January 20th, 2019

We often, at least linguistically, frame the origin of some types of thought as external to us — outside our locus of control. Dreams “arise” during sleep. Ideas “come to us.” We can prime ourselves for brainstorming by, say, standing in a hot shower for a bit, but spontaneous thought is something that drifts towards us like a dandelion in a breeze.

At the same time, we often consider these same thoughts and their products as securely within the realm of personal responsibility. We praise artists for the originality of their work. Scientists for their ability to think outside a paradigm. Mathematicians for their creative approach to a proof. Philosophers for their ability to see a frame experience in a new light. By the same token, we scorn individuals for having “dirty” thoughts, or for acting on unsavory impulses.

In Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, the main character, Kafka Tamura, ensconced in a dense forest with a book on Adolf Eichmann, finds a note penciled in in the margin by his friend:

“It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.”

Here Murakami lays bare the paradox of the responsibility for spontaneous thought. The instant a thought arises, even in the abstracted form of a dream, it becomes part of us. Thus, for it we are responsible.

Both scientific and philosophical accounts of spontaneous thought are in their infancy. Philosophers are still in the business of trying to define the terms of the discussion (mind-wandering, dreaming, brainstorming, creativity, etc.), drawing heavily on common use and poetic metaphor. As such, a metaphysics of spontaneous thought still lies ahead in the future. Questions left to address: Can a thought spring up from nowhere without any initial stimulus? What tips the first domino in a chain of thoughts? What gives some thoughts the character of intentionality, while others seem to be outside of our control? Is there any meaning in this last question at all, or is free choice an illusion?

In cognitive science, there has been some excitement surrounding the notion that quantum mechanics can describe patterns of human thought (the original journal article, if you’re feeling ambitious). The quantum mechanical conception is conceivable under decision-making scenarios, which have a fixed set of choices, each with an assigned probability, but breaks down a bit at the edges of the conscious mind, where thoughts drift in from outside the current vignette. What is the origin of a thought that isn’t a choice in a decision making process? Is there some near-infinite set of thoughts that could possibly occur at any instant, presumably based on combinations of past thoughts and experiences? What is the process of defining, and modifying the probability that a certain thought will arise?

Furthermore, the quantum mechanical approach fails to take into account the phenomenological experience of the other half of the paradox: that of responsibility and ownership of our thoughts. If our proclivities for our thoughts are reduced to statistical probabilities, from where does the feeling that our thoughts are ours come?

We consider the contents of our thoughts, especially our spontaneous thought, to be a main constituent of our self-hood. Our own thoughts (summed up, perhaps, with the thoughts that others have about us) form our identity. I can’t help but feel grief at the notion of our creativity and individuality being reduced to a mathematical model…

Addendum: From my vague understanding of the practice, meditation often reframes an individual’s outlook on the control of their thoughts. A cliché states that during meditation you observe the thoughts that drift into your head and let them go. If you have any experiences in meditation that engage with these questions, please write in!

Jacob Read, also known as Jerkcurb, is a South London-based musician and illustrator whose work simultaneously channels a post-apoctolyptic nihilism and 1950s nostalgia. (Some may recognize him from his collaborations with another British crooner, King Krule.) Start with his dazzling music video for Night on Earth and listen to Midnight Snack off the same 2016 release (SpotifyApple MusicYoutube).

I generally try to dissuade myself from thinking too far into the future (especially about things which I cannot control), for the sake of my sanity. But that didn’t stop me from getting a kick out of this article in New York magazine (which is also a podcast) featuring predictions on what the world will look like in 20 years, with experts in their respective fields acting as the soothsayers.

If you have a love of miniatures as deep as mine (fairy houses, dollhouses, those tiny Japanese cooking videosminiature horse stables), you will be tickled by Rosa De Jong’s “Micro Matter” sculpture series.

And in a similarly microscopic, but more somber universe, Miyu Kojima, an employee at a company that cleans up kodokushi, or lonely deaths, started crafting haunting miniature replicates of the scenes which she has encountered. Kojima’s work, in addition to being an artistic marvel, is intended to draw attention to the social crisis of loneliness in Japan, a crisis which is unfortunately taking hold on our continent as well. (Warning: the work may be disturbing to some viewers.)

That’s all for this week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts tobutterforthebrain@gmail.com. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

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