I had a moment today where a bunch of things all came together in my head and made a little mesh where they kind of supported each other. It was connecting things I remember thinking about after reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in high school with things I’ve been thinking and reading more recently like How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
The Bluest Eye
My memory of The Bluest Eye is that it’s about a young girl who ends up going crazy because of the various pressures on her related to race and femininity and poverty. I remembered it as there being a scene at the end with a description of her wandering around, completely lost in the world in her head1.
Now I grew up in Manhattan, so seeing people totally lost in what was going on inside their heads, talking to themselves or yelling at people who weren’t there, was a relatively normal occurrence for me. Not an everyday, or even every week thing, but often enough that the description felt familiar. There were also rarer people who seemed to be angrily talking to themselves just because they’d had a particularly stressful day. It also felt familiar in that I could see elements of that in myself: every time I remembered something embarrassing I’d said and physically winced or said “stupid!” to myself I was doing a lesser version of that.
I’m not sure if that similarity will feel as self-evident to other people as it does/did to me. That when you’re remembering that embarrassing moment you’re totally in your own world. Even if your eyes are open you might not see what’s in front of you, you’ll see your memory of the embarrassment. And sometimes I even experience that not with memories, but with imagined futures. So when that person on the subway is screaming “You f****** s***heads!” and variations on that at the train tracks I wonder if they aren’t just totally immersed in a terrible memory, or imagining a righteous confrontation they’ll likely never have.
It all feels part of a continuum of behavior to me.
Some TED/TEDx talk
Many years later I watched a TEDx talk (I think it was a TEDx talk?) where this guy told us to give ourselves the thumbs up when we had a bad memory.
The idea is basically that you are trying to teach yourself new reaction to these memories. Instead of scolding yourself you should signal to your body that everything is okay! You’ve got it under control!
I tried to find this talk again, but TEDx seems to produce an infinite number of very similar self-help-sounding videos. If you know the video I’m talking about, please drop a link in the comments!
How Emotions Are Made
Now I’m reading How Emotions Are Made, which could probably be titled “How Consciousness Is Made” without being too misleading. I already had some understanding of a lot of what she (Lisa Feldman Barrett) says, as someone generally interested in psychology and neuroscience:
- Our brains make predictions about the world, a model of what’s going on, and we are interacting with that model more than we’re interacting with the actual stuff in the world.
- There are more neural pathways headed down from your “higher brain regions” to your sensory organs than from your senses up. There is evidence that your “upper brain” can override what you see, hear, etc.
- Watching someone do something activates most of the same neurons as doing the thing yourself. (I originally heard this described as “mirror neurons”, implying dedicated neurons for this process. It seems like it’s actually just a thing most of our brain does.)
But she weaves all that together with a bit more info thrown in to paint a picture of the brain as a sort of prediction engine, constantly making guesses about the world and mentally “acting them out”. Neurally, it sounds like there’s little difference between experiencing the embarrassing situation and remembering it (she would say “simulating” it).
I don’t think she spends much time on attention, but it’s been in my thoughts a lot the past few years. My understanding is roughly:
- Attention is a result of our brains’ heuristics for what’s important. I think of it as our brains choosing to surface something to our conscious mind if that thing is deemed sufficiently important.
- We seem to have an ‘attentional window’: there’s a limit on what we can pay attention to at a time.
- Things like alcohol and sleep deprivation can shrink that window.
- Things like emotional states and being asleep can alter what gets surfaced
- While you might notice certain quiet sounds when you’re awake, your brain “ignores” them when you’re asleep, but it’s still accepting input from your ears: a fire alarm will wake you, and words spoken to you while sleeping can be heard in your dreams.
- When you’re angry, you’ll tend to have an easier time remembering things that justify anger. Ditto for sadness.
- “Attention disorders” (e.g. ADHD) are about how a given brain is judging importance – I think it’s a common misconception that there’s a “lack of focus” implied by these differences, when my impression is it’s more of a “focusing on stuff that doesn’t align with your goals.” A brain might judge2 that the <something> going on is far less important than the bird outside the window, or imagining what it’s like to ride a unicorn.
So, all together these different things came together briefly in my head as an image of how a brain can shift along a continuum of attending more or less to ‘simulations’, and can habituate to spending lots of time there.
I’m sure it’s an oversimplification, but it felt like it captured a lot about how I’ve been thinking about minds recently. There’s probably some aspects of Atomic Habits mixed in here, with the “how do we habituate to patterns of thought”, but, again, I was trying to capture the conscious(!) web of ideas I had at that moment.
Not sure this is a useful thing to try and capture, especially given how long it takes to detail each component in writing.
I’ve just gone back and read what I can from google books (not trying to navigate the attic to find my copy right now), and it seems like it was actually a scene with her talking to an imaginary friend? But what’s actually in the book is less relevant to what I’m trying to capture here than my hazy memories from high school. ↩︎
I wish we had better language for this, since judging (and all the other words I could think of to use here) implies some conscious examination, and I’m trying to describe something non-conscious. ↩︎