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How many of us are there in here?

by
01 September 2015, at 1:00am

CHRIS WHIPP examines the inner workings of the human brain, in which we tend to focus very much on the conscious part despite it making up just a tiny part overall, and the concept of ‘inner speech’

THERE’S an awful lot of stuff going on in our heads most of the time and sorting out the trees from the wood can be tricky.

The brain is a supremely complex adaptive system that needs to fulfil all of our automatic functions, our conscious functions and everything in between. What we perceive as reality is no more than a set of interpretations driven by who we are, what we perceive, how we think and the stories we tell ourselves.

More than ever before in practice, success demands that we:

  • See things more clearly
  • Perceive things more accurately
  • Analyse things more openly
  • Embrace uncertainty more willingly
  • Learn more quickly
  • Act more proactively, and
  • Engage with and use failure rather than deny it

Most of these give us problems because the voices in our heads have other agendas.

Although we focus an undue amount of attention on it, because we are aware of it, the conscious part of the brain is tiny compared to the rest. The site of conscious thought sits within a layer just 5mm thick that covers part of the front of our brain, the prefrontal cortex.

It is suggested in neuroscientific circles that if you could compress all of the neural functioning of the prefrontal cortex into a supercomputer that was just one metre cubed then the size of the rest of the brain would approximate to the size of our solar system. There is a lot going on that we know little or nothing about.

Though, in some ways, remarkably advanced the prefrontal cortex remains very young in an evolutionary sense. This leads to a number of issues:

  • It can only think about one thing at a time; multitasking is a myth
  • It can only hold a maximum of maybe three concepts at any one time, limiting the potential for dealing with complexity
  • It has incredibly high energy requirements, making it vulnerable to energy shortfalls
  • It’s readily confused and very easily distracted

Due to an in-built self-serving bias we all think we think OK but, in actuality, performance can be greatly enhanced both by developing our thinking skills and, equally importantly, providing a “brain friendly” working environment. Many companies are slow to appreciate the importance of this because many traditional business practices have directly detrimental effects and there is a resistance to change.

The need to limit conscious thinking to one thing at a time and the limited capacity for holding onto multiple concepts tends to encourage a linear form of conscious thinking which lends itself to a narrative approach and this is often conceptualised as an internal dialogue (self-talk).

This may take two basic forms, either a succession of thoughts and ideas that arise, develop and disappear with time or as voices that are actually heard by the individual.

We like to think that we are in control and that our conscious thinking is driven by an impartial scientific mind weighing evidence and making informed decisions in a balanced way. In fact there is usually a constant chatter of competing non-conscious, semi-conscious and conscious thoughts driving the brain’s activity in a multitude of different directions. Sources, among others, include:

  • Our genes
  • Our early upbringing
  • Our education
  • Our life experiences
  • Our habits of thinking and doing
  • Our senses

While it is the role of the prefrontal cortex to provide overall “executive control” of the process, in practice this is becoming increasingly difficult in our increasingly complex world. The increasing awareness of the importance of “brain friendly” working environments and enhanced focusing techniques such as mindfulness reflects an attempt to address these needs.

Psychologists are now taking an increasing interest in the way we all speak to ourselves in our heads.

Unpleasant, uncontrollable inner voices can be a feature of mental illness, but private self-talk is a mundane part of most healthy people’s consciousness.

Professor Russell Hulbert of the University of Nevada has conducted considerable research in the field (https:// faculty. unlv.edu/ hurlburt/) by utilising a random beeper and getting participants to write down what is going on in their heads when it goes off.

He has identified five frequently occurring phenomena of everyday inner experience: inner speech, inner seeing, feelings, sensory awareness, and unsymbolised thinking (experience of an explicit, differentiated thought that does not include the experience of words, images, or any other symbols).

From his work, he suggests that 23% of participants are experiencing “inner speech” when the beeper beeps. Usually the voice is the participant’s own voice but, very rarely, another voice is heard.

Malgorzata Puchalska-Wasyl at the University of Lublin in Poland has attempted to create a preliminary taxonomy of the different kinds of “internal interlocutors” that people experience.

The work remains limited to Polish students at the moment and needs to be proven to be generalisable, but the work identified four common categories:

  • Faithful Friend – associated with strength, unity and positive emotion
  • Ambivalent Parent – associated with strength and love with ambivalence to irresponsible ideas
  • Proud Rival – associated with pride and self-confidence without closeness to participant
  • Helpless Child – low emphasis on self-enhancement, low contact with others and high negative emotion

From interviews, it has been possible to distinguish “integrative” (solutionseeking) and “confrontational” dialogues, with Faithful Friend and Ambivalent Parent likely fitting the former description and Proud Rival and Helpless Child the latter.

Veterinary practice is, largely, an intellectual activity. Providing a brainfriendly environment and developing appropriate thinking skills can make life much more pleasant and successful.

Most importantly, if you are going to have a conversation, make sure you know who you’re talking to and make it a good one!