But who had uttered these words? They had not frightened me. They were clearly audible to me yet they did not ring out across the air like the chilling cough of he old man in the chair. They came from deep inside me, from my soul. Never before had I believed or suspected that I had a soul but just then I knew I had. I knew also that my soul was friendly, was my senior in years and was solely concerned for my own welfare.
– Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
I’ve written before in my diary about experiencing dreams and waking moments when my internal-monologue ‘self’ has had a discussion with another entity inside my brain. This entity must also be myself, since it’s inside my brain, however it has certain unexpected qualities, chiefly that while my monologue “self”, the thing I think of as me, has a clear idea of what it is about to say, the other self’s intentions are completely opaque to me. I recall in dreams having a conversation and as well as having no idea what the self will say, I was surprised by its answers. Curiously, in this particular dream, the opaque self was looking after my wellbeing.
Ever since noticing this phenomenon I have also noticed how often one consults oneself, in a manner that implies two people are talking, how often I think of myself in the plural, how often I have a sensation of being divided or having differing thoughts simultaneously and of referring to myself as ‘we’.
My new thoughts of the day equate the self whose intentions are opaque with the part of the brain which causes me to take an action without conscious thought. I’m not talking about nervous system or autonomic actions, such as reacting away from pain, rather something I noticed that I was gaining while I was in my travelling year, which felt like the opposite of laziness. I found myself leaping up to take action to make something happen, rather than debating with my internal monologue about whether and how to take an action. In those moments it is as if the conscious self only engages with realising you are doing something after it has begun. It feels spontaneous, and “un-selfconscious”.
I was recently talking with a friend who seemed to be expressing an inability to achieve unselfconsciousness. The state is something similar to being in flow, but the absence of self-monologue occurs when experiencing pleasure, rather than necessarily needing to be performing an optimally stimulating task.
Judging from my own experience, it seems as if the benevolent, opaque self is the thing that takes action and the thing that can knowledgeably talk to you. I believe it is the main part of human life. However the internal monologue self can only occur in a modern world where every need is catered for: food, shelter, warmth, care and social life are all present by default and require no effort to achieve, at least for a very long time in early life, leaving an inordinate amount of time to sit around thinking.
The monologue self and the talking part of the action self only exist because of language, and the monologue self is only so strong due to the complexity of language, the early age that literacy is achieved and the amount of time spent thinking in it.
In my own individual experience as a person simultaneously intelligent, shy, artificially walled off from social interactions and having a preference for reading and writing as solo activities, I think my monologue self has been strongly developed whereas the ‘take action’ self neglected (and even deliberately suppressed by my elders/environment).
Throughout my life I have craved to behave more unselfconsciously, to be less lazy, or less paralysed, to worry about and be afraid of fewer things, to embrace new activities and to feel less trapped having internal experiences that other people don’t seem to share.
These thoughts about the two selves and where they come from feel reassuring to me, as they suggest a path to strengthen the one that takes action, and hopefully increase well-being too.