The way we think

A brain, full of thoughts. My brain, sitting in my head, pondering every little thing that comes into it. Recalling an interaction I had when I was in the 5th grade. Thinking about my future and my research. Quantum biology would be really cool to study. Who do I know that I could contact about it? Thinking of a lecturer from my honours year that went into the medicine department to shine lasers on mouse brains. 

I have an internal monologue, often I don’t say anything out loud but rather think about it in my head. Words unsaid to people get confused and muddled with the words I do say. Did I tell you that I got my thesis reviews back and it looks like I’ll get my PhD after all? I assume people know more about me than they do, and when they ask a question that I thought was obvious, my entire world view comes crashing down to this small version of myself where I haven’t shared all that much with people. It's all in my head. I was listening so intently to you, thinking about the things I want to say in my head and forgetting that they need to be spoken out loud. Do others do this? Sure, it's probable. Does everyone do it? Definitely not. We don’t all think the same, contrary to what some of you might believe. And until you vocalise the way you are thinking, no-one will know that you think differently. That connection to the external world is missing until you open your mouth and share what’s going on in that brain of yours.

I read a blog by Ryan Langdon recently, after overhearing about it in a conversation at a dinner table and being curious. The point of the blog was to highlight that not everyone has an internal monologue, that some people need to vocalise words in order to know them. This concept blew the author’s mind, as I’m sure it did to a lot of people reading the blog. I for one am incredibly curious to know how people without an internal monologue think, and what’s going on in their brains. 

We make assumptions about the way people think. If they look like me and sound like me, then they must think exactly as I do. But it’s not the case at all. No matter how similar our external appearances are, on the inside we are all unique and we do not think in the same way. Our brains are marvellous instruments of creativity and ingenuity and they each work in different ways.

Thinking about the internal monologue, I do feel as though I can sometimes be between the worlds of thinkers with an internal monologue and thinkers without. Usually I take my time, and think out what I’m going to say. Other times the words fall from my mouth without knowing where they come from. I like the shape of the words, the way they sound as they spill out. When I try to learn another language, sometimes these words fill my brain instead of the words in English when I think of the concept. And its usually words that I find aesthetically pleasing, like alors (well or so in French), or d’accord (okay in French), or Bitte (please in German). Does not having an internal monologue help with learning a language? I think it does, I’ve read somewhere (maybe in the blog) that it does, which makes sense if you think about it. If you have an internal monologue that is English, then you will need to translate it to the new language before you can even speak it, which is incredibly slow! The best way to learn a new language is to learn the concepts and the context and immerse yourself in the language. Do multilingual (people that speak multiple languages) have an internal monologue? Which language is it in? 

Given the plasticity of the brain and our abilities to train our brain to do new things, do we also learn to think in a different way when we start learning a new language? I can’t be certain but I would say that I always thought by using my internal monologue until I started to learn a new language. But I have no evidence of that. I have an intuition that tells me that is true but that’s nothing to go on. What about you? I’d love to hear what other people think about this idea. How do people with only one language differ from multilingual speakers?

Last year I also read a book by Temple Grandin titled The autistic brain. It’s well worth the read, I recommend it. In it, Temple ponders the different ways that people on the autism spectrum think. Temple lists three main ways in which people with autism think, they are: visual thinkers (thinking in pictures), music and math thinkers (thinking in patterns), and verbal logic thinkers (thinking in lists and numbers). Temple has spent a lot of time thinking about the way that we think, and it’s incredibly important to spread awareness of the fact that we are not all the same. There is a saying that I’ve heard quite a lot that I like, it goes something like: 
“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”.
No two people are the same, no matter what labels we put on them. Everyone is unique and we need to take that into consideration more often than we do. The same quote could be used when talking about anyone in any group of people. If you’ve met one LGBT person, you’ve met one LGBT person. If you’ve met one woman, you’ve met one woman. Don’t make assumptions and don’t generalise to the entire group, its harmful and inaccurate.

And as Temple has argued previously, we need all kinds of thinkers to succeed as a species. If you look at the proportion of people with autism in Silicon Valley, it’s considerably larger than the percentage overall globally. What does that say? That people who think differently can be highly creative, innovative and successful at things where they thrive. We have this idea that thinking outside the box is important, so people that naturally think outside the box will help to create innovation. 

We all have a particular way of thinking that our brain is more suited to, in school I was terrible at maths until 8th grade, like really terrible, I didn’t understand any of it. Then everything started to make sense and I became really good at it, why did this happen? I’m not entirely sure, but I was really good at geometry once I could visualise it. I think perhaps I have quite a visual way of thinking, sometimes I need to picture something in my head before the words will make sense. I have always enjoyed and been good at art. Words are something I learnt to be good with over time. Writing fiction for me involves watching the movie play out in my head and writing down the words that describe it. At the moment I am working on an epic fantasy story and I can see the whole thing playing out as scenes from a film in my head, putting it down onto a page is where the struggle is. I know the story but I don’t know how to communicate it with words. Yet I love writing. I can’t stop writing now, now that I know how to translate thoughts into words, with my internal monologue whispering the words into my brain. 

I want to discuss neural diversity because I think there is a lot of people out there that are not familiar with the idea. We need to spread awareness that we are not all the same and it doesn’t make anyone less. But I think I will save this for a future blog post. What I want you to take away from this post is that we are not all thinking in the same way, and that’s a very good thing. Remember to be accomodating to people that think differently to you, and don’t make assumptions about someone based on their external interaction with the world, you have no idea what’s going on internally.


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