Brain surgery
April 17, 2013 3:04 PM   Subscribe

What are you thinking about all day?

I recently started working more actively on incorporating mindfulness practices into my daily life, specifically around my habit of obsessive thinking. I obsessively fixate on one thing or person, and rehearse conversations with that person, or repeatedly imagine scenarios around that thing. Now, I'm trying to notice when those obsessive thoughts happen, and instead of engaging in them, I just note them and observe them, identifying any obvious emotions or just noticing what I'm doing, like for example if I'm rehearsing a conversation with my girlfriend (a common obsession for me at the moment), instead of indulging in that conversation in my head, I say to myself, "Rehearsing", or if there's a feeling associated with it, I just name whatever the feeling is.

By being a lot more conscious of this, I realize how much of my day I spend having fairly obsessive thoughts. This predates my current obsessions - I'm pretty sure I've done this about one thing or another for my whole life. Often for me it's fantasizing about various impossible scenarios - I remember there was a period when (embarrassing but true) I was obsessively imagining that I was being interviewed by Terry Gross, and answering her questions about what I'd done with my life. But other times it's more about my real life, for example a relationship or a work-related issue that's bothering me. At these times, it feels like these obsessive thoughts "drive" me more than I want them to, and also sometimes serve as a distraction from something else I should be putting more thought or effort into in my life, hence the exercise in being more mindful about them.

But now that I'm being more aware of my thoughts I'm wondering, what else would I be doing with my brain if I wasn't doing this? What do most people do with their brains all day? I know there's not a "right" thing to be thinking about, but I'm hoping that by hearing more about what's sitting in other people's brains, I'll have a wider selection of things to occupy myself with. Or at minimum, I'll feel more normal for the weird ways I obsess.

So, when your gadgets are off, and you're by yourself, what are thinking about? What is actually taking up your brain all day? Are you remembering things? Replaying conversations? Making up creative ideas? What?
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
It used to be you could tune a television to an unprogrammed station, and it would just show black and white static— snow —and the sound that filled the room was an even white-noise buzz. Now that TVs don't do that anymore, I have to imagine it.
posted by carsonb at 3:10 PM on April 17, 2013

Hey, work with what you've got. You tend to obsess and rehearse, maybe to an unhealthy degree but I see those conversations (esp the one about Terry Gross!) as being imaginative and creative. They're fantasies. I think these "rehearsed" conversations are really, really common; they're a way to work through stuff. Mad at your girlfriend? Rehearse an argument and you'll probably realize exactly what it is you're mad about pretty quickly. Fantasizing about being interviewed because you've done something amazing? Kinda seems like you're seeking some part of fame, recognition or validation.

If you're thinking "door door door door door door" over and over, I could see that being sort of useless obsessing. Maybe you can wrangle in what exactly is behind your obsessive thoughts. Is it a feeling, a fantasy? Sounds interesting, imo. Better than thinking about what to eat for lunch.
posted by Katine at 3:13 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I kind of do what you do, and I will be watching with interest other responses to this questions, as I've long thought that it's probably not the best use of my brain power. So if it makes you feel better to know you aren't the only one.....
posted by Rapunzel1111 at 3:14 PM on April 17, 2013

Unchecked, my brain will do exactly as yours does. I consciously redirect its energies into planning the next scene of a book I'm working on, particularly honing dialogue between characters. This scratches the itch for rehearsing interactions while also pushing the project forward incrementally.
posted by itstheclamsname at 3:24 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

All of that in a mish-mash of varying stages of clarity and not all in sequential order throughout the day.

1. "Ergh I can't believe they said that they are SO ANNOYING. and I should have responded like Scenario 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...., FRYING PAN TO THE FACE, there should be RULES against that sort of thing, AW MY GAWD"

2. Best commercial idea ever! *Comes up with a little jingle* I should get paid!
Sing-song words, etc.

3. For two weeks now, in the background of almost everything I'm thinking, I've had Disney's song from Aladdin when he enters the city with his entourage (but only the first stanza on repeat) as well as the phrase "Prince AHB-BU-BU!" I haven't seen Aladdin in over 2 years at least.

Uh, sexy scenarios which are everything from "hey" to a romance novel in my head. Bawdy jokes. What I want to say for a situation, revised over and over and over. They wouldn't laugh if I saved everyone from something scary! Saving everyone ninja style. Saving everyone like a sexy pirate. Just being a sexy pirate. (Cue inner monologue of a sexy pirate romance novel). Pirates of the Carribean!; maybeI should watch that later. Kiera Knightley is hot. Scenario: Kiera Knightley and I as sexy pirates. Rar, we would sing a pirate song! *Comes up with pirate song*

And on and on and on. I don't have white noise. I have to listen to white noise or an audio book sometimes to escape my own brain.
posted by DisreputableDog at 3:27 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Everyone imagines chatting with Terry Gross, that's totally normal. Just be careful: I had an ongoing imaginary conversation with Maya Rudolph than went on for years, but when I bumped into her in real life, it was a total disaster.

In quiet mode, I think about my dog. Equal parts love and wonder when he was around, and sadness mixed with gratitude now that he's gone.
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:31 PM on April 17, 2013

I obsessively rehearse conversations too. I also regularly pretend I am Giada DeLaurentiis and that I am filming an episode of Giada at Home.

My internal monologue is really kind of silly, to be honest.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:35 PM on April 17, 2013

Oh. And sex. All the time. But that's just because it's so damn interesting.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:36 PM on April 17, 2013

If I'm doing a project, I end up being focused pretty hard just on that, and end up getting great brainstorming and planning done even during "off" time. I find it really hard to pull out of.

Otherwise, I can be thinking about pretty much anything. I'd say I lean towards pretty mundane things most of the time, though: thoughts on recent events or the things in front of me, past events and conversations, things I need to do, anxieties, plans for the future (I do make lots of plans).

I occasionally rehearse conversations, too.
posted by moira at 3:43 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

It never occurred to me that I might be obsessing. I make todo lists, constantly. I always have a list of lists that are for things that are going to be coming up and sort of reminding myself that I need to do this that and the other thing. And I go up and down the lists. Always. Unless I am asleep or at the gym or actively engaged in a thing with a person. Or on the phone. Sometimes even when I am on the phone.

So like right now I am remembering to cook up some green beans (sub-process about what recipe to cook, whether I have the ingredients, how long it will take, other green bean recipes I have known and loved) and planning a trip (sub-process about the meetup, the airline travel, the packing list, the places I'm staying, the talk I am giving, the time change for scheduling) and working at MeFi (sub-process: check flags, anon queue, answer questions, check recent activity, check email, check in with coworkers) and tidying up my place (sub-process: how to clean the windows, making a list of things to shop for, looking at things to put away, wondering where to shop for the things I need, when did I last do the dishes, do I need to repair the toilet, how soon is the humidifier out of water) and looking after myself (sub-process: when did I eat, are my legs sore, is this chair comfortable, do I need to put on a hat, do I need moisturizer, do I want a cough drop, do I need to get into my pajamas). And sometimes I just remember things, usually things that I liked (good meal, good interaction, pleasant snugglin time with my guy, family member I miss), occasionally things that I didn't like (bad dream, bad interaction, bad feeling).

I'm sure there's more, those were just the things I was thinking about when I was writing this. I never do rehearsed conversations in my head. It's interesting to read what people have written here.
posted by jessamyn at 4:07 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've suffered from various combinations of anxiety disorder, monopolar depression, and OCD since about age 11, and so I've had to learn various mindfulness techniques in order to cope. The thing is? I hate mindfulness. Hate, hate, hate. I like bouncing off the walls, thinking what I want, not being organized. But the truth is there's substantial empirical evidence that this is, in fact, the best way to deal with conditions like mine - if you have them.

The key thing I recommend is verify you actually have a problem before you get worried about whether your thoughts are obsessive or not. Unless you like mindfulness - an alien idea to me, but to each their own.
posted by LukeLockhart at 4:11 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Music plays in my head all the time, from entire symphonic works to the bubblegum pop ear worm implanted by the teenager driving a convertible. It's a blessing and a curse.
posted by carmicha at 4:13 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a Relationship Issue I've been obsessing over for a long time, that takes up most of my brain. I also wonder what I'd think about if I got past it.

The rest of the time, in no particular order:
I really have to do that thing I was supposed to do last week.
That would be a great comedy bit! I think I have natural timing. Wonder if there's a comedy open mic night on?
I eat too much sugar. I'm going to give myself diabetes. Could I cut out all sugar, is that possible? I'd lose weight too. Maybe ill start eating totally clean. Ill totally transform my health. Maybe I could design my own famous diet?
What are birds saying to each other?
I can just tell if I met (current famous person I'm obsessed with) we'd really get on. I'd ask really good questions about their latest whatever. (Cue long imaginary conversation.)
I should take up a sport. Maybe boxing. My arms would get really toned. I wonder if there's a woman's league or something I could join. *Imagines winning belts*
I should/nt have said/done that thing.
Everybody hates me I bet.
What's going to happen when this civilisation ends?
Where do we go when we die?
I should learn an instrument. Maybe I could get a regular gig somewhere. Maybe ill be discovered! I'd have to be careful on tour not to eat only junk food.

So basically drivel, delusions of grandeur, on and on and on. Obviously I never start ANY of the things I'm going to become master of.
posted by billiebee at 4:17 PM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

I do exactly what you do. I never thought of it as obsessive. I just thought I was imaginative.
posted by SyraCarol at 4:34 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I'm not actively engaged in a work thing or something else that takes all my focus, I frequently have a kind of fantasy life going on in addition to the little things people have mentioned above. Sometimes it's just in the background, and sometimes I'm more actively involved. I've done this for as long as I can remember. There are a few scenarios that seem to have long-term staying power in my brain, but others come and go or morph into the stable ones with new characters, etc. This is all kind of embarassing and I have rarely talked about it with people in RL, but I know I'm not alone in this.
posted by wens at 4:34 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Haha, I think the Terry Gross rehearsal thing is fairly normal. I have actually been engaged in a similar mindfulness project myself. I listened to a dharma talk about mindfulness and the speaker recommended stopping at points in your day and actually identifying what you were doing/thinking at that moment. I live alone so, crazy as it sounds, I started narrating out loud what I was thinking and doing while washing the dishes, (Like, "I am picking up the bowl. I am washing the bowl. I am noticing the warm water. I am feeling guilty as I notice I am wasting the water. I am listening to my cat meow. I am feeling guilty that maybe I am not a good cat owner.") It was kind of fascinating! It turns out that for me my frequent mental radio buzz includes acting out interviews with Terry Gross where she asks what it's like to have become a world famous concert pianist at age 30, and the other major theme for me personally was feeling guilty about things (esp. creating a mentally under-stimulating home environment for cats, being wasteful). I also act out conversations with my crush where I run into him unexpectedly somewhere where he'd typically be and act totally surprised! Or I imagine saying something really witty during a conversation and everyone thinks I'm totally intelligent.
posted by mermily at 5:28 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I look at stuff and my brain queries my memory to see if any meaning can be made. So if I'm somewhere familiar, it's looking for change or different angles or new details. If I'm somewhere unfamiliar, it's trying to match everything to known stuff or note it as new/unique.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:48 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everything. I have ADHD tho, so I guess it's my "normal". I wish I could obsess.
posted by MinusCelsius at 6:03 PM on April 17, 2013

I tend to go over conversations that have already happened. I think it's to convince myself that everything went "ok". I also go over conversations that haven't yet happened. Or, I'll get caught up in elaborate daydreams where both nice and terrible things happen.

I also rehearse small-talk type conversations that I'm about to have (while walking into work, for example). I think I do it to snap myself back into work mode and out of my daydream state.

Sometimes I make mental lists that I attempt to memorize or try to go back in time and recall details that I've forgotten. Or, if I can't recall an actor's name, I'll be happy to try to 'find' it in my mind instead of googling or asking anyone, because it's better than worrying, which is where my mind wants to go.

Sometimes I'll keep thinking a word over and over so as not to forget something like my train stop: "Ashland, Ashland, Ashland". But then, a million years later I'll realize I'm still saying "Ashland" repeatedly in the back of my mind.

Or, my brain will summon music if none is actually available. Sometimes it's just a an earworm, but mostly it seems more voluntary than that.
posted by marimeko at 6:15 PM on April 17, 2013

I was obsessively imagining that I was being interviewed by Terry Gross, and answering her questions about what I'd done with my life.

What? This isn't normal?

Intrapersonal communication is a thing, just like interpersonal communication. Communication researchers, and psychologists, study this.

Rehearsing conversations, playacting dialogues/monologues, reviewing past conversations is completely normal.

Some people are more verbally driven, so they have more "chatter" in their heads, and others are more visual, so they have less. The particulars vary between individuals. And, surely, constant obsessions that continually loop negative self-talk (or fixate on incidents that cause shame) are problems, and can be connected to anxiety disorders.

But what you are describing doesn't sound, off-the-cuff, like a problem. I mean, there are researchers who do in-depth studies on positive visualization/self-talk, personal narratives, and other modes of self-communication because it is a real thing, and is just as important/necessary to our psyches as what we say to others.

You know how, sometimes, when you have to explain a complicated problem/project to someone, you tell them something and then have an a-ha! moment in which you gain some insight or understanding about what you are talking about? That is a result of verbal processing.

A lot of what you are describing sounds like the same thing, except you are engaging in verbal processing with yourself.

Definitely, if you feel stuck on negative thoughts, or use those thoughts to beat yourself up, or feel they can't be controlled, be concerned. But, based on what I see in your question, you're probably fine. If anything, you are getting anxious over something that is fairly common, and that can be very healthy.

Oh, and if it makes you feel any better, I often imagine I am giving an interview related to whatever project I am working on - frequently, when I do, I can see what areas of the project need work or changing, or can more easily imagine what direction I should take it in.
posted by vivid postcard at 6:43 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, hey, and if you don't believe me, just look at these Google Scholar search results. I'm not super familiar with the state of contemporary intrapersonal communication research (biofeedback seems like the hot area now in psychology), but it was kind of a hip thing to talk about in the 90s.
posted by vivid postcard at 6:55 PM on April 17, 2013

I do everything you describe. I rehearse conversations and I fantasize a lot. I find these behaviors intrusive -- they are, for me, a form of avoiding my own life -- and have been approaching it much like you. When I catch myself fantasizing in a way that is taking me away from the present moment or is becoming repetitive, I say "Fantasy" to myself. I've also been trying to reframe the fantasizing as creative, instead of delusional, to give myself a break from feeling guilty about it. For a while, I was writing the fantasies down for my therapist, and while this was embarrassing for me, her sincere appreciation and interest in my inner fantasy life eased some of my own feelings of "wrongness" about it. Since doing this, I've also been sharing some of these little fantasies with friends, who are universally amused and interested in them, even though I'm finding a lot of them don't indulge in the same thought patterns. So, I guess it's become part of my "shtick" for now, which is better than being something I kept secret.

Still, I invest a lot of my emotional self into the fantasies, and that's where the problem comes in. I'd like to invest a whole lot more of myself into my actual emotional life. I have this fear of becoming, if I'm not already, like Walter Mitty.

The issue with rehearsing conversations, for me, is that when I am having the real conversation I've rehearsed, I'm often trying to get the real conversation to conform to the one I fantasized. In other words, I'm not listening to the words that are happening in the moment, but to the script in my head and trying to shoehorn the real conversation into the mold of the imagined one. One thing I'm trying to do is to catch myself in the real conversation when I realize I'm trying to force the fake conversation -- by saying out loud something like "oh, i'm a bit nervous right now, let's me start over," or something to acknowledge in an authentic, emotional way, my discomfort. That can help pop me right back into the present.

I've asked my friends, "what do you think about as you're falling asleep?" which is the period of time I do a lot of fantasizing and rehearsing. Some of them said they reflect on their day or make future plans, or analyze relationships or ideas. It makes me sad that my brain doesn't let me do this. I've tried to do it, and -- really -- my mind draws a blank when I try.

Those habits of thought are laid down early, and likely out of ways to protect from anxiety.

So I'm trying to accept the way my brain does work, and that first step is mindfulness, followed by forgiveness.

Our brains are different. There are a lot of people out there whose brains work like yours and mine, and others who don't fantasize with the same frequency or depth of detail and who don't rehearse fantasy conversations. Their brains are busy with other things. You aren't abnormal. Work on the things that bother you, but try not to spend time feeling ashamed about the way your brain works. At core, you're a storyteller, which is a pretty awesome thing.
posted by megancita at 6:59 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a lot of chatter in my head, too - conversations with characters from books. My particular quirk about it is that they're usually characters from the past who are now in my present time, and I have to catch them up on things that have happened, or I want their observations on how things have changed. It tends to happen at idle moments, like during the commute or wandering around the grocery store. I also do it when I'm falling asleep, and it feels like storytime - I grew up with a lot of stories around bedtime, so the idea of lying down and being in a dark room and having a story spun out for me feels right.

I have a small streak of anxiety and sometimes find myself obsessively reading Metafilter or listening to podcasts to give my brain something to chew on, but the fictional conversation habit doesn't worry me. I'm also frequently doing what DisreputableDog described, sort of "oh my gosh"-ing my way through the day.
posted by PussKillian at 7:49 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm amazed and slightly daunted by all the people that seem to have logical things going on in their heads! As far as I'm aware, mine is full of "monkey chatter" - thoughts that whirl around constantly and that barely have a chance to reach the end of a sentence before the next (often unrelated) one leaps in.

I've just started a mindfulness practice too, and was amazed when I realised just how much noise there was in my head, constantly.

I recently went on a weekend retreat, where one of the practitioners mentioned that it's very normal when you start meditating to feel as if any problems you might have with what goes on in your head initially get much worse before they get better. It's not that you're doing these things more, it's just that you're noticing them more. It's a first step on the way to gaining some control over them. So maybe you're not obsessing, you're just thinking, and you've only just noticed how much or how intensely.

The key is to be able to observe that it's happening without letting it upset you or throw you off. Just observe and accept.

Ha - sounds do simple when you write it down, doesn't it?!
posted by penguin pie at 1:40 AM on April 18, 2013

I kind of started out a lot like you describe. I have had a lot of imaginary conversations in my head and I have at times imagined being interviewed. I still do some of that. But it stopped being "obsessive" -- I.e. stuck in some kind of repetitive loop that didn't really go anywhere -- because I began analyzing what drove those thoughts and looking for resolution.

So say I have a crush or I know a guy who seems to be crushing on me. I might fantasize a conversation where we talk about that. It gets "stuck" and keeps repeating in my head. I get annoyed with it. So I start injecting reality -- "He will never say that because (insert real world facts)." Then I try to re-imagine the conversation more realistically. Then I start wondering what do I really want here? If he did tell me he was crazy about me, would I really want to, say, sleep with him? If so, why do I think that when I barely know him? If not, what would I say to deflect his attention while trying to minimize drama?

At some point, that process gets me thinking about what do I do in reality when I interact with this actual human being in the here and now. I think it helps me sidestep potential drama. It helps me clearly separate my feelings, hopes, dreams, yadda from other people and their actions and stay focused on pursuing personal goals, etc. It has taken years of practice and journaling and the like to get here. But now these imaginary conversations are a productive thing instead of something that makes me feel dysfunctional.

I also will think through things I want to write about, what I want to say in reply to something here, think about a dream I had and try to analyze it, make plans for the day, run down a checklist that tells me whether or not my big picture goals are on track, have music playing in the background of my mind, see something that reminds me for the umpteenth time that I want to do blah and then either finally make a note about blah or forget again for the umpteenth time, etc.

If I am in a lot of pain and alone and with nothing to do, my internal monologue turns to railing about stuff and wallowing in self pity. I try to minimize how much time I spend there. I try to do something about my pain or I try to have something to mentally occupy myself or I try to not be alone when I am really suffering.
posted by Michele in California at 6:23 AM on April 18, 2013

Music also playing in my head, usually. What else am I thinking about? Sexual fantasies, mostly, and whatever else is currently obsessing me..
posted by Rash at 8:05 AM on April 18, 2013

I absolutely do this too, and have for as long as I can remember. I used to write entire melodramas about a relationship, starting with my crush-of-the-moment falling for me and going through an entire courtship and marriage - it was the only way for me to go to sleep for many, many years, even as a kid. When I started having actual relationships, I found that writing such a narrative could be damaging to the way I acted in real life - I'd be mad about things that hadn't really happened, or let go of problems that had only been addressed in my mind. I retrained my inner screenwriter to focus on things that didn't really matter, like scripting elaborate vacations or meals, and I still do that when I have trouble falling asleep. Aside from getting confused about real life and fantasy conversations, I don't see any harm in these types of thoughts.

In terms of what I think about during my fully awake hours, I am much like Jessamyn, always keeping lists with step-by-step aspects. I order and re-order them constantly and they range from the mundane (write shopping list for this afternoon, don't forget to put peas on it) to the divine (recreating the feeling I achieved during yoga last weekend).

At least once a day I try to follow my thoughts back to see where they came from, which is always an interesting exercise. It also helps to break up any obsessiveness that might show up if I can't leave something alone.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:34 AM on April 18, 2013

Fascinating question! I never considered this before but I mostly think in pictures, I have a continual slideshow of freeze frames going through my head, many appended with pictures of words, speech or thought bubbles, that I can view from multiple perspectives and shuffled like cards to make new sequences.. Some of them are well worn, some are from earlier that day and some are totally made up but it's pretty much a perpetual stream of infinitely zoomable, usually chiaroscuro or heavily saturated pictures with some words, sometimes set to music. The music itself is graphically represented, like a transparent overlay. I do obsess, quite often about about particular moments and will gnaw on and tend those images endlessly. It's very satisfying.

Everything I know know and remember and imagine is mostly stored as image sequences. I've never thought about it before but it must be why I retain ideas thoughts and analysis very vividly but find some information hard to keep hold of - there's no associated imagery for say, a phone number, or a math problem I'm currently struggling with in the real world.

I also spend a lot of time considering plans and outcomes by doodling them in my head, as spider or venn diagrams or process maps and then mentally shading bits in as tasks are 'ticked off' but this tends to be surface thought that isn't retained - actual plans have to be physically written down or they'll evaporate. So I also spend a fair amount of time trying to retrieve the components of that baroque plan with brilliant strategic application that seemed perfect in the moment but now seems to evade me entirely.

It's all very compelling and probably why I'm so massively distracted most of the time.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:06 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

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