I talked in a [forthcoming] post about the vocals in pop music representing the narration you do in your head as you live day-to-day. While it took me a while to get clear on this narrator, I finally arrived at “the thing I use any time I use language”: when I re-read these words in my head, when I talk to myself or others, when I name objects, etc.
I’ve been differentiating elements in music lately – figuring out that sounds represent emotions, rhythm represents body movement, and the vocals represent your mental commentary. From what I can tell so far, Taylor Swift’s reputation gets this and uses it well. So when I was thinking about examples of the narrator, Taylor Swift’s “what?” in this video came to mind:
It’s a very shocked, indignant ejection; many people I know who respond that way do so instinctively, without thinking. (Imagine the drama queen who takes offense at everything.) Many of these people seem stuck, speaking directly from their emotions quite often (if not always). That gave me a thought: what if they haven’t differentiated the narrator from their emotions?
Emotion and narration are like two lenses that overlay our perception of the world:
Rephrasing my question: what if these people didn’t realize you could separate the two lenses? that they rotated independently?
Separating the Lenses
When all the lenses are down: I see a friend – I feel excitement – I say in my head “Oh, there’s Stacy!” I don’t pay attention to the feeling and the thought – they’re like something in my peripheral view. I vaguely know something is there, but unless it acts up in a weird way I’m not giving it any attention or close scrutiny. Always present, never noticed. It’s just like looking through glasses: I know the frames are there, but 99% of the time I’m not paying any attention to them, and they bypass my conscious awareness. This is just part of how I experience the world, like a fish not paying attention to water.
Once I notice them for the first time, I can pay attention to them and know that they’re separate from my perception – I’m the perceiver, they’re the perceived.
I don’t need either the narrator or the emotional lens down to see through the other. I can flip up my narrator lens and just see (and feel, provided I’ve previously identified the object I’m seeing).
On this theory, the people stuck in their emotions don’t know how to flip up the lens: some have noticed the frame (they’re aware they have emotions) but think they’re stuck seeing through them (people who get really emotional, know it, but can’t help it); others don’t even notice the frame. Those people couldn’t recognize the possibility of flipping their emotions lens up for a moment, of seeing that their feelings are one tool of experiencing the world, which they can set down for a moment (not throw away or hide). They are their emotions.
At this moment that I realized: I always have the narrator on. I’m always trapped in him. (I think this is why I struggled to differentiate it.) Any time I look at the world, there are words running in my mind. I looked at this speaker:
I saw that top circle and immediately thought the words “top circle”. I wondered: can I turn the narrator off?
I jumped to: if I were going to remember this speaker, I’d usually resort to “there’s a large circle on the top, two smaller circles (the screws) below it…” So I told myself “I need to memorize what this looks like, but I’m not allowed to use any words.”
Try it out now with something physical near you.
What I found is that I perceived clearer than I have in years. I was actually looking at the object.
I immediately started noticing spatial relationships as I tried to find anchors for memory:
…but got too excited and went on to other things. (Look at how detailed this is!)
The whole time I perceived without words. I realized very clearly: the narrator is just a tool, like my emotions – it’s the perceived, not the perceiver.
I can set it aside.
Are You Really in Reality?
If you pay attention (and you’re like me), you do this all the time. You have to name everything, even the stuff you already know and don’t need to name. Every time you’re hungry, you automatically say to yourself “I’m hungry”, instead of just feeling the feeling and then walking to the refrigerator. It has to come through the narration to come through.
This cripples your perception which cuts you off from reality.
When you say “I’m hungry”, your attention isn’t on the feeling of hunger, it’s on the words. The words are used for memory. You have this feeling, and you give it a name – “hunger” – by noticing the feeling and tying it to the word. Then, even when you’re not hungry, you can say “hunger” and recall a hint of what that feels like (just like you remember other sensations like the warmth from a coffee cup on your hand or the pain from a shot in your arm). Words are one way to store and recall past sensations.
When you focus on the word “hunger”, you’re focused on the memorized sensation of hunger, not the actual hunger. You’re experiencing two different sensations. For example, notice a current sensation – maybe hunger, or the pressure of your clothes, or your feet on the floor. Now remember the bodily sensations from the last warm coffee you had – not an image of it in your head, but the specific sensations your skin, tongue and arm muscles felt. (Or go for a stronger memory, like sex.)
The sensation of your feet on the floor didn’t go away, but you probably weren’t watching it – you were too absorbed in the sensations of the coffee (or the sex). Both were there, though. Current sensations and memories of past ones can coexist, but you can’t experience each of them equally at the same time: if you’re more focused on one, you’re less focused on the other.
When you’re always saying “I’m hungry” at the first sign of hunger – when you hardly let yourself feel the sensation before you name it – you’re skipping over the actual sensation of hunger and recalling a past memory of it, then focusing on that instead. You’re not feeling hunger; you’re remembering it. You can do this with any object – “tree”, “ball”, “swing”, “sister”. Say it soon enough and you skip reality and go straight to memory. Your eyes are bringing in the perception, but you’re not focused on your visual data; you’re off in your head playing with words. You’re not experiencing the world; you’re remembering it.
How often are you looking at an old photograph instead of the real thing?
A Note on Abstractions
Abstractions are vital to living, and this post shouldn’t be taken as an attack on them. It deals only with the process of perceiving familiar objects; you have to call in the narrator at some point when conceptualizing new objects. There’s also likely a process of refreshing abstractions – a maintenance process – that you have to do regularly with ones like “hunger” to maintain the strength of the recalled feeling, which requires recalling the memory via the word. This post doesn’t talk about that, and what I’m saying above shouldn’t be taken as forbidding it.
Your emotions and narrator are each tools you can set aside – lenses you can flip up and down to enhance your vision. You are the perceiver, they are some of the things you perceive. You have to flip the narrator up to experience reality directly.