Many of your thoughts--and I use that term loosely, referring to just about anything going on in your head that you can potentially be aware of--are therefore verbal.
I expect that there is an enormous bias, when we talk about our thoughts, to report the verbal ones, the ones that express themselves through our inner monologue. At the very least, we only tell people about our thoughts after they've passed through a translator that renders them verbal (unless we're using non-verbal art). But those cannot possibly be the only thoughts we have. We are too complex for that.
There is an exercise many people try when first dabbling in contemplative spiritual traditions that goes like this (and I do mean for you to try the exercise yourself):
Take out a watch or some other way of keeping time, and something to write with. Sit comfortably but upright, take a deep breath, and relax. When you're done reading this paragraph, set the timer for one minute. Then, sit silently, and clear your mind of all thoughts. Just stay that way, thinking nothing at all, for a whole minute.
Now take a few moments to write at least a sentence about your experience of the past minute. Did anything unexpected happen? How easy or difficult was it? If you noticed thoughts happening, what were they? (Feel free to post whatever you write in the comments.)
I find this exercise interesting for several reasons. First, it's very difficult for most people. Within seconds of starting the timer, they think to themselves, "Ok, no more thinking. Damn it, that was a thought!" Experts often call this "monkey mind".
Second, people very inexperienced with this sort of activity think their mind suddenly explodes in thought as soon as they sit down to practice, while somewhat more experienced practitioners come to realize that their mind is thinking all the time, and such exercises merely bring attention to that fact.
A few people really do get through the whole minute without activating their inner monologue, but most of them report making a continuous effort to suppress words that try to come up.
(And then there are some people who have no idea what you mean by "inner monologue" even after you describe it to them. I don't actually know how many, the state of science on this is bad, and I could talk about that for an entire post but this post is not about that. Mindspace is deep and wide. Moving on.)
But the most enlightening thing I've learned, both from personal experience and from talking to others who've tried this sort of thing, is that people implicitly believe that if they're not using words to talk to themselves in their heads, then they're not thinking--"no voice" equals "still, empty, featureless mind". The thoughts they struggle against the entire time in this exercise are the verbal ones, so much so that they aren't even aware of any other mental activity. And then when they finally manage a whole minute without narrating their experience, they think they've succeeded. I felt the same way when I first started.
Monastics, and others who sit in silence for hours every day for years, find that the inner monologue eventually becomes much quieter and often silent during those periods of sitting, whether they're quieting it on purpose or not. They also find--and this is perhaps the only really strong justification I know of for putting in the time requiured--that there are an awful lot of other things going on in their heads besides words. When the words stop drowning out all out all the other mental activity, it's possible become aware of those many silent thoughts. From there, one can learn to exert some control over the other mental activities, just like you can probably exert some control over your inner monologue now.
For example, you can re-read this sentence and think "white" when you read "blue". You can choose to generate a verbal thought about the texture of the floor below you. You can speed up the voice, slow it down, change its pitch, change its volume. With practice, you can even render it mute.
Most of what happens in your head is not words. Most of what determines your behavior has very little to do with the voice that narrates your actions (though the voice is also a powerful instrument once you know how to use it). You are far more prone to influence by silent mental flinches, urges, aversions, attitudes, emotions, shifts of attention and focus.
You can gain some control over most of these things. But you have to become aware of them first. You have to become intimately acquainted with aspects of experience you usually ignore before it will begin to have implications for your behavior in real life. Just like you can't quiet a verbal thought you didn't know you heard, you can't respond strategically to an aversion you didn't know you felt, or to a belief you didn't know you held.
The goal of the exercises I'm developing over the next few months is to help rationalists, and others who value clear thinking and better decision processes, gain awareness and control over the workings of their minds--without spending ten years motionless on a mountain top. Specifically, I hope to provide access to enough awareness and control that my readers can put whatever they know or learn of epistemic rationality to much better use.
I doubt I'll post literally everything I'm working on to this blog, but I'll want to share my thoughts as I work through them, and I'll want to have readers test run a lot of the exercises. Stay tuned!
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