How the chaotic mind works in real time
“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think”.
- Warren Buffett (1930- )
“Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too”.
- Voltaire (1694-1778)
In Naturally Curious, I talk about as wide a range of topics as I can, drawing on philosophy, psychology, anthropology, current events and theories, archaeology, physics cosmology—whatever. I’m interested in the Universe, and how people walk, and write, and navigate their world—scratching my curiosity itch at the time.
Let’s pivot with this essay. Let’s talk about you and how you think. To do that I’m going to expose myself to you via my own thinking. And to one of my favorite novelists and essayists: Marcel Proust. It’s all about how the mind operates.
Whether you are in a mentally cruising-in-automatic-thinking-mode, not really attending to how things are unfolding in your mind much, second by relentless second (what’s been called System 1 thinking, popularized by Daniel Kahneman), or consciously, explicitly, deliberatively solving problems you encounter, figuring them out rationally (Systems 2 thinking), you are the lead in the play in your mind: the “I”.
If we can listen in overtly to this currents-of-thought consciousness in a couple of thinkers, we stand to gain insights into the fragmented world of how people—you, and me—have thoughts in real time. System 1 is estimated to be 98% or so of your thinking: it’s fast, automatic, reactive, emergent, and you do it without effort.
In literary history the famous French novelist Marcel Proust (1871–1922) documented this best of all. The story in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time, sometimes called Remembrance of Things Past), his autobiographical novel published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927, was told by him as a first-person narrator in a disjointed, ebbing-and-flowing style.
"And suddenly the memory revealed itself: The taste was that
of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at
Combray...my aunt Lèonie used to give me, dipping it first in
her own cup of tea or tisane."
Modern psychology would label this phenomenology; the study of one’s subjective view of the world. Documenting his fragmented thoughts of the present and past, Proust expressed his at times chaotic mental meandering—drawing widely on his childhood, perspectives of aristocratic lifestyles, gossip, the color and fabric of the curtains in his room, the ticking of his clock, what he feels like when he falls off to sleep, and his recollections and observations of French society.
He asks what is important in life, surveying social success (climbing to the upper echelons of society), and then love and lust, moving on to art and artistic expression. He concludes that looking at the world anew, and enjoying the wonder of the everyday—being sensitive to the ordinary beauty of the world—is key. This has been called the Proustian Moment.
A beautifully written scene sees Proust savoring a Madeleine cake, a small, rich, oh-so-French sponge-like pastry, evincing taste sensations in his present and triggering memories of the past based on the texture and flavor of his eating experience. Eating the cake evokes all manner of intense experiences, and memories and reactions to the taste in his youth.
So it is, with each of us; sensory input is jumpy, sketchy, splintered, and discontinuous. It can elicit shifting, unsystematic, in-the-present experiences, and also stimulate memories of the immediate and more distant past. All this is quite jumbled and multi-dimensional. Whenever it goes on, the perception-memory-thinking interface is complex and iterative rather than linear.
Psychologists call what Proust reports associative activation. In normal parlance, one thing leads to other things as we process one thought after another. The world we perceive generates sensations which trigger ideas leading to yet other ideas in a cascading spread of perceptions, memories, emotions, and associated reactions. But the one being experienced immediately can have great importance.
Many famed figures have considered this world of inner being. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), this experience was a “rhapsody of perceptions”, and to the psychologist William James (1842-1910), it was a “blooming, buzzing confusion”. Yet in a very real sense, Kant and James, intellectual giants of philosophy and psychology as they are, were only half right. The surprise is that as it tumbles out, you don’t think of your thinking as haphazard. You impose some kind of order on the process. All without thinking “My thoughts, perceptions and memories are surging and jumbling out, and it is all a mess; I’d better compile it into a logical framework.”
In fact, quite to the contrary. Your thinking seems to you coherent and rational afterwards, without you having to work hard at deliberately ordering it. Even though by all rights, given the amount of stimuli you are exposed to continuously, interspersed with memories of the past, hopes for the future, and range of experiences tumbling through your mind, it should seem more disordered.
Funny thing, that. It’s higgledy-piggledy and topsy-turvy when it happens, but when asked what you are thinking or how your day was, you report your thoughts as if they were linear, logical, and well-ordered. How come?
Consider me at the moment, for just a fragment of my day. I am sitting and imagining, and having thoughts and ideas about Proust, and reflecting on how memory works. A little deeper, I am recalling multiple studies in psychology and neurology, and how this all relates to how people think.
At this very moment I’m in a café queue, readying to order take-out coffee, and scribbling notes that become this essay. I’m vaguely aware through my peripheral vision of café-people coming and going, ordering beverages to take with them, mostly on their way to the office or construction site or back home to do some work by the look of their demeanor and dress, and others, many whom I have come to think of as making up “the regular crowd”, to linger a little on the sidewalk in their Covid mask, enjoying that first cup.
By now, because I have been thinking for a little while about this, my attention has shifted more directly to my surroundings. Consequently, I have defocused away from the process of scribbling about Proust, although this, and the theories about phenomenology I am striving to use in the writing of this piece, are not far away. They are in a readily accessible place in memory, just temporarily out of reach, being not-so-neatly held on a mental peg for later. Now I am looking at the buildings, the trees lining the road, and a few cars and other vehicles coming and going.
My attention shifts again. When not locked down at home and only allowed to grab a take-away coffee, I am often in a café. My mind goes back to such experiences. Many people order and sit in with a cappuccino or latte, some with skim milk and some with normal milk. There’s the occasional order of a croissant, muffin, or toast. I’m bizarrely reminded in the now that by typing these words about food that I like lemon meringue pie (the idea of a muffin from somehow evinced that—or was it Proust’s Madeleine cake, which primed my mind?).
Who actually knows how these thoughts emerge and what triggers them, I think and write?
Back in my mind’s eye I am in the café again. I look up, now traversing the café’s internal surrounds visually, scanning. People are sitting, some talking, some alone. Someone scrapes a chair on the tiles as they get up from their table. There’s an elderly couple who do not speak to each other. Have they run out of things to say? Hope this doesn’t happen to me one day, I worry … .
A well-dressed middle-aged woman with her hair tied-back eating toast (I recall I could hear the crunching from a distance of a couple of meters, a table away). I also recall I glanced at her legs. Was this fleetingly erotic? I can’t remember. I am conscious if I leave this in, my sexual interests will be on display to any reader.
If I was a novelist like Proust I might start to write about a nice turn of ankle, and her red shoes, but that is not my mission as a writer, and in any case, I would be in trouble with my partner, I tell myself, so I snap out of it. But I realize if I wasn’t interrupting the documentation process with prudery, this little riff in my thoughts could turn into an unplanned, even full-blown fantasy. I can’t recall if that is what happened at the time.
I do recall back then thinking that the woman rather decadently had smoked salmon on her toast, and she ate thoughtfully and seemingly pleasurably. At one point she sighed and simultaneously looked very sad. It was hard for me to reconcile that then, as it is now. I mused at the time that maybe she was clinically depressed, but nevertheless was enjoying the taste in the moment. Who really knows what other people are doing, thinking, or feeling?
Back to now. I think: there I go again. Armchair psychology, analyzing people in a café, back then before lockdown. I was indulging then and now in pure speculation—which I often do.
Why not, I hear myself say to myself. No harm in it, I respond.
Uh uh. I seem to be having an argument with myself now. Calm down, I hear myself say. It’s not an argument, just me going through some conflicting or alternative thought processes. Where is this theme going anyway, I now ask myself?
This then, is a snapshot of a human brain at work, thinking across time—or at least, it’s a little of mine, and a small recollection of Proust’s. I can assume that lots of other minds operate like this. If it does for you, that’s reassuring. Because it’s completely normal.
And there’s a point I would like to conclude with: relish it. I just did. Be in the zone, let yourself wander like this occasionally, or even often. Go with the flow. Give yourself permission to meander, back and forth in time. Proust gave me permission to do this, and I am giving you permission: to be a time traveler when you feel like it, as I did in this cross-section of me.
Well, to be frank you don’t actually need anyone’s permission, and nor did I. You do this regularly, even continuously. You think like this way anyway, no matter what I say.
But the invitation is to be mindful of the pleasure of it. It’s too easy to not do enough to let ourselves go—most of us are always doing tasks, rushing to and from work, going to meetings (Zoom and Microsoft Teams or Skype if you are locked down, in person if not), responding to emails, posting on Facebook, tweeting messages to others, charging around from place to place. I’m as guilty of that as anyone.
In many respects this is what thinking is for, and what it does: having remembrances of fragments of the past, dwelling on how things are in the present, and reflecting on what might be in the future. All through a blooming, buzzing rhapsody of perceptual confusion, as your stream of ideas flits from topic to topic in a jumble, while you retrospectively re-order it into coherence.
So sometimes, do yourself a favor. Just enjoy the unfolding moments. I did, in putting this piece together. It can be cathartic.
And revel, sometimes, in just one wonderful instant, evoked by a taste, an encouraging word from someone, an understanding between you and someone across a table, a fleeting moment of surprise at an event or feeling of warmth toward a loved one, a flower seen while out walking, a chord in a tune, a beautiful scene in front of you, an attractive person that comes to your attention for a second. In Proust’s world, that is the essence, and sheer joy, of being human. And of course, he is right.
Kahneman D (2012). Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin.
Proust, Marcel. (1954). À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Paris, France: Gallimard.