The fallibility of thought balloons

Anyone who’s into fine art and high culture is, of course, aware of the modern comic book. And thus you know that whenever a character in a comic book thinks thoughts they are enclosed in an little “thought bubble.” Within these thought bubbles, a character might think something like, “When Doc Ock and Kraven the Hunter kidnapped Mary Jane,I was certain that the game was up. I never could have predicted that the Captain Universe powers would reappear!”

There’s one big problem with the thought bubble concept: people don’t think with an inner dialogue. Our “inner life” is not so much a consistent narrative as it is an ongoing flicker of thoughts and sensations. In the above example, Spiderman wouldn’t mentally speak those thoughts; rather he would have a sensation of Doctor Octopus and Kraven the Hunter and then a reflection of the danger that they had placed Mary Jane in. This might be accompanied by mild visceral sensations — a quickening of the pulse and tightening of the stomach when he thinks of almost losing his beloved — as well as the strange tangential left turns the brain can often take; he might be thinking about the tiger-like Kraven the Hunter, and the process would guide his mind towards the notion of felines, which might make him briefly think about his neighbor’s cat.

A book I’ve been reading — Jonah Lehrer’s “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” — has an interesting chapter on how the writing of Virginia Woolf tackled the challenge of trying to capture our inner life in words. Woolf, who spent so much time analyzing her own mental state that she eventually killed herself, was searching for the “self.” At any given moment, say, a dinner party, we are assaulted with numerous perceptions. The smell of food, the taste of the food, the appearance of our surroundings, the innumerable conversations occurring around us etc. But our self only focuses on some of these perceptions. Lehrer describes how Woolf wrestled with this issue.

But how does the self a rise? How do we continually emerge from our sensations, from the “scraps, orts and fragments” of which the mind is made?

Woolf realized that the self emerges via the act of attention. We bind together our sensory parts by experiencing them from a particular point of view. During this process, some sensations are ignored, while others are highlighted.

Woolf, Lehrer argues, eventually realized her search for the self was fruitless.

How does the self transcend the separateness of its attentive moments? How does a process become us? For Woolf, the answer was simple: the self is an illusion.… just as a novelist creates a narrative, a person creates a sense of being. The self is simply our work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity… If it didn’t exist, then nothing would exist. We would be a brain full of characters, hopelessly searching for author.”

In a sense, Woolf was arguing that the contents of our inner “thought balloon” is our self. While it isn’t literally verbally narrating our thoughts — comic book style — it is the story that ties all our jumbled perceptions and sensations into a logical narrative. And of course, if you lose that sense of self, as people sometimes do, the results are not pretty.

Did I just totally blow your mind?

One other thing I realized while reading this chapter on Virginia Woolf: she was a total babe, reminiscent of Winona Ryder. Here’s a pic.

3 Responses to “The fallibility of thought balloons”


  1. John Saleeby

    Wow! Pictures of cute girls! There should be more of those on the internet! Maybe you could have teenage Asian girls. Somebody get to work on that.

  2. Wil

    Find me some teenage Asian girls who contemplated how our consciousness is formed out of disparate sensations and perceptions and you’ve got a deal!

  3. John Saleeby

    We could probably find Asian girls who do that. Some of them might have dicks, but they do that.