Reading Voices Into Our Minds

Each of us is a multitude. There is no single unified self. Our thoughts are a conversation. The voices of family echo in our minds when we first leave home and long after our loved ones have died. Then there are all the television, movie, and commercial characters that invade our consciousness with their catchphrases, slogans, and taglines. And we can’t forget how songs get stuck on cognitive repeat or emerge as a compulsion to sing.

Yet another example are the intimate voices imagined as you read novels, a form of inner speech that can carry on after you have put down a book. These can be the most powerful voices. There is nothing that compares to the long periods of time spent with compelling fiction. The voice of characters in a novel are heard within your own head as you read. You can return to this experience again and again, until the characters have become internalized and their words inscribed upon your psyche. Their voices becomes your own voices.

This chorus of voices is constantly playing in the background, a caucophony of thoughts vying for your attention. But occasionally they rise into the spotlight of your consciousness. Even then, it rarely occurs to any of us how strange those voices are, except when some particular voice insistently refuses to go away and maybe even seems to have a mind of its own. Then we might begin to question the distinction between them and us and question what kind of being we are that can contain both.

There is an argument that novels help us develop theory of mind. But maybe in the process novels, along with certain other modern media, result in a particular kind of mind or minds. We come to identify or otherwise incorporate what we empathize with. The worlds we inhabit long enough eventually inhabit us. And what we’ve heard through out our lives can have a way of continuing to speak to us, layers upon layers of voices that for some of us can speak clearly.

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Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds
by Richard Lea

It’s a cliche to claim that a novel can change your life, but a recent study suggests almost a fifth of readers report that fiction seeps into their daily existence.

Researchers at Durham University conducted a survey of more than 1,500 readers, with about 400 providing detailed descriptions of their experiences with book. Nineteen per cent of those respondents said the voices of fictional characters stayed with them even when they weren’t reading, influencing the style and tone of their thoughts – or even speaking to them directly. For some participants it was as if a character “had started to narrate my world”, while others heard characters talking, or imagined them reacting to things going on in everyday life.

The study, which was carried out in collaboration with the Guardian at the 2014 Edinburgh international book festival, also found that more than half of the 1,500 respondents said that they heard the voices of characters while reading most or all of the time, while 48% reported a similar frequency of visual or other sensory experiences during reading.

According to one of the paper’s authors, the writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, the survey illustrates how readers of fiction are doing more than just processing words for meaning – they are actively recreating the worlds and characters being described.

“For many of us, this can involve experiencing the characters in a novel as people we can interact with,” Fernyhough said. “One in seven of our respondents, for example, said they heard the voices of fictional characters as clearly as if there was someone in the room with them.”

When they asked readers to describe what was happening in detail, the researchers found people who described fictional characters remaining active in their minds after they had put the book down, and influencing their thoughts as they went about their daily business – a phenomenon Fernyhough called “experiential crossing”.

The term covers a wide range of experiences, from hearing a character’s voice to feeling one’s own thoughts shaped by a character’s ideas, sensibility or presence, he continued. “One respondent, for example, described ‘feeling enveloped’ by [Virginia Woolf’s] character Clarissa Dalloway – hearing her voice and imagining her response to particular situations, such as walking into a Starbucks. Sometimes the experience seemed to be triggered by entering a real-world setting similar to one in the novel; in other situations, it felt like seeing the world through a particular character’s eyes, and judging events as the character would.”

The characters who make the leap into readers’ lives are typically “powerful, vivid characters and narrators”, Fernyhough added, “but this will presumably vary hugely from person to person”.

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6 thoughts on “Reading Voices Into Our Minds

    • Whose unified self? Does your body have a unified self or just your brain? Or is it your eternal soul that has a unified self? Then again, maybe only God gets a unified self and the rest of us are shattered beings in a Gnostic fallen world. And what about what some call the extended self… does it have a unified self?

      As for the multitude, does each have a unified self? Does a family, a community, a species, an ecosystem, the biosphere, the universe itself each have a unified self? Or are there simply an amorphous overlapping of ever shifting selves within experience? But if so, whose experience from what perspective? How far might the extended self extend? And where does it originate? Maybe the extended self extends into us.

      One might note that scientists have yet to find a consciousness or a soul in the brain or anywhere else in the body. According to Jaynes, our modern self is an introjection of ancient social ways of relating, no different than a projection of supposed anthropomorphism. That is to say we never know our self separately from other selves. It’s a simultaneous process of multiple selves emerging.

      Jaynesian consciousness is a stage of interiorized space and narratized identity. But upon such a stage many possible roles can be played and stories told. So, who is it that narrates our preferred story? And how many narrative voices are possible in telling what kind of stories? Besides, what if other kinds of stages have existed in the past, not all of them as part of some internalized and idealized notion of a unified ego-self? What if our sense of self played out across the visible world, maybe as indicated by Aboriginal Songlines?

      Some go so far as to say that we first develop a theory of mind about others before we develop a theory of mind about ourselves. So, in a sense, our most basic sense of self might be the earliest perception of self in others, only later on developing this into a personal self-identity, unified or otherwise. Who gets to claim which self as their sole property? When my mother speaks to me in my mind as she has done in my life, does a unified self hidden away somewhere in my supposedly walled-off ego-being get to claim it or deny it? Or does my mother also live on as a unified self in my head?

      Once we delve into our direct experience, it gets rather murky and for some it gets downright disturbing. This is why most people would rather not think about it too much, just shove those many voices back down into the dark hole of unconsciousness and put a lid on them. Listening to the multitude is the path to madness, so goes the lurking fear of our ego-obsessed society.

    • As there is no language module in the brain, there is also no “attention center” to be found. “So where is our capacity for sustained focus located? Research shows us that the brain is an ensemble of alerting, orienting, and executive networks collaborating to attune us to what’s going on in our inner or outer world in coherent ways that point us toward an appropriate response.”

      The mind-brain is a melange of functions that emerge into our consciousness through a diversity of thoughts, moods, sensations, perceptions, intuitions, etc. Out of this mix, voices form and we narratize a semblance of a coherent sense of self-identity. Our egos aren’t stable entities but a constant ongoing process of creating and sustaining a story about the self. But it is largely an illusion. Very little of what our mind-brain does is conscious. The ego is simply the product of the user illusion. The thing is there is strong evidence that not all cultures have shared this ego theory of mind, much less the ego experience of self.

      We live in a rigidly controlled society that doesn’t only incentivize self-control but enforces it. The ego is a product of the entire social system, constantly being reinforced by our family structures, religious theology, job demands, legal constraints, etc. Try to live out a different experience of identity and you might quickly find yourself unemployed, ostracized, or institutionalized. This is why, despite such a large percentage of people hearing voices, very few people ever publicly admit to this. The consequences of nonconformity has real consequences.

      A large part of ego dominance is a pretense, ignoring all that doesn’t fit, silencing or denying all the other voices. We become in our experience what we pretend to be. This is what we call growing up, giving up childish things such as imaginary friends. But some of us are more effective at pretending than others. For others, the other voices keep invading consciousness.

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