Who Thinks Our Thoughts?

At the invitation of Princeton University Press, I have just read a fascinating forthcoming book, Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self, by Fresno State psychologist Robert Levine. In one chapter, Levine, who is one of psychology’s most creative writers, recalls a time when ideas rushed into his head, which he quickly put on paper. “It felt as if there was a very clever fellow somewhere inside me, a guy who came up with better ideas than I ever could. What right did I have to pat myself on the back? I was little more than a recording secretary.”

Levine recounts people’s experiences of ideas popping to mind unbidden. Many writers report feeling like scribes for story lines and sentences that come from, to use Charles Dickens’ words, “some beneficent power.” An artist friend of mine tells me of his delight in observing what his hand is painting. “The writer Robert Davies summed it up neatly,” reports Levine: “‘I am told the story. I record the story.’”

As a writer, that, too, is my frequent experience. As I make words march up the screen, I often feel more like a secretary, a mere recorder of ideas and words that come from I know not where. And yet I also know that if I keep reading and reflecting—and feeding the friendly little genie that each of us has in our heads—it will keep dictating, and I will continue transcribing.

To a 21st century psychological scientist, the genie-like muse is an eruption of our active unconscious mind. In study after study, people benefit from letting their mind work on a problem while not consciously thinking about it. Facing a difficult decision, we’re wise to gather information, and then say, “Give me some time to not think about this.” After letting it incubate, perhaps even sleeping on it, a better answer—or a better narrative—may appear unbidden.

To others, the voice in one’s head may seem like “the Spirit at work,” or even the still small voice of God.

Or, perhaps, it is both?