Laboratory of thought

There are two levels of thought operating in my head. At the lower level are realizations and perceptions that pulse through my mind and quickly vanish, or find a place to settle permanently into my subconscious—depending on their relevance. If I hear part of a familiar song, I might recognize it immediately and recall when or where I’ve heard it before. But then, a second level of thought kicks in: the part of my brain that grabs onto a transitory piece of information and insists on describing it to me fully. In the case of a familiar piece of music, it’s not enough for my mind just to recognize it. My inner voice needs to read aloud the song title and artist name, like a radio DJ, and announce in sentence form the reason why I recognize that song. “Oh yeah, that song was in <TV show> during the <fictional event> scene.” I don’t need the extra narration to know what I already know.

The same is true for passing emotions and thoughts about my personal life. Feelings don’t just ebb and flow through me, the way they are intended to. My brain picks them up, magnifies them, and sends them to a lab for urgent analysis. Naturally, the results are nearly always inconclusive. Even so, my inner voice will read the entire report and attempt to draw conclusions. It’s a frustrating and wasteful process. Think of all the energy needed to perform those lab tests and produce results with such a short turn-around. Think of all the clutter that accumulates in my head as I read those futile reports, crumple them into hunks of wasted paper, and throw them aside. Do our brains have the equivalent of a trash incinerator?

As I experience more of life (and get more therapy), I’m realizing the futility of hyper-analysis and the exhaustion that comes with processing all my perceptions in an overly articulate, hyper-conscious way. On any given day I might perceive millions of stimuli and experience just as many thoughts, most of which would be able to leave as fast as they come if only I’d let them. Ideas that persist at my lower level of thought (which I may call semi-conscious, rather than sub-conscious) are the ones I need to listen to and treat with care. Those are the ideas from which truth can be extracted, if I handle them delicately and give them sufficient time to develop. Truth, not judgment, is what I need when deciding how to live and how to love.

Love is diminished when a higher level of thought plays too big a role. Relationships, complex as they are, contain infinite possibilities both good and bad; and my brain tries to take it all in. Often a negative thought will suddenly appear and flit lightly through my mind—if only I would treat it lightly, it would probably be able to escape. Instead, I ask myself what that thought means and quickly enter a spiral of worries: what caused that thought, whether it has relatives that I should consider, how I would feel about that idea coming to fruition, and what I can do to prevent it. This is why I’m being treated for anxiety. It also makes it easier for me to slip into a depression, after I’ve exhausted my faculties by ruminating on something that’s probably irrelevant.

I’d like to train myself to use that higher level of thought more sparingly. It’s probably useful for creativity and problem-solving, but in many arenas of life it is just an impediment. These days, as I walk down the street to catch the bus or run an errand, I try to notice when I’ve begun narrating my environment (or my life) too much. There is no reason for endless monologues such as, “Ooh! Look at that car. It reminds me of a car that so-and-so had. What other associations can I make with that car and/or that person? Come on, brain, give me everything you’ve got. I want to build a complete context and history for that car … Oh wait, I’m still walking and can’t see that car anymore. Time to notice something else.” Most times I’d prefer to lower the volume on my inner voice, allowing the static of the world to come through.

When it comes to love, I try to investigate its qualities and evaluate the hold it has over me. Guess what? It hasn’t been a productive quest. I believe that love will have to remain in the deep recesses of my brain, where it can influence the rest of my mind and body just like every other basic belief I have about life and myself. There’s plenty of room for reason and practicality within relationships; but even when things are questionable, love remains true.

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