtllnew: I think most people have developed their own special way of handling their thoughts. While this "dualist" mentality is evidently common, my own experience demonstrates that humanity's variety of mental conditions and the extent of each person's uniqueness may be profoundly underestimated.

P.S.- on a related note, ask your friends sometime how they perceive numbers and perform math in their heads. People seem to be just as unique in that regard, too.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 8, 2012
Interesting. I'm quite comfortable being on my own, in fact I prefer it to being in a crowd. I often have mental debates with myself on things, rarely actually voice them out loud but sometimes I do.

I also often drift off into day dreams and find myself vocalising part of it out loud.

I found the part where you referred to not speaking until you had thought through it. I wonder if anyone else has the ability to be able to open their mouth and let words come out in response to a question without having a clue what's going to be said?

When I present and am in the zone, when I respond to adhoc questions from the audience I often don't know what I'm going to say in response to a question until I hear the words come out of my mouth. It's like part of my subconscious or something has analysed the question, prepared the response and all I have to do is open my mouth and let experience speak for me.

It's a cool but freaky feeling.
Oct 8, 2012
Have you read the wiki article about Bicameralism? I think you'd find it interesting

Short story: the modern form of consciousness arose when people became aware that the voices in their head were themselves, rather than some kind of god.

That's the theory anyway - it's pretty controversial.
Oct 8, 2012
I’m definitely able to have, at least, two “selves” have a conversation at the same time. There are times, like when I’m doing the washing up, when I literally talk to myself – which freaks my wife out (though she rarely hears it as she keeps away from the sink as much as possible). Sometimes, in the workplace, I may grab a colleague to talk through an issue and simply have the whole conversation by myself. And reach a conclusion, having argued through the points, without my colleague saying a word.

And yes, I do like spending time alone, and am capable of holding opposing views at the same time. Austerity measures vs spend to get out recession? Yeah, why not both.

I think this comes through in my fiction writing – I’m the kind of writer that just runs at it, writing the story as it splurges into my head rather than doing a detailed plan. Re-writes are for making it make sense. The best parts are when the characters do something that I’m not expecting. How can that happen, when the characters only exist in my head?

And now, a shameless plug for my ebook: "The Royal Wedding from Hell" where you can see the products of my crowded brain in action. Monty Python meets Shaun of the Dead meets the Royal Wedding.

It’s available from Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/The-Royal-Wedding-Hell-ebook/dp/B009APVCBW/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1349731498&sr=1-1&keywords=the royal wedding from hell) and Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/178959).

Go on, buy it, you know you want to.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 8, 2012
A creative person such as you does not have an ordinary brain. Your various successes far above average are evidence of it. And while it might be an entertaining and profitable !$%*!$%*!$%* for you and in a small number of similar cases, is it good in an evolutionary sense for wide segments of humanity to be this way? In the long run, maybe not.

An ordinary animal brain functions well enough to get through life, raise offspring, and keep out of danger – everything that survival requires and even prefers for a stable species. It seems that as far along as Neanderthals, a human species lasted for about 200,000 years in this mode: boring but stable. Then the present human species edged them out.

The human brain that developed with Cro-Magnon and Homo Sapiens is subtly different, in that it allows as a species characteristic for high levels of socialization and cooperation in small groups. It also, sometimes unfortunately, allows the potential to wander off in strange thought directions in order fulfill that effect. This decision-making process within itself between what makes sense or what leads to possible advantages might be the internal voice you hear. A sort of low-key personal dialogue akin to schizophrenia? Echoes of diminishing instinctual protocols?

Whatever, it allowed for innovations in language and creative changes in organized tribal action for much larger groups. Does that mean the cumulative effect of slightly insane actions made for slow development of distinctly human culture? That what is culturally useful or even merely beautiful and philosophical is in essence the product of insane thoughts?

I think so. And potentially dangerous it is that the normal can veer so easily to abnormal. That behavior resulting from abnormality gradually becomes more highly valued; and thus the process is rewarded so that it continues even further. A sort of neurological capitalism?

We have highly developed arts and philosophical constructs, secular and religious, that allow our species to spread and modify the environment to unprecedented levels, but don’t often bode well for overall species survival. The primate difference in us remains strong but is not well modified in that it proves dangerous when given power beyond its original value. Throwing rocks led to nuclear weapons. Deference to alpha males led to dictators. Tribal squabbles led to world wars.

My theory is that the success of humanity in doing strange, beautiful things will eventually prove its undoing. That the great numbers of humanity that our intelligence allows us to support so far are fundamentally wrong within the pattern of the natural world. That high intelligence is ultimately not a survival characteristic, that the next species to gain self-aware intelligence will be a lot less clever and fit in better.

I think that after humans of the primate lineage have destroyed themselves evolution will replace us with something of a different lineage, maybe from rodents. It may be that intelligent b-e-a-vers are the maximum self-awareness that a species can obtain safely without relatively soon destroying itself and big parts of the ecology.

+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 8, 2012
I have the same or a similar feeling of having an internal dialogue when thinking through something. One thing I've noticed is one "side" of the conversation has no real ability to verbalize where someone else could hear, while the other side takes a little effort to NOT verbalize so I don't go around talking to myself. The nonverbal side is, I think, always the originator of the topic while the verbal side is the responder. That might tend to support the idea others have posted that it could be a left brain / right brain dialogue. Or it could just as easily support the idea of a logical / sensory separation.

I also am fine with having alone time.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 8, 2012
S'pose I should clarify. It's not because the Voice has Papal Infallibility that I don't verbally question it. But I find that a non-verbal thought is sufficient. Then the Voice puts it into words -- "Interesting -- you mean <blah blah blah>?"

I guess it gives a good balance between non-verbal thoughts, which are faster, and verbal thoughts, which are more concrete.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 8, 2012
Interesting. I'm somewhat different. I don't feel two !$%*!$%* inside my head (except occasionally for amusement, to stave off boredom when without stimulation). Rather a Voice of Conscience (who is not me) talks inside my head, and the "real me" simply reacts. On very rare occasions I might verbally argue against the Voice. But those occasions are rare.
Oct 8, 2012
Have a seat, Mr. Adams. Relax. Now, tell me: how long have you hated your mother?

Only kidding.

I agree with Mr. Milner. When I read your post, the first thing I thought of was right-brain/left-brain division, and how it can affect the actions of your mind. Let me quote from an article that discusses schizophrenia (no, I'm not implying that Scott suffers from SSD; it's just that the brain information is interesting): "Dominance of the brain, in non-SSD patients, is usually a permanent identification as either right-brained or left-brained. It is also usually this brain dominance that determines the dominant hand. In the patient who suffers from SSD, this dominance may not be easily recognized as often the brain dominance, or cerebral dominance, fluctuates. With intellectual disability often associated with SSD, it is assumed the complications of cerebral dominance may impose even greater complications involving motor skills, language and thought processing."

One of the signs that the brain is having a tug-of-war is that the dominant hand shifts from right to left and back again. I recall Scott saying that he developed a problem with his right hand that forced him to train his left hand to draw the Dilbert strip. I wonder if his ability to have done this is in any way linked to how his brain communicates with itself?

Another article, which I will summarize, says that research has demonstrated that, in a developing brain, the two sides of the brain compete, in effect, for neurons. This results in a difference between the types of neurons in each side of the brain, and in the way they connect to other neurons. The two sides of the brain end up being very different from each other. What Scott is describing sounds like discussions between the right and left sides of his brain.

To answer Scott's question, though, the answer is no. I do not have the type of discussions with myself that Scott describes. Since I am such an interesting guy, though, the conversations would be fascinating if I did, lol.
Oct 8, 2012
I'm exactly the same way. I think the prominence of the "catcher" has a lot to do with self-awareness, forming a cohesive view of the world (or at least parts of it), and self-control and humility. Good post - I often wonder if other people have this type of dialog/filtering going on.

Context also greatly influences my dialog - I am a somewhat different person when playing sports, "active parenting", writing code, or socializing.

+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 8, 2012
Part of our intelligence is about our ability to examine information and predict the future.

This ability to predict is often confused with our personality. Really what is a personality, but a set of preferences and responses. Those responses and preferences are dominated by how we act, what we prefer, and those things are of course tied to our ability to predict future events, and how we will favor in those events.

Having multiple 'voices' in your head is really just a nice way of saying that you're intellectually big enough to have more than one perspective about what the future has in store.

One thought exercise, to help make a difficult decision or gain understanding, is to see something from someone else's point of view. Sounds easy, right? Not so much. But it can be done given the right technique.

Imagine you have a problem to solve. Now imagine that you're having a conversation with someone who is equipped to solve it. Could be someone alive or dead. Is it Steve Jobs? Is it Bill Clinton or Einstein? Doesn't matter, as long as you can imagine a little bit, and role-play with that person.

Then have a conversation with them. You'll find a written conversation makes it easier for some reason. Yes, you will be responsible for both parts. Communicating with the dead is NOT recommended. So write out, thoughtfully, from your point of view, and what you think their point of view is. You'll be surprised, maybe even shocked, about how valuable and insightful this exercise is. Turns out that the person you imagine would have the answer, often does.

In psychology practices, there is even a case where it makes sense for you to work a similar exercise through with yourself. Well - technically it'd be yourself at what you imagine to be a younger more vulnerable age. Image you're that hurt little 5 year old. Or you're 8, when your parents split up in a divorce. Now tell yourself, your younger self, what you wish someone had been able to tell them. Tell them it's going to be okay, and that it's okay their not perfect, and that you love them.

These things sound so silly - and so simple. But they are powerful. This dual conversation can help solve hard problems, and heal old hurts.

We're pretty amazing little bio-chemical machines when you think about it :-)
Oct 8, 2012
Hi Scott

I do something similar, when I'm writing something I often sound out the ideas (sometimes in my head sometimes not).

And I often feel like I'm not the only occupant in my head, although I like to think of it as a Logical / Intuitive division which in turn are wired up to different part of my brain.

The Logical part of me is very good at explaining how things work, but the Intuitive side manages to get from 'A' to 'D' without going through 'B' and 'C'. However I often can't tell you how I got the answer, but it's usually right.
Something else that I think is part of the same thing, is that often I will understand something logically (usually a process) but I have trouble turning that into a series of actions.

On another note, I have to wonder how many of the people chiming in here with similar viewpoints to yours are Introverts, I know I am!
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 8, 2012
I have multiple personalities and so do the rest of me.
Oct 8, 2012
Sounds like you have some very rare wiring.

Personally I have baffled most of the ppl in my personal life, for having very low social interaction needs. But contrary to your post I have never felt the presence of an 'other'. In fact I have a very clearly conceptualized term 'other', so I find your use of the word fascinating. The other represents any other instance of humanity, or all of them collectively. None of which have any access to my mind. They are just equal and worthy of consideration, even if external.

Im not AS, I attribute my (lack of) social development to oversensitive wiring. Which over time weaned me off social validation. Had my childhood been different (more successful) I suspect I could have become a psychic or other charlattan type. Its like I have an enormous antennae for perceiving what ppl say, but the signal was overloading my system, so i simply stopped pointing it at ppl at a very early age.

Your theory plays perfectly into rigid thinking of fringe members of society. If they dont interact in traditional ways, maybe they are getting their social fulfillment thru fabricated means (split personality/voices simulating social interaction).

I do love your discussion of thought genesis tho. What fascinates me on this subject is the colorless version of an idea before it enters language. If you have ever learned another language, like french/italian/etc, and dreamed in that language, you can more readily notice the instant that ideas become words, as its different from your native expectation, but before taking on a color of a specific language, they are still ideas. My mind does much of its thinking in the colorless smoke of languageless thought. For me its faster-like massless movement-, but it has some drawbacks. Recording and then explaining to others internal processes is challenging. They say did you think before you did xyz action(specific words)? I have no record of having thought any words. Makes it hard to go back and correct thoughts (based on worded criteria) when its colorless. It basically amounts to reliving moment-by-moment the internal mind maze, while holding someone elses word-criteria in my other hand. I think what i have done INSTEAD is simply remap my process to whatever they were requesting, and next time, if i find the new rut i crafted, i do it like they want, otherwise i would go back to my colorless path.

Just out of curiousity, does anyone else think thru each and every action they take? (not talking about subconscious tasks like substeps of tying shoe) If i wake up in the middle of the nite and have to pee, i make no language. Are you ppl thinking words? "I have to pee, Im going to the bathroom", etc... I sense an impulse, perceiving what it is (as the direct target of my conscious focus), and act without making it english.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 8, 2012
I didn't realize it until I read your post, but I sorta do the same thing. In my life as a programmer, I often came across an idea that I knew would work, but didn't see the complete path. I usually got up and went to someone elses office and started explaining my problem, most of the time by the time I was done explaining, I figured out the solution on my own and thanked the person for listening and walked away. Now I realize all I had to do was sit in my office and talk to myself.
Oct 8, 2012
Yes, I feel more comfortable being alone than most people, and yes I feel the duality inside me. I don't really think about them as different persons, more like two parts of my mind, both having their own functions and responsibilities. One of them (of me?) is friendly, idealistic and optimistic, and the other is hateful, cynical and pessimistic. Each of them are important in various situations.

I remember reading once about psychological theory describing this as perfectly normal, but unfortunately I can't remember the details.
Oct 8, 2012
I have a slightly different way of having conversations in my head, though it may just be semantics I have invented to reassure myself that I'm not insane. I don't picture the "other" as me, but as a companion who is doing the same activity that I am at the time. For instance, when I'm riding my bike to work, the "other" will be another rider, on his own bike, but nearby enough that we can hold a conversation.

The illusion I create is so strong that I run into humorous situations, like when I'm driving my car, the "other" is sitting in the passenger seat, and I'm sitting in a line of cars at a traffic control light on a highway entrance. Sometimes the "other" will make fun of me for not taking the HOV lane, since (after all) there are two people in the car. Once I even started to shift into the HOV lane and had to remind myself that I was actually by myself.

And yes, I do not mind being alone, in fact I absolutely need to be a good bit of the time.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog