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Do you think or hear your thoughts?

So, this is a question I get asked a lot;

do you think or hear your thoughts?

I’m not sure if this is a normal question to ask someone, if my openness in talking about how my brain works influences the question, or how frequently this question gets asked to others. It’s a question I’ve not been able to answer, until now.

If you’re like me, you’ll love and hate pondering your own brain. I absolutely love learning about my brain. It’s a weird and wonderful place, and not always a friendly environment. I have never been without my brain, and it's easy to assume that everyone’s brain works the same way until you take time to explore your brain, with other people. You learn that no one's brain works just like yours.


My brain doesn’t visualise things - this is known as #aphantasia. I have spent my entire life with a brain that can not paint the picture of a story being told, and I always assumed that “picture this'' was a turn of phrase, or when you were sat cross legged on the itchy carpet at school, with your eyes closed, everyone else was looking at the inside of their eye lids. Then someone told me that other people do visualise stuff. I was so taken aback by this, that I quickly called up everyone I knew, and asked them a bunch of questions to tell if their brain worked like mine, and it turns out that an estimated 3% of the world have a brain that can’t visualise.


I am terrible at maths, and had always assumed this was a side effect of being screamed at by my dad, while I tried to do my maths homework, until I was invited to play bingo. It was at bingo I realised I can’t read numbers like everyone else, and bingo is really hard! I can see a number, and recognise the symbols which represent numbers, however, when faced with the number 52, I read the 2, followed by the 5, and then have to switch the order to understand what the number is, and actually use some processing power to not read the number as 25.


I don’t dream. Well, very rarely do I dream, and by rarely, I don’t mean once a week, or once a month. I mean that I dream every couple of years. I have a condition which means I don’t move through the sleep stages, or rapid eye movement sleep (REM). This means I am alert to sounds, and lights while I’m sleeping. The most asleep I get to is the point most people get to 20 minutes or so after they fall asleep - I guess the bit where you can still hear the rain, or the TV. Because I don’t fall into a deep sleep, I don’t dream, unless a miracle has occurred, or I’m sick and my sleep is induced. When I dream, I lucid dream. I googled this term so I could explain it:

So, what happens when I dream is that the events unfold, and at the conclusion of the event, I decide if that’s how I wanted things to play out. If the answer is no, I rewind the dream, I see it rewinding, and I start again. I keep doing this until I have successfully navigated my way through the scenario, or am rudely awakened. I’m trying to think of a film example that will resonate, and make sense to you all; think Groundhog Day, Back to the Future, or any time travel film. These dreams are as exhausting as they sound! The last dream I had was around 3 years ago, and in the dream I was handling a security incident. I had the benefit of rewinding and starting over until I reached the required outcome, but can you even imagine how tiring it is to run an incident over and over in your subconscious, and then getting up and doing it in real life?


There are other ways my brain is weird and wonderful, but I won’t go into all the lack of “normal”, partly because it’s a long list, and partly because I’m yet to identify an exhaustive list.


Let me get back to the do you think or hear your thoughts question.


My thoughts are things that happen, and there has definitely been some sort of a dialogue going on in my brain, but do I hear it, or do I think it? If I don’t acknowledge a thought, it quite often repeats until I do pay attention to it, much like when I dream. In contrast, if you were to ask me what I was thinking, the only thing I can think is “what was I thinking?” My brain fires relatively quickly. You can tell me a problem, and while I hear your problem, I stare blankly at an empty wall. By the time you’ve finished speaking, I pretty much always have a solution to your problem, providing it’s within my remit of knowledge and experience. Now, the wall does have to blank, because any kind of anything on that wall will take my brain off into a tangent, and I’ll have to own up and say I wasn’t listening, but thankfully, my brain and I have been together for long enough that this rarely happens these days.


After pondering whether I think or hear my thoughts, I had an epiphany. This was the day I learned that I heard my thoughts. As I write this, I have concerns how this will come across, but here goes:


I hear my thoughts, and I know this, because I recently heard my thoughts in another language, and in a different voice. On this particular day, for some reason, I was narrating my own actions in my head. I don’t usually do this. I was wandering around, doing normal things, and I was thinking through everything I was doing, and what the next steps were. I imagine this is the type of brain activity that happens silently, and we don’t tune into the thoughts, or maybe some people do, but I don’t consciously think about autopilot activities, or even consider they are happening. On this odd day of hearing all of my thoughts, I heard my thoughts in a man’s voice, and in Turkish. While this might seem like a very strange thing to happen, I was in Turkey when this anomaly occurred. I don’t speak Turkish, yet I do understand some of the language. I can probably understand 50% of Turkish small talk, but I find it much harder to understand when a Turkish woman speaks to me. I don’t know if I’m making excuses for my odd brain function that day, but the fact that I was in Turkey and I find it hard to understand Turkish women absolutely explains why I heard my thoughts in a man’s voice, and in Turkish. As soon as I became aware that this was happening, it almost immediately stopped, and I’ve not thought in Turkish since. It was an enlightening day.


It's always a challenge for me to wrap up when I write, because I tend to splurge information onto the page, but I think today, it’s important to share why I needed to write this. Every day I learn new things about my brain, and how I process the world. As I said, my brain and I have been acquaintances for a long time, but I feel like we’re still at the small talk phase of our relationship. There are still so many things I need to learn about how it works, and become more self-aware. When you really think about your own relationship with your own brain, can you really say yours is any different? For my entire life, until I started to spend the time learning about my brain, I had assumed that everyone’s brain works exactly like mine, which meant I didn’t give anyone the space to digest in a way that works for them. We are all guilty of subconsciously assuming we are all the same, and not providing the space for others to think, process, learn and interact with the world in the way that works for them.


We also can't make the assumption that we all know how our own brains work, think, process, learn and interact with the world. When I speak to people about the #eLearning tool we’ve built at Culture Gem, and I ask them which colour they learn in, or which voice they prefer to listen to, this is an anomaly. They tell me its something that they’ve never been asked, and therefore have never considered. That’s why it was so important to me to produce eLearning where it gave people a chance to learn about their own brain, and how they think, process, learn and interact with the world, while simultaneously removing barriers to learning about new things. Learning about your brain is an odd experience when you’ve never held hands with it. When you learn about how it wants to do things, or its optimum environment, you stop masking and trying to fit in, and instead you tailor your world to how your brain best handles it, and isn't that the very least we should do for our brains?

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