Who Thinks Our Thoughts

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Originally posted on January 22, 2016.

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?

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).