An alien anthropologist comes to Earth. They don’t need a ship–they just kind of think their way here. They’ve entered our minds to try to understand us and they are sending reports back to their home planet. Their culture is interconnected, so for them individual aliens are more like different senses on one creature.
US: I’m here. As per our plans I’ve chosen a middle-aged mother of two who works for a bank.
WE: What have we noticed first?
US: It feels very tight. Very tense. And it’s really noisy. Constant communication.
WE: We mean we’re listening to a lot of other people? Why don’t we see them? And why are they all attempting to communicate at the same time? Can humans do that?
US: No, they can’t, and no, we’re alone. I believe we’re driving. They’re… voices? They’re inside the woman’s head. They appear to be coming from… her… from her memory. No–wait. Some are imagined too. No, hold on…. it’s a pretty crazy mixture.
We couldn’t see this from our external observations but from this perspective it might be possible to understand some of the behaviours we’ve found baffling. It’s fascinating. It must make for a very exciting life.
WE: Ooo. Exciting? What is she saying?
US: It seems like almost everything. She is spinning a near-constant narrative about the past, present and future. Her brain chemistry leaps from guilt to frustration to anticipation to disappointment to guilt to disappointment to happy to guilt to disappointment. Whew. I don’t know how she does it.
WE: The past and future? That’s confusing.
US: We kind of have to experience it to understand it. It looks like we need language to do it. It turns out that, when we’re inside a human being’s head our brain doesn’t know when it is. So it will give the human a feeling at any time, even if the event that incited the thought happened a long time ago.
WE: So we’re saying if they use their brain to recall something from their past that they get the same feeling today that they would have had then?
US: Yes. It gets coloured by today’s thoughts, but we’ve looked around and it actually looks like it’s possible to go both directions. People can think about something in increasingly harsher terms and their memory will get worse –as in more upsetting. Interestingly, they also have the ability to change to a flow of thoughts they enjoy.
WE: They can go from sadness to happiness by switching the flow of their thoughts?
US: Yes. They can even apply what is called a new perspective to the same subject! For some reason this woman doesn’t make use of that ability but we’ve gone through her brain and it is possible. Even more interestingly, it’s also possible for them to avoid the memory altogether.
WE: That sounds peaceful. What do the thoughts feel like?
US: Hers mostly hurt. A lot. But when she goes through one of the good ones they feel wonderful.
WE: So why is she thinking the painful thoughts?
US: We don’t know. That’s the confusing part. It’s clearly optional. We’ve watched her closely. Anywhere she directs her thoughts is where they go. Maybe they like the pain?
WE: Unlikely. Although another one of us is learning about reading and it’s apparently like music and movies. People will pick up a book and choose to join a journey that includes lots of pain along the way.
US: I’m not sure this woman is conscious of these thoughts, but they’re where she actually lives. All these feelings aren’t coming from the world around us, they keep coming from whatever she thinks about her past, her future or her present.
WE: It’s such a curious thing to do with Now –to use it to imagine Thens and Afters.
US: Well… she’s almost never really Now. She kind of flits from one side of the present to the other. For instance, we were just eating a bowl of soup. It was a very interesting experience. Strangely though, rather than focus on the taste of the soup, she thought about some other human that teased her about being fat in grade four at her school. I’ve checked, she wasn’t fat. And the soup does taste good, so she wasn’t avoiding it.
WE: So why avoid good soup today to instead go back to an optional, painful memory? Surely there must be billions of other memories by now? This is fascinating.
US: It appears it’s just a habit. Her brain is wired up in such a way that the things she’s thought the longest and most about have larger connectors to the present moment.
WE: Yes, we were talking to one of us doing geography and thinking in a brain acts like water running on land. It wears its way into channels with enough repetition. So then, we’re saying she only thinks things because she’s always thought them?
US: Correct. That even applies to her identity. And even more importantly, like if she redirected the flow of water on the ground, she can even think something different for a few days or weeks and her brain will start wiring that into a habit. These thought habits are powerful. Remember that soup we were eating? Well she was full about three-quarters of the way through the bowl –but she was so busy thinking that she kept eating.
WE: What!? Why would she keep adding food if she was full?
US: That’s the amazing part. Her stomach clearly communicated to her brain that she was full, but a piece of her memory was looking for a dose of guilt so her brain told her to do something called “finish your food.” There was also something about starving kids in Africa but I didn’t catch the details.
WE: What happened to the part of her that thought she was fat because of the girl in school?
US: Those versions of her are only alive while she thinks them. So while she remembers that experience in school she actually becomes nine years old in her mind. As soon as she’s done that thought she switches. Sometimes she’s a mother, sometimes a wife.
WE: What else has she been?
US: The two most popular are tired, and disrespected, although she heads into victim a strange amount. It’s odd for her to focus on things that make her feel week. Did we know there were flowers down here? They’re amazing. Like mini-fireworks sticking up out of the ground.
It’s too bad she’s so hard on herself. She’s extremely compassionate and that feels super nice. It appears she tries to avoid things by thinking about them. She works really hard at that. And for some reason she defends herself against compliments. Oh! And, she has the ability to laugh! But she doesn’t do it often. Laughs are like audible flowers. I gotta get her to do that more so I can catalogue that feeling. Just smiling feels pretty awesome.
WE: Do we have any ideas about why she thinks about the painful stuff?
US: We’ve got some clues. She seems to think them so she can match her thoughts to what actually happens later.
WE: She can predict the future?! How does she see the billions of variables she doesn’t control?!
US: She can’t. But she really does live as though she can expect a pretty specific future. We think it’s why she’s always upset. She keeps trying to get the past to be the way she wanted it, and now she wants the future that way too.
WE: So the wanting is the wishing? But wait –how could everyone get what they want when there’s billions of them?
US: They can’t. And they know that in what’s called an intellectual way. But for some reason they still don’t really live where they are. We’d have to be here to understand it. It’s just a sea of thinking. The only thing they seem to do that’s authentic is love each other. When they do that they pretty much communicate the same way we do.
WE: No words?
US: None. Or very few. And yet the feelings are bigger and more complex.
WE: Do they do much of it?
US: Feel love? Strangely no, and yet they have all kinds of it here. General appreciation, a love of nature, activities, people, animals, art, friend love –even something called sex can sometimes be a part of it. They can even love abstract ideas like home or summer.
WE: That is some serious creative ability. They almost get to build their own little universes.
US: Agreed. We wonder why they don’t do that more.
WE: Maybe they’re so busy thinking it’s never occurred to them.
US: We suspect you’re right. It’s a shame. They’re surrendering a lot of good feelings to have a lot of bad ones instead.
WE: Maybe they need to see one to be able to recognize the other. But surely they don’t need that much darkness in to see the light. We hope she goes quiet.
US: We do too. She deserves it. We’ll see. It’s up to her.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.