Posted by: spacewritinguy | February 27, 2008

Thinking About Thinking

I had a moment of what I call metaconsciousness the other day (someone else has a different definition, but that is not mine). It goes something like this: instead of just going through my daily routine, I suddenly become hyper-aware of the fact that I’m thinking. I don’t know what this state is called, but for me it’s like waking up from a dream and asking, “My God, I’m alive and thinking. What am I doing here?” Sometimes–like just now, dammit–I can get a slight chill up my spine. What does this chilled spine mean?

The feeling goes away eventually, and I go back to my old habits–it’s amazing how much of my life I can put on autopilot–even writing. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just a matter of being shaken out of my normal routine. I’ve been doing my job, my various space advocacy activities, and otherwise living my life. And then, Bam! I find myself pausing in mid-thought and asking, “Is this the most useful thing I could be doing with my self/life?”

I’d like to blame this on the whole mid-life-crisis thing, but I’ve been having thoughts like this since I was about 10. And rumors to the contrary, when I cross the next big, round number, I’m unlikely to buy a convertible or pick up a 25-year-old girlfriend. I do think the hyper-consciousness is partly the result of vacation planning for a place I’ve never been before, which is causing me to pay more attention than I would, say, if I was going on a trip back home or to Disney World, where I’ve been a couple dozen times.

I just wish I knew what the consciousness-of-thinking thing meant. Is there some psychological basis for it? What function does it serve? What should I do about it? And why is it so easy, if it feels like waking up, to go back to the slumber of my old habits? Maybe it’s that little moment of cogito ergo sum that reminds me that if I am because I think, then I guess I’d better have a constructive use for that thinking.

Oh, here’s something interesting on hyperconsciousness:

  • Consciousness is defined as being “an alert cognitive state in which you are aware of yourself and your situation.”  
  • “For any given individual, his normal state of consciousness is the one in which he spends the major part of waking hours”
  • Rather than suppressing a substantial amount of sensory input, the manipulation aims to produce a “sensory overload or bombardment, which may or may not be accompanied by strenuous physical activity or exertion.” My comment: No, this is not a sensory matter so much as an intellectual/emotional experience.
  • Ah: this is more like it: “Increased alertness or mental involvement: mental states which appear to result primarily from focused or selective hyperalertness with resultant peripheral hypoalertness over a sustained period of time” (14). Rather than overloading cognitive input, the cognitive individual exposes him/herself to an elapsed period of mentally processing.
  • The most relevant quality of the altered state of consciousness is the ability to acquire a wide-array of “insights” not before recognized through normal consciousness. “At times [of altered consciousness], it appears as thought the person is undergoing an attenuated ‘eureka’ experience during which feelings of profound insight, illumination, and truth frequently occur” Hm. Maybe. I haven’t run naked from the bathtub yet, but I do have moments of stark personal clarity at times.

This is not a religious experience, though that might come the closest, as I find myself aware of myself as a creation or subject to a Creator. It’s almost as if I hear a silence presence speaking to me and asking, “So, I put you here–what are you doing with yourself?”

And there’s this from a self-proclaimed “fangirl” (SF fan?):

It’s not just that you’re wired. It’s that every single neuron in your brain is zinging along in perfect four-part harmony. Everything WORKS, and that wire is tight and zinging in the wind. Somehow, in some way, you’ve punched through that red rubber sheet into the uberconsciousness of your forebrain. Your mind is running a hundred miles an hour, words tumble out of your mouth or out of your fingers almost that fast, you make lightning-fast connections between things you’ve never dared to think about in the same minute before. You find the strangest shit funny, and convince other people to find it funny as well.

Of course this girl makes the experience sound more like a drug trip than a moment of supreme sobriety, which is essentially what I’m having, given the lack of adult beverages in my diet since January 1.

Then there’s the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

hyper- prefix Latin hyper-, from Greek, from hyper — more at over

1: above : beyond : super- <hypermarket> 2 a: excessively <hypersensitive> b: excessive <hyperemia> 3: that is or exists in a space of more than three dimensions <hyperspace> 4: bridging points within an entity (as a database or network) nonsequentially <hypertext>
con·scious·ness  noun 
1 a: the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself b: the state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state, or fact c: awareness; especially : concern for some social or political cause 2: the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought : mind 3: the totality of conscious states of an individual 4: the normal state of conscious life <regained consciousness> 5: the upper level of mental life of which the person is aware as contrasted with unconscious processesAnd since consciousness uses concious in its definition, I must go back a step:

con·scious adjective Etymology: Latin conscius, from com- + scire to know

1: perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation <was conscious that someone was watching> 2 archaic : sharing another’s knowledge or awareness of an inward state or outward fact 3: personally felt <conscious guilt> 4: capable of or marked by thought, will, design, or perception 5: self-conscious 6: having mental faculties undulled by sleep, faintness, or stupor : awake <was conscious during the surgery> 7: done or acting with critical awareness <a conscious effort to do better> 8 a: likely to notice, consider, or appraise <a bargain-conscious shopper> b: being concerned or interested <weight-conscious models> c: marked by strong feelings or notions <a race-conscious society>

Awake…awareness…notice…concern…interest. Yeah, I guess that’s what it is. When you spend as much time in your head as I do, you’re liable to catch yourself in the act. Sort of like, say, a professional tennis player going through the motions that have become automatic to him/her through long practice, but taking a few seconds to focus on the actions and considering how they’re doing and thinking, damn, this is fun! Or: should I be hitting it there? Or: shit, you’re screwing up!

Again, this is just a temporary effect. I haven’t ever seriously changed my life based on one of these episodes, though I do tend to be more mindful of what I’m doing for a few days afterward. Thinking about thinking about thinking. How many levels of abstraction is that? Occupational hazard, I suppose. Maybe I just need a break from thinking? No, that’s what drinking amounts to for me. Sometimes I’ve come home and obliterated my brain cells just because I was tired of all the concentrated consciousness required for my job and just wanted to let the mind free-associate or not associate at all. It’s probably not healthy, but then thinking about space exploration 24/7 can’t exactly be healthy, either.

My friends and coworkers are right: I need a new hobby.

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