Timothy Gallwey, in his book The Inner Game of Tennis, does a good job describing the strange nature of how people talk to themselves. He’s talking about tennis, but it happens all the time. Picture yourself, having just hacked an easy shot into the fence. “Keep your eye on the ball you idiot!” you grumble. “What?” says your momentarily puzzled opponent. “Just talking to myself,” you say.
Gallwey’s observation is penetrating: in this scenario, just who is talking to whom? There appears to be a talker in your head, and this talker, this chatterbox, is constantly instructing and berating a silent second self who listens and tries to obey. The talker is happy to take credit when things go well and quick to assign blame when a scapegoat is needed. But the curious thing is that, despite the evidence of this silent other quietly trying to perform as directed, it is the talker who gets all the credit for our self identity.
The thing we think of as the ego-identified self is a tiny raft awash in a sea of brain activity. But since he does all the talking, he loudly claims, and proudly accepts on his own behalf, sole ownership of the psyche. Who can contradict him? And when sudden inspiration strikes, or when an important problem is solved in a dream, we describe it as coming from somewhere else. Because this unexpected gift bewilders our vocal spokesbrain. I like to think of the silent self, a wordless savant from the right brain, dropping a beautiful idea on the front porch of the left brain and ringing the doorbell. The left brain comes out in his robe, peers into the darkness and then spots the gift. “What’s this? Why it’s lovely!” He grabs it and hustles inside, whereupon he types up a quick press release filled with outrageous lies about how he got this new idea. The mute right brain watches through window. Maybe he smiles. I picture him wanting to say “I’M RIGHT HERE, YOU DOPE! I SPENT A SOLID WEEK MAKING THAT FOR YOU.” But instead he turns, wipes his hands, and heads back into the woods to get some work done.
I was thinking about this topic recently because I happened to watch two great TED talks back-to-back that touch on the nature of our multiple selves. The first is by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert on the nature of inspiration. The second is by neuroscientist and stroke victim Jill Bolte Taylor talking about the insight that can come from watching your own brain shut down. I recommend watching both of them.
You are a republic of many entities. Quiet the voice and enjoy the view.