Sunday, December 9, 2018

Words, Words, Words

Yesterday I did a strange thing: I had a day without words. My husband is out of town for the weekend and my kids are with their mother, so I had a rare day entirely alone. Lately I've been somewhat obsessed with the human brain and how it works, and I've been meditating every day in an attempt to condition my brain to work in healthier ways. I was recently shocked to learn that only 25% of people think exclusively in words, because I cannot imagine thinking in any other way. From the time I wake up to the time I fall asleep, my brain generates a nonstop stream of words, narrating my every thought, feeling, and observation. As I've started paying more attention to what all this internal logorrhea is about, I've realized that a lot of it is anxiety, worrying about the past and the future, and pretty much all of it distracts from my ability to fully experience the present. So yesterday morning, given a day where words would not be necessary to communicate with other human beings, I decided to limit my word exposure as much as possible, listening to instrumental music, looking at art instead of reading, and doing my best to get my brain to shut the hell up.

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Me, at about 4:00 yesterday afternoon. 
I'm not going to lie: I did not succeed in eliminating verbal thoughts for the day. I probably didn't succeed for any single five-minute period. I spent a good amount of the day thinking about thinking without words, which inevitably resulted in putting those thoughts into words. I realized pretty early on that I could easily turn this into yet another source of anxiety, if I got down on myself every time my thoughts drifted into words. To prevent this, I made a conscious decision to be easy on myself, to forgive myself no matter how many times words crept back into my thoughts, to smile each time and laugh at how little control I have over my own brain.

One of the main things I learned through this experience is how much I live my life through the filter of other people's perceptions, or at least my perception of their hypothetical perceptions. The thoughts I found spontaneously generating words most frequently were about how I would tell my husband about this experience, or the blog post I'd write about it (yes, this one). At one point, realizing how difficult it was to have an experience without mentally narrating the way I would relate it to someone else, I thought, "If I never tell anyone about this experience, will it still count? Will it still be a valid experience?" The answer, of course, is yes, but my brain doesn't seem to think so.

Another lesson learned is that words both help me to understand my experiences and limit my understanding of those experiences. I spend a good portion of my life trying to describe my feelings and my thoughts in words that could accurately convey their meaning to someone else, whether or not I intend to attempt such communication. As a result, I believe I've developed a moderately high level of self-awareness, for example recognizing when my grumpy reaction to a frustration at work has more to do with a poor night's sleep or skipping my morning workout than with anything happening presently. The downside, however, is that I've limited myself to thoughts and feelings that I can express in words. When I've felt emotions that I didn't know how to describe, I've ignored them because my logocentric brain believes that if I can't articulate the feeling then it simply must not be valid. This, in large part, is why it took me years to accept that I could not be fulfilled in a romantic relationship with a woman, as I could not satisfactorily explain to myself (or others) what it was that I needed specifically from someone with a Y chromosome.

There were times yesterday that I just about abandoned the experiment. At one point I felt exhausted from the sustained mental effort of redirecting my brain away from its comfortable patterns. A dose of caffeine gave me the renewed energy I needed to push through to the end of the day. Finding word-free entertainment was challenging; I had instrumental music and art, but I couldn't read (even comic books have words) or watch much TV. So I did yoga. I went for several long walks. I asked a friend for a silent movie recommendation and gave The General (1926) a shot, but sadly found it didn't hold my attention. I ended up picking out a bunch of music videos that are more about the music, the dancing, and the pretty visuals than the lyrics (a challenge, because lyrics are about 80% of what I like in most songs). And, of course, I watched the eyegasmic LED light show my husband built this summer.

All in all, I'm glad I did this weird thing. I spent more of yesterday with my mind in the present moment than I typically do in a month. I recognized ways my brain uses words to obsess over things in unhealthy ways. Without so much thinking to distract me, I noticed little signs of physical discomfort that I would typically ignore, and made adjustments to relieve the discomfort instead of waiting until it grew into an ache I could no longer ignore. I woke up this morning feeling more rested than I usually do. Although I'm allowing myself to think with words today, I'm finding it much easier to stop that stream of words at will, whether it's to focus on what I'm doing or to pay closer attention to the audiobook I'm listening to. I won't be permanently giving up words anytime soon, but I hope cutting back a little will help me better enjoy all the other ways to experience life.


  1. .

    I ... don't think I could go a day.

    Although, me, I do love silent film, but most of it is filled with intertitles, so I suppose it would be cheating anyway.

    1. Yeah, I knew it was virtually impossible to go 100% word-free, so I just aimed for as little as reasonably possible. The silent movie I tried watching did have intertitles, but it was still considerably fewer words than the dialogue in most movies.