The Guy in Your Head

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.” — The Elements of Eloquence. Mark Forsyth.

Complex human thought, by definition, requires linguistic capabilities. Language gives us the ability to name objects as well as the power to reason about them: That’s a river. That’s a dog. That car is coming towards me. Each and every one of those concepts has a name and represents something we all instantly recognize and understand. Without symbolic representation and the constructs of logical reasoning, language in and of itself wouldn’t be much more than a series of incoherent yelps and screams.

At some point in our collective history we realized that these things didn’t have to be physically present around us, that we could create unique words to represent nonexistent entities: we figured out how to make stuff up. Without that twist, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Call it the invention of lying. It’s a uniquely human ability that has enabled us to tell tales and work together towards goals. Try to explain an imaginary item to someone, without any use of language even in your head talking to yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t have to guess about what may have happened in prehistory to make these statements. Watch a toddler carefully for any length of time and you’ll see him or her develop all those abilities one after another. It’s funny to watch my two year old grandson communicate with his mom.

— “Did you just drop all your blueberries on the floor?”

— “Yes.”

He understands the words and can communicate just fine but hasn’t learned to lie yet. That comes a little later.

I guarantee, assuming you have been reading this text carefully, that you’ve been almost totally unaware of your surroundings for the past few minutes. Not only because your eyes have been focused on the screen (you may just as well be listening to the words) but because you can’t parse the meaning without the “language processor” in your brain.

And while you were doing so, you could not have been consciously processing the visual and auditory data around you. You may have looked up once in a while or listened to someone speaking around you but you would have had to context switch completely away from reading in order to do so. You can do one thing or the other but not both because both require your language processor.

Here’s the rub: We humans have only one language processor in our heads. Our brains can perform multiple actions simultaneously but only one of those can involve language at any given time. We can walk in a straight line for hours and occupy our minds thinking about any topic we choose but if we want to turn left at the corner of Main and Broadway, we have to stop and consciously think about it because each of those concepts (Main Street, Broadway, intersection, left turn) requires language. If we’re familiar with the neighborhood, we can navigate such turns without conscious thought but we do so by pattern matching the visual cues and thus removing the requirement for language use from the task.

In computer science parlance, you would say our algorithm for language processing is single threaded. That’s why you have to context switch (another computer term) to process another thread of thought. Here’s where multitasking (also a computer term) comes into the picture.

We’ve figured out that we can spend thirty seconds — or three minutes — reading one paragraph at a time and then look up at something else or listen to the words being spoken by someone in the room. This gives us the illusion of doing both things simultaneously but, in fact, at any given point in time our brain can do one or the other, not both.

Ever notice how you can read entire pages of a book only to realize you have no idea what you just read? If so, I bet you were multitasking at the time. Your eyes faithfully read (pattern matched) the words so you had the illusion of making forward progress in the text but your brain was focused on parsing something else for discrete chunks of time at various intervals and didn’t actually follow the line of reasoning needed to make sense of what you read.

Note that you don’t even need to look up to break your stream of consciousness, your focus on the written narrative. I often catch myself thinking about something totally unrelated to what I’m reading: Trump’s latest tweet, whether I should sell my Amazon stock, my family history of cancer, the argument I had with a colleague yesterday, whatever; all while my eyes dutifully read line after line of text. Three pages later, I realize I’ve context switched so many times that I only have a vague idea what I just read.

Not only do we context switch constantly but we also convince ourselves that we haven’t lost any information in the process and keep plowing ahead. You can afford to do so if you’re reading fiction, still following the flow of the story even if you miss some details but try doing so with a piece of non-fiction or science and you’ll be lost and confused pretty soon.

Think about that the next time you sit in a meeting with a laptop and scan your emails. Think about it the next time you talk to your spouse over the dinner table while also staring at your phone. Think about it the next time you drive while also talking on the phone.

Have you ever realized you’ve driven halfway to work and can’t remember a single thing about the last twenty minutes? The streets, the exit ramps, the turns. You were in autopilot the whole time. You know you’ve driven on certain roads only because you’ve done so every day for the past year but you have no recollection of anything specific about today’s ride. You were there but your brain was occupied elsewhere. That’s scary. That’s multitasking gone haywire and it happens to all of us all the time.

Here’s a simple experiment to prove my point. Try sitting down with your eyes closed counting your breaths. Don’t speed up or slow down your breathing, just keep counting at the same instant as you start inhaling. This is a simple exercise often used to aid beginners in meditation. Count from one to ten, staying in sync with your breath, and then start at one again. Invariably, your thoughts will interrupt you. You’ll catch yourself thinking about an email you just read or a news headline and notice that you’re no longer counting. Gently drop the thought and go back to counting. Try this for ten minutes and you’ll realize that we’re simply incapable of doing both tasks simultaneously.

Multitasking can work reasonably well if both streams of incoming data are static in nature but that is rarely the case; in many settings, the other thing, the other story line continues to go on without you. This is why you sat through hours of high school history (or math or physics) but barely remember any of it. Your brain was thinking about something else, tuned in the teacher once every five minutes, and missed key concepts that were needed in later lessons.

So “focus”, in this sense, requires cognitive and linguistic parsing of words and sentences as well as processing of logic. Multitasking fails us when one or both narratives make forward progress without our participation.

Since your language processor is single threaded, to the extent that I can keep it locked into a narrative of my weaving, be it written or verbal, then almost by definition, I control your mind in the sense that I control what you’re consciously thinking for a given period of time. For as long as you’ve been reading these words, to prove a point, if you’ve been paying careful attention, you’ve pretty much been “checked out” from your physical environment. I’ve been “controlling” the narrative running in your mind.

Unless, of course, you’re a typical 21st century human, in which case you’ve already context switched a dozen times to other tasks — perhaps at the end of every paragraph — in which case, you probably have little idea what I’m talking about. You have only one language processor; and it’s only when you think of it as a vehicle for mind control that you realize the enormity of the problem facing our civilization, heads down as we are on our phones 24x7.

Our ability to abstract, to group things together and generalize, to not have to pay attention to every detail, every leaf on every tree, the pattern on the t-shirts of every person in a restaurant, is a blessing, freeing up our brains to worry about higher level constructs. The constant onslaught of sensory data coming at us every minute of the day would overwhelm us otherwise.

The “reality” you observe is mostly constructed by your brain in real-time. Much of this is done automatically, without your conscious attention, and does not require language. An obvious example is the blind spot smack in the middle of our field of vision which the brain faithfully hides from us such that we’re not even aware of it.

Imagine having to pay attention to every piece of visual data from hundreds of cars around you every second as you drive on the freeway and you’ll see that you couldn’t possibly drive even a mile without causing a dozen accidents. Compare this to how we actually drive — mostly tuned out and not even paying attention — and you’ll see the massive difference instantly.

What we often don’t realize is that we automatically tune out many of our senses in order to think. Your eyes are on autopilot while you drive at seventy miles an hour and think about your mortgage. You might as well be deaf given how little auditory data you process in meetings while distracted by your phone.

Ironically, as humans, we rarely internalize this; we do so at our own peril. That’s why I call it the fallacy of multitasking. It falls apart when both threads of cognition require linguistic processing. You are guaranteed to do worse at both tasks. You won’t know what the meeting was about and you’ll also forget the tweet ten minutes later. You won’t understand the long technical email that you skimmed on your phone while at the red light and you’ll drift into the bike lane and kill or maim a cyclist.

Most of us live in our heads most of the time. By that I mean we spend most of our waking moments talking to someone in our heads — about everything! And this person just keeps making stuff up and feeding it to us — lies, conspiracy theories, complaints — every minute of every day. Interestingly, this person also almost always and almost exclusively cares about the past and the future — but not about what is going on right around us. As Sam Harris famously said, “It’s always now.” The past exists nowhere but in our collective human brains and the same is true of the future. It’s all in your head.

You may as well get used to it: every decision you’ll ever make in life, good or bad, will ultimately be a tug of war between you and this other guy in your head. Meditation is the art of being able to tell this individual in your head, in essence, “Shut up for a minute!”

This guy in our head needs language to communicate with us and we only have one language processor. The more time we spend talking to this guy, the less time we have to process the world around us in real-time. (I use the masculine pronoun because I’m a man. I suspect much of this is true for the female of the species as well but I hate using the repetitive he/she construct in every sentence.)

This guy is also the one who sometimes puts two and two together and comes up with a brilliant new idea or sees a unique new insight. We need to keep him focused on the positive and creative side of things. Otherwise, he’ll delve into all kinds of destructive lunacy.

The story of our lives as individuals, the narrative of who we really are cannot be truly captured without a complete recording of all the conversations we ever have with this guy in our head. You can video tape every moment of a person’s life and you still would know very little about him because you’ll have access to none of what he says to himself in his head. And he talks to himself constantly.

Paradoxically, this guy in our head, this voice, this other, this historian and fortune teller, is also necessary for us to be fully human. If we were always “just in the moment”, trying to process all the massive amounts of sensory data in front of us, we’d have no brain cycles left over to invent him, the imaginary friend in our head. It’s only because we talk to him that we form memories, that we detect patterns, that we learn things. He is at once our best friend and our worst enemy.

So it’s ironic that we choose to bombard ourselves with data not just from the physical world around us but now, and increasingly, from dozens of virtual feeds. We do so at our own peril, I claim, never stopping long enough to think about what we’re experiencing and process the information, overwhelmed as we are by the fire hose of data coming at us at warp speed.

But even that’s not enough. We choose to context switch between these incoming streams of data, be they headlines or tweets, emails or videos, podcasts or blog posts, live in-person meetings or video conferences.

Here is where we make some crucial mistakes. We fail to recognize that some of those streams of information go on independent of our mental presence and processing. It’s reasonable to context switch between an article and an email. Both are static content that doesn’t change while you work on the other stream of thought. It’s not okay to context switch between driving and texting. Those cars, those people walking down the street, those cyclists all go on while your entire conscious mind is occupied with the text message you’re reading. It’s not okay to sit in a meeting and stare at your Facebook feed. The speaker(s) go on without you while the single threaded language processor in your brain works on the content of your newsfeed. There are massive gaps in our understanding of one of the two (or more) streams of data every time we multitask.

But, as if that weren’t enough, we also stubbornly keep going forward as if the information gap doesn’t exist. So what do you do after you realize that you haven’t understood the text you’re reading because you’ve context switched too many times? You would think you’d go back and read it again. Hell, no! Most of us plow ahead and keep reading, convinced that we can make sense of the whole.

This is the second fallacy of multitasking, the belief that we can utilize it safely and with no loss of fidelity in many more circumstances than we should. We are so sure of our mental prowess that we think we can keep going and haven’t missed anything important. We lie to ourselves and plow ahead, compounding the problem. Multitasking may have been a powerful evolutionary weapon for early humanoids on the savanna but it’ll cause more harm than good in the wrong settings.




Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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Ben Fathi

Ben Fathi

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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