Thursday, March 29, 2007

Q: Are our inner thoughts identical to our spoken words?

{Audio this essay @ 6min @ 1.34MB}

Dear Mr. Supposed Philosopher:

My supervising attorney ponders whether, "When we think, are we hearing our own thoughts in the same manner as our own spoken word?" In other words, do our thoughts sound to us like our own words do?

My Boss Is Mind-gaming Me.

Dear Mr. Too Many Voices In Your Head:

1. There is a common view, since the time of the Enlightenment philosopher, Descartes, that our minds and our consciousness are transparent -- i.e., these words refer to the same thing. Since many of our thoughts are linguistically based, and since these are often the types of thoughts we present to ourselves for review, often reinforcing our short term memories; therefore, we naturally assume that our thoughts are linguistic entities, roughly phrases and sentences. Now our thoughts need not be spoken linguistic entities, since we can perfectly well review long memorized portions of texts w/o moving a single muscle in our face, and when we are sleeping we often are seen lying perfectly still, but upon being roused will report having a dream where we are "talking" or "speaking to" someone.

Again, suppose a bullet gives one brain damage to the left hemisphere, the locus of speech for right-handed people -- such a person, though now mute may still have the full ability to write-out sentences, though he can no longer form spoken sentences. Such cases alone would be enough to show that our own thoughts need not be the same as our spoken word. And, technically, we do not "hear" our own thoughts, since there are no sound waves moving into the ear and being processed by aural centers of the brain; thus, when we say we "hear" our own thoughts, this is metaphorical language for the stream of consciousness, some of which is linguistic. (I will say more about this technicality in a moment.)

Also, consider the (admittedly sad) cases where some children are never taught to speak, but yet they still recognize patterns in the world, such as who brings their food, what it means when the bell rings five-minutes before bed time at the orphanage, etc. These children cannot have linguistic entities as thoughts, since they have had no linguistic training at all. Perhaps they have streams of imagery that substitute for their inner experiences, where we (normally trained language users) have streams of linguistic phrases which substitute for our (otherwise inner) experiences.

So too, consider the simple case of sleep walkers, who can negotiate the location of furniture, and even drive cars and push (unstarted) lawn mowers around the yard at night. Here there is no internal or external utterance at all about what to do, and where to walk, how to plant, etc; and yet thought (i.e., active brain processing with command and control of actions) is certainly occurring.

Finally, perhaps the easiest case of all is noting how we hold our head level when walking, talking, sitting, etc. No one continually reminds themselves, "I've got to hold my head level", "Hey, gotta keep the ol' noggin from bobbin," "Steady, steady, there -- thank God! -- level again!" And it's not quite right to presume we do this “without thinking", because there is indeed active brain processing with command and control of actions, namely keeping one's head at the right position over various circumstances.

Thus, and for all these reasons, hearing our own thoughts is not THE SAME AS our own spoken word.

2. Now a different question would be whether the tone, pitch, timbre, etc. of our own thoughts match that of our spoken word. Here there could be a confusion, for as mentioned above, there are not sound waves being emitted by thought, hence technically thought cannot even have tone, pitch, timbre, etc. since these are all different ways of partitioning the analysis of a sound wave.

There might be analogical similarities that I note between the phenomenon of experience called "the inner voice" and the phenomenon of experience noted by "what I'm hearing with my ears when I talk", but it's merely an analogy, not the same thing. Compare a photograph that looks very much like one's brother and the brother himself; similar in many respects, but hardly the same thing. (For instance, one weighs 229lbs [fat]; the other weighs perhaps but a couple of ounces [thin].)

But even when we note the analogy between the (so dubbed) inner voice and the feedback of our own voice, we might not always experience the same inner voice. Imagine that one's wiener dog has urinated on the carpet during a thunder storm, and one begins to angrily move toward the dog in order to beat it severely with a size 12 workboot. One might suddenly recall a voice of a kindergarten teacher from decades ago saying, "One should always be kind to our pets." Here is a clear and present thought, directly tied to an immediate situation and within an on-going action, but one which is instantly recognized as a completely different type of inner voice as we are otherwise used to identifying as that "voice" of our own thoughts.

Thus, and for all these reasons, our thoughts need not, and often do not, sound to us like our own words do.

3. In summary, the following two statements are false: (1) hearing our own thoughts IS THE SAME AS our own spoken world. And (2)our thoughts always SOUND TO US AS our own words.


[image] fiber/DIMENSIONS gallery


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