Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Illusion of Free Will – Introspection (1) : Chains of Thought

Without spending too much of your time writing a long introduction, like the one I’m writing right now, I’d like to introduce you to an aspect of existence you may or may not be familiar with or even interested in. You may have tried it once or twice. I’m talking about closing your eyes and letting your thoughts run wild, shutting out the outside world and drifting down your stream of consciousness. It’s pretty relaxing – to me at least – but that is not why I do it. I do it because it reminds me of what I am. 

Before describing the process any further in my next post, let me share with you an anecdote of my life. As you will know by now, that means the text will turn green and the letters will lean slightly to the right, as if patiently listening to the anecdote of a sleep-deprived teenager.

It’s sometime around May. Exams are approaching with the stealth of a rainbow-coloured elephant in a bag of M&Ms and the intimidating aura of a lion firmly pacing towards a group of M&M-sized elephants. This is the first semester of medicine. A new life has begun. Surely I will read all the recommended literature from cover to cover months before the exam period starts? Nope. What was I expecting? I’m sitting here on a Sunday afternoon reading about human behavioural psychology in a book so thick I could wipe my posterior with half the pages and it wouldn’t affect my exam results. Reading for the exams makes me forget that this is in fact what interests me the most in life. The human mind and how it interacts with other minds. Well, that and boobs I guess. Anyway, the book says nothing about boobs as it keeps ranting on and on about the different types of attachment, and as I just told you I forgot it’s actually a very interesting topic, so having eliminated any possibility of being remotely interested in what this book might contain, I drift off in my mistaken boredom.
I think about my ambidextrous mathematics teacher from “French school”, then about the time he threw a sponge at me but missed, greeted by my victorious laughter, then about the time some people laughed at a joke I had made (a rare phenomenon some claim), then about a live performance with my amateur band, then about going to the hair dresser and cutting my hair down to 3 millimetres, then about shooting an eraser across the classroom using a fairly elastic ruler-catapult, then I realised I had kept scanning down the page of the book as if still reading, without actually having consciously experienced a single word. And I got an idea. What if a single word or phrase in the book on behavioural psychology had triggered my mental digression? This could be interesting. What if I tried to reverse my stream of consciousness until I reached a thought that reminded me of something in the book – the something that had reminded me of the first thought. And so I did. I rewound the sequence of thoughts until I reached the thought labeled with the word “ambidextrous”, then scanned the page in the book backwards until I reached a word that could have caused my digression. Ambivalent attachment, ambi-, ambidextrous.
Bingo. A small victory for my obsessive, inquisitive nature. The fact that I was able to identify the word that triggered my day-dreaming was cool enough, but what did I notice about the two adjacent thoughts? They had something in common. Was it a coincidence? Grouping each adjacent pair of thoughts following from the first one, I noticed the exact same phenomenon. A Chain of Thoughts. The prefix ambi- made me think of my ambidextrous teacher, who had an obsession with throwing sponges at us (his students). The failed sponge toss was associated with laughter. My laughter made me think of people laughing at my joke. The popularity made me think of the live performance. The live performance made me think of my profile picture on Facebook in which I thought my hair was far too long. This reminded me of the trip to the hairdresser (located in a completely different part of my life, mind you). The 3mm long hair reminded me of the ruler. 

So awkwardly mundane, yet so fascinating. The repercussions of this experience are in fact so fascinating that I will spoil you with more accounts of how this phenomenon has consumed days, weeks and months of my existence.