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April 2024
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Talking to Myself

Or is myself talking to me?

By John Cadley

Illustration of man looking out window at yard
Illustration by Bart Browne

If you had looked in the window of my house on August 18, 2020, you would have seen me looking out of it. I would have appeared as a man lost in thought. If you wanted to know what I was thinking you would have entered my house and put a stethoscope to my head. This is what you would have heard:

The grass is getting long. Do I want to mow the lawn? The forecast said rain later, but it looks fine now. I could probably get it done. But what if it rains early and I can’t finish? Then I’ll have a half-mowed lawn and it would drive me crazy. I need closure. Why do I always procrastinate? I’ll score points with Cathy (my wife) if I do it now. Maybe she’ll bake banana bread. I eat too much of that stuff. Am I gaining weight? The bird feeder’s empty. Why did I buy a house with a big lawn? Did I pay the mortgage? I can’t remember. Is there something wrong with my memory? I should mow. If I wear a hat, do I need sunscreen? Why do I chew my nails every time I have a job to do?

And so on. The longer you listened, the more you would have heard these aimless thoughts banging around in my head like a pinball machine until finally, driven to distraction, you would have yelled, “JUST MOW THE LAWN!” Unfortunately, I would not have heard you because, as I said, I was lost in thought deciding whether to mow the lawn.

Does this sound at all familiar? As a Toastmaster you work hard at talking to other people. And yet, truth be told, you probably spend far more time talking to yourself. I don’t mean those positive self-affirmations when you look in the mirror and say, “I’m beautiful just the way I am.” I tried that and before I could get out a word, my mind said, You need a haircut. That’s because your mind has a mind of its own. It never shuts up, and it certainly doesn’t listen to you. Tell yourself not to think of a white rabbit and what happens? Sit down to listen to music and you think, Am I using too much hair gel? Go to sleep and you dream you’re being chased with an axe by your third-grade art teacher. It’s like a carnival fun house in there, where the show never stops.

As a Toastmaster you work hard at talking to other people. And yet you probably spend far more time talking to yourself.

Where do all these random thoughts come from? Well, you have to understand that when you talk to your “self,” only 5% of your brain is listening—approximately the same as when you talk to a politician. This is the conscious mind, and a fine little one it is. It can solve crossword puzzles, plan vacations, and send people to the moon. But it can’t tell you why you like the color orange, hate the smell of hot dogs, or dream that your third-grade art teacher is an axe murderer.

Those answers—and thousands more—reside in the vast unconscious, which accounts for 95% of your cognitive activity. It’s like an enormous Amazon warehouse stocked with all the memories, feelings, and experiences you’ve decided to forget—until something from the present “orders” them up (a color, a smell, a dream), at which time they’re delivered to the little bungalow of your conscious mind in packages marked Weird Feeling, Strange Thought, or Am I Losing My Mind? No, you’re not going crazy. You’re just not in control. You’re trying to captain the ship with 5% of the crew, while the other 95% are below deck messing with the steering.

This raises some provocative existential questions. If most of what I “know” is hidden from my awareness, do I say, “I don’t know what I know,” or “I’m conscious of how much I’m unconscious of”? When I refer to the “great minds” of civilization, am I talking about people who have simply used the full 5% of their miniscule accessible brain? Do I talk to myself, or does myself talk to me?

This is Alice in Wonderland territory, folks, where things get “curiouser and curiouser,” where you’re Alice and the Cheshire cat is your unconscious giving you a big, fat, smug, know-it-all grin. Well, now you know why.

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