Thinking as Sympathetic Resonance with External Contexts (a metaphor)

In my new book coming out in August (see my first Post ‘Welcome’) I suggested (like others have) totally getting rid of the ‘processing’ metaphor in psychology (sensation –> perception –> executive functioning, blah blah, etc.)

I suggested instead that we try a metaphor of having ‘sympathetic resonance’ with your multiple external contexts—that is, people and their consequences primarily.

[You might want to read up on how the sitar works with 12-20 sympathetic strings that are never touched but resonate.  Or how great classical composers (Debussy in particular) wrote with the piano pedal strategically held down so other strings would resonate sympathetically while playing (as harmonics) and add new colours, and holding keys down without sounding them.]

This new metaphor allows for some interesting properties to help us think about thinking, such as: action at a distance; no need to worry about the physical underpinnings before understanding how events such as thinking work; the ubiquity and normality of multiple thoughts, and of conflicting thoughts if there are multiple audiences; we do not control our thinking; and you do not have to ‘own’ your thoughts.  It also helps work out how we can read people’s ‘minds’ and how we can re-think CBT in new ways.

Here I would like to mention several other ways I am trying out this new metaphor about thinking.  [The whole idea of this Blog site is to try new ways of thinking about people…]

  • You must remember that the sympathetic resonance of sitar strings is not an ‘internal’ event of those strings; it is not something occurring inside the sympathetic strings, and is certainly not originating inside those strings as some sort of agency.  The resonance occurs in the world and involves strumming some other strings which then resonate any sympathetically tuned strings.  Similarly, when an external context of some consequence to us resonates a conversation (as it were) and we have thoughts ‘pop into our heads’, this is not an internal event.  The events are all external and not some ‘private’ thinking or ‘private’ events.
  •  “People only use 10% of their brain when they think.”  Forget what the brain does, what this means is that of all the external contexts with consequences that resonate us so that we are ready to talk (this = thinking), we attend to or speak only 10% of those that are occurring.  Freud and Jung called these ‘unconscious thoughts’ that occur all the time and can contain contradictions without problems.  I like to think of them as the ‘background dark matter’ of thinking, if you know the physics allusion, and I also like calling them ‘thinklings’.
  • When we become intimate with someone we tend to share thoughts and thinking—we do not necessarily say we agree about those thoughts but the same range of thoughts resonate.  This comes about because we begin to share our contexts, experience the same contexts, and attend to the same contexts.  You begin to ‘know what they are probably thinking’ even if you disagree.
  • We have thoughts ‘pop into our heads’ even if the contexts (consequences, people) are not present at that time.  If there is a context of consequence (relationships, economic, etc.) we will be having ‘background’ thoughts all the time about them, like hidden conversations not spoken.   A thought about someone who is not present can occur anytime depending upon their consequences, and we do not need to look for a ‘trigger’ in the local context.
  • If we only observe the sympathetic strings on the sitar they will begin to vibrate as if by magic!  Or imagine if you were one of the sympathetic strings: you would believe that you were making yourself vibrate every now and again—it would be a strong illusion for you.  Similarly, we have thoughts and conversations ‘pop into our heads’ and believe that we caused those thoughts and control them.
  • If people live in and experience uniquely arranged contexts in life—historical variations of relationships and the consequences from those relationships, which we label as ‘cultural’ contexts—then they will truly ‘think’ different thoughts from other people.  Different thoughts will resonate as different conversations because they have had very different arrangements and histories of people and consequences.  So we can actually observe different forms of cultural and economic thinking (once again, we observe in the contexts, not in their heads!)
  • Probably the strongest and most frequent thoughts which ‘pop into our heads’ resonate with our immediate contexts—the rest are ‘quieter’ conversations as it were, unless of great consequence.  The immediate contexts also mostly resonate actual talking out loud rather than only thinking.  So if you suddenly see someone steal another person’s purse and run, most of your thinking will be conversations to tell now or later about this event as it unfolds.  As discussed in my other Posts, this thinking does not control your running and helping that person, but if you have had those behaviours shaped already you will likely do this but…those immediate contexts of acting or yelling at the thief will resonate further thoughts for telling later.  now here is the trickiest bit to this: this last part (“those immediate contexts of acting will resonate further thoughts for telling later”) will also further enhance the illusion that your thinking caused or controlled you to act as you did, because those conversations will dominate your resonances as you act even though they are not controlling what you do.   Make sense?
  • A more feral idea of mine is to imagine dreaming as all those ‘background dark matter’ thoughts ‘popping into your head’ (resonating as conversational respondings) but without any resonating at all happening from your immediate contexts, which is very unusual (since you are asleep with your eyes closed).  The dreaming will only be more ‘distant’ resonances, normally in the dark, gothic background (unconscious), which suggests two interesting properties to me: (1) they appear weird when we wake up because they are not connected to any of our immediate contexts that resonate upon waking (it’s cold, need coffee, blankets askew, work today), and (2) since there is no context for them to be resonating when you wake up, you are unlikely to be able to say them.
  • But wait, there’s more… this might be what leads to the hugely common experience of people not being able to remember their dreams.  You sort of know that the thinklings (the resonances, the dreaming) were there but you cannot say them because there is no immediate context for that talking to happen.  It is as if resonant thoughts without an immediate context cannot be said.  This is because none of the people or surroundings that were in your dreams are present when you wake up…   Luckily… phew, ufa!  That would be scary…
  • Ok, this idea is a bit more feral…
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One thought on “Thinking as Sympathetic Resonance with External Contexts (a metaphor)”

  1. Your column is interesting to me. I started playing the sitar a few months ago and have been having thoughts as to how eastern music is different than western music, and also the sitar as a metaphor for these differences. spontaneity/natural versus planned/predictable, looking forward to exploring more….

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