Describe the ways you can hear/see/feel yourself think.

by Dmytry3 min read27th Jan 201217 comments


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To avoid constantly generalizing from one example when it comes to human thought, I think we need a survey of the ways people can reflect on their thought process, as subset of the ways people can think.

Before having heard of the Francis Galton's study on the imagination I assumed that everyone thought in the similar way to me (except be better or worse at it), and would be puzzled why some people would believe in e.g. strong version of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. (I couldn't even understand how they can not realize that to make even remotely coherent argument in support of this hypothesis they would have to be thinking outside the language - or so I thought)

There may be a very significant variation in how human thought process works, and how much of the process is accessible to reflection. In Richard Feynman's What Do You Care what Other People Think? he explores a technique for tying up part of the thought process by mentally counting, and exploring what sorts of thinking interfere with the counting. (I can't right now find a good online quote from those chapters and I do not have the book at hand to directly search; perhaps someone can help?)

I propose we describe the ways we believe we think, along with relevant self-observations supporting those beliefs. Just as a first step though - to get very rough idea. Note: lack of ability to reflect on something does not imply lack of function.

Then based on the responses we can form some hypotheses and make a proper survey perhaps to be combined with some set of cognitive tests. You perhaps should stop reading right now if you don't want to be primed with my own self description, but given that we all probably have been exposed to great deal of descriptions of thoughts the priming perhaps is not a big problem here.

So, for me, the distinct modes of thought (ALL coexisting in parallel at any time, except for the mental visualization which I am not using when I am busy using my eyes). The order is not related to importance:

1: Auditory based 'internal monologue'. This is like talking to oneself - e.g. i use it for counting. Observations: I can have internal monologue counting the seconds (as described by Feynman), and while i'm doing the counting i can't put thoughts in words or talk. That's the same for either English or Russian. Observation: right now i am internally 'hearing' the letters I am typing. When I stop typing I can imagine hearing "the ride of the valkyries", but I have difficulty doing that when I am typing. I can play back music when I am reading though. For some time shortly before falling asleep I can sometimes play orchestral music in my head or make myself 'hear' a song with utter unreal clarity, but not normally.

I can also use 1 to serially check something for validity.

2: Mental visualization. I use it a great deal for engineering related tasks and to big extent for math (e.g. if i need a function that does something i'll be thinking in terms of images, if I am thinking of an algorithm i usually employ imagery, etc). Observation: I am right now imagining a beach with waves crashing onto sandy shore. As I stopped typing I could imagine the sounds of the scene. This mode of thought is somewhat less subservient; i may be unable to get some images out of my mind at times. For me mental imagery interferes to some extent with visual processing of real world stimuli. I pretty much always have mental imagery when I am reading books (the ones evoking any imagery, at least). The mental imagery is not very stable. I can't visualize full rubik's cube in arbitrary position well enough to solve it in my head. I can visualize chessboard, but I never tried actually playing chess blindfolded and I don't think i'd do well at it.

3: Some weird logical inference type thought that is neither in a language nor visual, works by referencing what things are rather than word labels; it has no problem attaching what ever properties (like list of logical dependencies or feel of 'likehood') to statements. That's what I try to think rationally with.

Observations: As I am composing this message my verbal thought is tied up, and I can easily tie up visualization by visualizing the beach scene right now; at the same time I am thinking freely as of what points I want to discuss, and this seem not to be done in any particular language or conform to structure of language. I regard it as 'what I am really thinking' and I can only reflect on it with 1 second delay or so. Literally. I don't know what I am really thinking right now - I know what I was really thinking 1 second ago. I don't normally even reflect on 3. The 3 really easily gets distracted to thinking about unrelated things when I try to do some work.

3 seem to work at high speed. That's the kind of thoughts that I recall running through my head as I stumble or accidentally toss a cup off table and catch it (or not catch it).

If I invent or reinvent something, I think of it without having a word for it, and its a chore to choose good descriptions (such as name the variables and functions when I am working as programmer). Sometimes I am stuck being unable to recall a word; the reference to what the word means is in my head but either the word does not pop up, or the word that pops up is in the wrong language, or is not good enough fit and I feel a better fitting word is available. When programming I tend to think in terms of reference to what a function does, but often have trouble recalling how I named that function (I guess what I could've named it).

4: Insights, when solution to a problem just pops into my head with zero data about the process that arrived at this solution (even though the solution would come complete with the data to tell that its a good solution, I can't see what alternatives were considered and rejected). This seem however not substantially different from how the thought gets from one step to the next step; just takes longer time. Memories can pop up in similar fashion.

5: Well trained kinetic stuff. Observation: I can juggle while reading text off a page.

For me the 3 seem to be the weird one. 1,2,4 are often described in literature, 5 got to be quite universal. I can barely reflect on the 3 at all, and only with 1 second delay.

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[-][anonymous]9y 18

The Feynman story:

I decided to investigate. I started by counting seconds - without looking at a clock, of course - up to 60 in a slow, steady rhythm: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.... When I got to 60, only 48 seconds had gone by, but that didn't bother me: the problem was not to count for exactly one minute, but to count at a standard rate. The next time I counted to 60, 49 seconds had passed. The next time, 48. Then 47, 48, 49, 48, 48.... So I found I could count at a pretty standard rate.

Now, if I just sat there, without counting, and waited until I thought a minute had gone by, it was very irregular - complete variations. So I found it's very poor to estimate a minute by sheer guessing. But by counting, I could get very accurate.


For instance, when I put out the laundry, I had to fill out a form saying how many shirts I had, how many pants, and so on. I found I could write down “3” in front of “pants” or “4” in front of “shirts,” but I couldn't count my socks. There were too many of them: I'm already using my “counting machine” - 36, 37, 38 - and here are all these socks in front of me - 39, 40, 41.... How do I count the socks?

I found I could arrange them in geometrical patterns - like a square, for example: a pair of socks in this comer, a pair in that one; a pair over here, and a pair over there - eight socks.

I continued this game of counting by patterns, and found I could count the lines in a newspaper article by grouping the lines into patterns of 3, 3, 3, and 1 to get 10; then 3 of those patterns, 3 of those patterns, 3 of those patterns, and 1 of those patterns made 100. I went right down the newspaper like that. After I had finished counting up to 60, I knew where I was in the patterns and could say, “I'm up to 60, and there are 113 lines.” I found that I could even read the articles while I counted to 60, and it didn't affect the rate! In fact, I could do anything while counting to myself - except talk out loud, of course.


The next morning, over breakfast, I reported the results of all these experiments to the other guys at the table. I told them all the things I could do while counting to myself, and said the only thing I absolutely could not do while counting to myself was talk.

One of the guys, a fella named John Tukey, said, “I don't believe you can read, and I don't see why you can't talk. I'll bet you I can talk while counting to myself, and I'll bet you you can't read.”

So I gave a demonstration: they gave me a book and I read it for a while, counting to myself. When I reached 60 I said, “Now!” - 48 seconds, my regular time. Then I told them what I had read.

Tukey was amazed. After we checked him a few times to see what his regular time was, he started talking: “Mary had a little lamb; I can say anything I want to, it doesn't make any difference; I don't know what's bothering you” - blah, blah, blah, and finally, “Okay!” He hit his time right on the nose! I couldn't believe it!

We talked about it a while, and we discovered something. It turned out that Tukey was counting in a different way: he was visualizing a tape with numbers on it going by. He would say, “Mary had a little lamb,” and he would watch it! Well, now it was clear: he's “looking” at his tape going by, so he can't read, and I'm “talking” to myself when I'm counting, so I can't speak!

-- source

(The rest of the story is interesting as well.)

The newspaper lines counting technique reminds me of counting territory in a go game. There are a few ways of doing this, some of them involving counting by 4s, which is quite fast when you can do it (I can't). After I learned about this I got into the habit of counting everything by 2s, but thinking "1, 2, 3, 4, ..." and doubling at the end rather than thinking "2, 4, 6, 8, ...". I keep track of the parity bit visually, if odd. In my experience this roughly doubles the speed I can count, say, people in a room without losing any accuracy.

Incidentally, chunks of even numbers work particularly well for go since dead stones effectively count double, one for the prisoner and one for the empty intersection underneath.

[-][anonymous]9y 6

This seems similar to Kaj's query about unusual mind features. I'm not sure if you should just post your description there or if attempting a complete description of your thought process is significantly different enough to warrant a separate post.

Anyway, I'm a bit bored, so my (incomplete) answer:

  1. I'm largely a blind-sighter. I can somehow sense geometric relationships and arrangements, but I barely see anything, unless I'm extremely tired and have just spent 10 hours playing the same game. I just know how stuff is.

    If you ask me to visualize a cow, I get a mental label "cow" and a vague kinetic sense of where stuff on the cow is. It doesn't look like anything and most features don't exist unless I specifically need them. Some faint images of a cow (or related things) flicker on for maybe 0.1-0.5 seconds, with very little detail.

  2. Almost all my thought is direct speech. I can think better if I speak out loud (which I do as much as I can) or if I write. I have little control over the specific content of the speech (planning ahead? huh?). Rather, I have a mental accept/deny button. If speech goes into directions I like, I go into the "accept" state and I get more, or I go into "deny", then it changes. I have no idea how it does that. If I'm confused about something, I simply don't get speech or can't go into "accept", which is unpleasant. So basically, I feel a bit like AIXI without access to the hypothesis-generating module.

  3. I can not create sound. I hear my own voice (or something close to it), but that's it. I can't make music, sounds, other voices or anything else. If I sit around in meditation long enough, I hear whispering, chanting and weird not-quite-horror-movie sounds, but that's it. Ditto for smell, touch and other senses.

  4. Logical inference feel right to me. This is probably like your 3 and 4. I can think in (pseudo-)code. It feels like sensing stuff you know is there in a dark room without visualizing it. So again, more on the p-zombie side of consciousness. When trying to understand / intellectually judge something, I use a "does this feel right / elegant?" query that is completely emotional. Basically, I just look at stuff (text, mostly) until I feel good (in a specific way). Then I know it is correct. (Or less incorrect at least.) If I don't get that feeling, I narrow it down to individual parts and check if they feel right until I find something small enough that I can make changes to until it is correct. I don't know where the decision to make certain changes comes from. I have no control over this part.

  5. I'm largely sequential. I can't hear, talk, think etc. in parallel. I can just about watch something and listen to someone talk. I can't read or think while I listen. When I read, I both subvocalize and read visually. The more concentrated I am, the more I read visually. Normal reading speed is ~450wpm, visual is ~600-800wpm, but a bit tiring. The only cognitively demanding task I can always run in parallel is play video games. I have no problem with rapid context switching, though. (Say jump between different windows on the scale of tens of a second.)

  6. I have a mental minimap. I can't quite see it (see 1), but I know where everything is, the same way I know where my arms are. This includes the position of rooms, streets, important objects, NPCs^W people, etc. This is largely parallel. I find it relatively easy to say where north is. Again, I blame video games for this mostly useless skill.

  7. My thinking patterns change drastically when I sleep. I am always lucid, can change the world, have direct control over my emotional state. It makes me go insane, so I try to dream as little as possible. I can largely suppress dreaming if I want.

Thanks for the link! Regarding Kaj's query, i think its bit wrong to ask people how their process is different from others... we don't see into other people's heads and one could report very usual feature as unusual and at same time see very unusual feature as usual and never report on that.

I had a little problem related to my exercise; I guess it is somehow related to this topic. Exercising with music feels more pleasant than without music. But I want to measure how much I do, and when I count in mental voice: "one, two, three...", my inner voice ruins the music. It would be nice if I could just exercise without counting and someone else would count for me, but I don't have a volunteer or a device to do that. So I tried to find another method of counting.

An obvious choice was to use fingers, unless they are involved in the exercise. I can count to 20 by opening and then closing fingers. (In theory there are 1024 binary numbers available, but quick binary increments need too much attention.) This is a good compromise, because if after each twenty I say "ONE", "TWO", "THREE" etc., I can listen to most of the music and when it's over I can do the necessary math (e.g. "THREE" + 15 is 3×20+15=75). I need to say these words (silently, but move my lips), otherwise it's very easy to forget where I was. If I am unable to fully stretch my fingers, even imagining the movement and increasing the tension in the finger is enough; unless the fingers are under big pressure e.g. when doing push-ups.

Another option is to visualize numbers. I imagine big neon numbers flashing in front of me. But this is somehow a bit difficult. I suspect that I use a small voice subroutine when incrementing the visual numbers.

Yet another option is this: It is easy to "count without counting" up to 4. A larger sequence can be somehow divided into fours. It is like I am doing "@@@@, @@@@, @@@@, @@@@" and later I can calculate it was 16. I guess this is some nonverbal voice, or rhythm, perhaps with some kinestetic component, I am not sure. If I combine it with a visual system, it is like this: I do "@@@@" and then I imagine a light at upper-left corner of my mental screen; more "@@@@" and another light at upper-center of my screen, etc. until there are 3×3=9 lights, and then I do another "@@@@" and it's together 40. If 40 is not enough, I say "FORTY" and start again. This system is usable up to one hundred, which is enough for this purpose; and it leaves my audio channel free to enjoy the music.

(After reading what I wrote, I wish I would put so much creativity into more serious tasks in my life.)

I have a heavy internal monologue and do almost all thinking that way. I notice that my thoughts are fully formed prior to myself "hearing" the sentence, but that I have difficultly progressing onto the next thought until I "say" the first sentence to myself. It's like I have a mental log which can hold one sentence at a time, saying it to myself gets rid of that sentence and fills it in with the next. Then I proceed to say the next.

I have almost no ability to imagine images. I have some ability to imagine motion, but no real ability to imagine colors or textures. I can imagine sounds, particularly my internal monologue, and find it difficult or impossible to imagine sounds that I could not attempt to create with my voice. Doing scientism's test of putting my tongue on the top of my mouth at first seemed to impair my ability to make imagine some sounds but with small effort or practice I find essentially no loss of ability. I can imagine feelings or textures better than images but not as clearly as sounds. If you were to ask me to imagine a cow, the best I could do would be to imagine tracing my hands around the cow and sort of "explore" its shape that way. It's very much a local phenomenon in the sense that I only feel a small region as if my hand were feeling it. I have difficulty imagining such feelings outside of a perhaps 1 meter diameter sphere in front of my face and extreme difficultly in imagining a feeling as occurring beyond about 10 meters.

I have poor sense of location and relative position. I tend to get confused in buildings, even if I have been in them before. Just the other month I entered a room from an unusual angle, thought I knew which angle I was entering but was wrong and spent upwards of 20 seconds confusedly thinking that the room had been drastically changed before realizing that the door I was looking for was a couple feet to my right. I had entered that way once before and had been in the room dozens of times before. I cannot navigate my way back if I have taken a car ride while someone else is driving. If I drove, there is still a moderate chance that I will mess up on the way back. I remember driving directions entirely as a "turn left here, then right there" sequence, not as a route in 2 dimensional space. However, I perform very well on tests of ability to mentally rotate objects.

I have difficultly discerning music notes, sometimes even in the apparently trivial way of saying "the second note is higher than the first note". I played an instrument for 6 years, though I was never good at it. I was incapable of tuning to any accuracy by trying to match a given note.

As for the Feynman article, I usually count verbally to myself. In response to this article, I learned to count (though I do not actually use this in any real cases) by visually imagining putting "dots" down in regular patterns, particularly in a 3x3 grid followed by a 3x3 grid of 3x3 grid, etc. to let my count up to at least 81 reliably (mental math required to convert that to decimal...). I am able to do this while reading aloud, as Feynman had hoped to develop a tactile method of counting. I imagine that using something like this toy would let you easily develop a tactile counting system (I can do this, but only with moving my fingers in the patterns that the game requires, and cannot just imagine doing them while reading aloud).

I can read much, much faster than I can think words, and yet I still hear (at least some of) the words.

I can mentally replay any sense I've experienced. I sometimes get appropriate physiological responses, such as my mouth watering when imagining food. I can hear music, see movies. The resolution of any of this isn't very good. I wouldn't normally say I can actually experience these things, I do because I can't grok how else one would imagine a cow without "mentally seeing" something like a cow; but apparently this is the case (?).

I am bad at manipulating numbers. As far as I can tell, either I have something memorized (e.g. multiplication tables) or I graphically visualize writing the problem out, long-hand, on paper, complete with all the steps you learned in 3rd grade like crossing out digits when you borrow. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this... the most inefficient virtual machine that ever was.

On the other hand, I have amazing (low-end at least) intuition. Actually, most all of the problem solving and "real thinking" I do is a complete mystery to me. This is causing problems for my research, as in lower education (which I consider as everything through undergrad) I never had to study, or even think methodically. I just squint my eyes and the answers comes out of the ether.

I am constantly watching a movie in my head. Past events, future projections, details of a car engine I really never saw it, old cinema movies and so on. Those images are almost never of a very high visual quality and the colors are pale. Sounds are rarely there, but there is usually a flowing text somehow in the background.

The thinking I am doing has a little to nothing to do with these movies, the "background text" has. Sometimes the movie helps with bright colored surfaces.

3: Some weird logical inference type thought that is neither in a language nor visual, works by referencing what things are rather than word labels; it has no problem attaching what ever properties (like list of logical dependencies or feel of 'likehood') to statements. That's what I try to think rationally with.

I might (or might not, depending on my understanding of your brief descritpion) also experience a very similar thinking process. It's very powerful, but I'm not able to sustain it for a long time. It pops up when I'm speed reading but still want to retain maximum info, and when I try to quickly visualize a complicate process. It turned on when I decided to write this comment, giving me a kind of picture of the whole argument and "highlighting" a few words and expression that I could use in writing it. The actual process of writing the post goes through the internal monologue procedure, but with actually 3 monologues going on at the same time:

  • me reading the post
  • me "commenting" the post
  • me considering possible translation of the post in my home language

I think that's the same thing. For me the 3 wanders a fair bit, and its hard to reflect on 3. When I was in school, I could have exam where 3 works on exam, and I ace it, or when 3 tries to think why 3 is not working on exam, and do ok-ish or poorly.

Now that I am working for myself as programmer, the 3 corresponds to un-reflective state of mind when work is progressing well and you are not being distracted by seeing yourself think about it.

I have the same 5, except in place of 1 I have something linguistic but not auditory. I can break it down into a stream of "words" in an order but there isn't sound (nor visible words). The stream follows English grammar basically, and the "words" have English parts of speech but do not always correspond easily to English (or any other language I know) words. Sometimes there's a translation but it's not obvious to me, nor do my thoughts slow down thinking of it.

I can usually convert most of these thoughts into words by a paraphrase or translation, but I remember when I was a kid having many thoughts that I could memorize and repeat to myself but not successfully express in external language. A few of the most important ones I can remember now and translate.

I'd extend category 5 to iffy-trained kinetic stuff. For example, if I'm driving on ice, I have a "feel" of where my car is going to go if I turn a bit left, accelerate slightly, etc. I feel it in my body, sort of like the car is a part of me.

Another thing I didn't see mentioned is a kind of self-awareness stream, where I lay down (at least short-term) memories of where my attention has been and what I've voluntarily done.

[Decided to write all of this before reading the main text of the article to prevent contamination, which I imagine would be very easy with subjective introspection reporting.]

Most of my thoughts are verbal (english sentences), but I have a secondary non-verbal awareness going on as well which can be monitoring my thoughts/doing something on automatic/aware of surroundings (not implying these are the same faculty though). (On a side note I find alcohol lowers the speed of my verbal throughts) It takes effort to imagine new images but I recall photos I've seen very easily. By experiment I've found I can imagine up to six dots/points at once, but any more im putting my attention on different parts at a time. I remember songs very easily and 'play' them in my head pretty much on automatic.

I feel 'psysical' sensations in my head when thinking hard or experiencing certain emotional states. Best I can describe it is, for example an insight in something like a puzzle/maths problem/finding a flaw in an argument feels like untwisting, or unlocking (in the literal sense of a physical lock turning) something. My emotions generally manifest as sensations in the body (so tightness in the chest for anxiety).

[Will see what else comes to mind after reading the article and the rest of the responses.]

I think in an internal monologue and have weak visualization skills. In addition to the internal monologue, I also have a song running through my head much of the time, which doesn't seem to interfere with any other process that doesn't require deep concentration. It does fade in and out while I'm typing.

When doing math, especially algebra and calculus, I think in a way that's more like internal monologue than visualization, but doesn't explicitly use language. It's almost more kinesthetic than anything else. It's similar to solving one of these block-sliding puzzles (and I did go through a phase of loving that puzzle in grade school), where I move the symbols around and combine them and pull them apart like they can slide around the page.

When counting and concentrating on nothing else or on something visual, I usually count by hearing the numbers. However, when I'm reading or typing or, for some reason, doing exercise, I count visually. My visual counting has each number turning into the next number in the center of my mental visual field, not moving along a tape like Feynman described.

Baiscally, a black box. I observe that for 'easy' problems, the black box takes the initial problem and returns the answer. For a 'hard' problem, I need to break it down into steps to feed to the black box. 'Breaking it down' is an easy problem, so my black box immediately returns the broken-down steps, which I then feed one-by-one to the box, culminating in an answer. Subjectively, it feels like I am being given the answer on easy problems, and I am simply prodding my brain to be reluctantly and piecemeal giving the answer on hard problems. I don't have much trust for the insight feeling; in my experience it's just a problem the black box solves for me, except that it tags its solution with 'feel a rush of insight-feeling', and this doesn't correlate strongly with useful or deep answers.

I have no internal monologue. Sometimes speaking the problem helps prod the black box; I don't do it very often unless I'm drunk or sleepy.

In terms of auditory reading, it's laborious for me to "sound out" an entire sentence in my mind. When I'm reading as fast as I can without speed-reading, what I'm "hearing" tends to be the most relevant terms in any given sentence.

  1. is familiar to me in a lot of ways; I experience something similar when I'm typing, which I call "thinking with my hands." It feels intuitive to imagine that my fingers know what to say, and that my mind is largely apart from that process. (It bothers me that this is intuitive, much like how it bothers me that it's intuitive to think of tension as glow-ey light that flows through one as one breathes in and out, but whatever.) The difference between hand-writing and typing is like the difference between reading back when I needed to sound out words, and what it's like now that I can speed-read and entirely eliminate subvocalizations.

Thinking-with-bodies in general is useful to me. I've found I can remember the entire content of a lecture by looking at a doodle I've done whilst listening to it, even if the lecture in question was years ago. I really, really enjoy the method of loci, and imagine several houses and a garden to keep ideas in order.

I have 1 and 2. I don't really understand the others.

With regard to 1, beside internal monologue, I can also imagine sounds, other people's voices, music, etc. I'm especially adept at creating elaborate internal musical compositions which is surprising because I have absolutely no interest in music (I play no instruments and never purchase or download music). I'll often get songs and tunes "stuck in my head" that are pure invention (I can't imagine great lyrics though and usually fill gaps with nonsense words). Most of my internal monologue is directed at an audience. Usually when I'm thinking of something I'm thinking of how I'd explain it to another person, sometimes the audience is generic but often it's more specific. When I press my tongue to the top of my mouth, the very same things I can't pronounce verbally, I can't pronounce internally either. It also alters my ability to imagine sounds, which makes me think my ability to imagine sounds is derivative of my ability to produce them verbally (however, I'm seemingly much better at producing sounds and impersonations internally, although I think this can be explained by the lack of feedback).

My visual imagination is very good. When I was younger, I was very interested in movies, and would imagine ideas for movies in elaborate detail. I can still recall many of them in vivid detail. I had quite good artistic talent at that time (now neglected) which I think is strongly related to visual imagination (I tend to think that developing artistic talent and/or appreciation develops the visual imagination rather than vice versa). Wittgenstein's comments on the imagination fit my experience of mental imagery perfectly. Wittgenstein criticised Galton's study because it makes no sense to say that I discovered something about my mental imagery. I can imagine a house and, if you ask me what colour the door is, I can imagine that it has a red door. But this isn't the same as discovering it has a red door (as I could with a real house or a photo of a house had I not noticed the colour of the door). I find that this explanation fits the strange and elusive nature of the mental imagery I experience perfectly and makes the limitations of mental imagery clear to me.

I find it very difficult to imagine smells and scents voluntarily. Sometimes it happens involuntarily. Tactile imagery tends to accompany other types of mental imagery rather than appear alone. I have moments of insight and elation but can't say I experience any "thoughts" that aren't sense-related in some way.