Wednesday, September 14, 2011


In this debate with my chemist friend that I mentioned in the previous entry, we discussed various things that would qualify as examples of thinking two separate thoughts simultaneously. Among the things tossed around were one-man marching bands, "reading" and advancing pages in a book while thinking about an unrelated topic, and writing two different stories simultaneously––one story with each hand. The latter was the only feat we could both agree was evidence that thinking two simultaneous thoughts is possible, I just needed an account of somebody successfully doing it.

I was certain I had read stories about ambidextrous writers composing two stories simultaneously, but when I went looking I had trouble finding them. According to several sources Branwell Brontë, Emily Brontë's brother, could write two different letters simultaneously, one with each hand. But there was another piece of evidence I was looking for that I could not put my finger on, then I stumbled across this interview, which was probably somewhere deep in my subconscious (I had not seen the material since I was five):


Nick Hagger said...

I think the 'two stories simultaneously' is better evidence for the 'two simultaneous thoughts'idea you seem to be getting at. Writing two different stories at the same time would require the same brain machinery to be similarly active and connected at the same time to a degree that would output the results of two, distinct stories. I'm not sure however that they could be completely distinct as the way the brain works would not be analagous to two parallel pipes carrying information through the same areas, rather specialised networks processing two concurrent signals and outputting them to seperate final channels. As with reading two stories at the same time, the content of one will inevitably colour the interpretation of the other, and signals passing through a network transmissably processing another signal will inevitably emerge differently than if they encountered a network not already engaged in processing activity. Therefore the stories could potentially be inextricable in some abstract sense.

Mike said...

Maybe it would be harder for the brain to have two thoughts that were very similar like writing 2 stories at the same time, how about two different acts? you could even make a test, say a person has to write a story while while someone asks them maths questions.

You could wait for them to get into the flow of the story then ask them increasingly harder maths questions. Think it would be easier if they were writing about a memory rather then making up a story on the spot.

Katz said...

I don't believe this is proof of anything but one time I was on around 400mg of benadryl and as I was trying to fall asleep my thought process divided into three parts and I truly felt as if I had 3 different brains at once. It was really interesting. Something about writing with two hands at once though is that it could be one mind bouncing very quickly back and forth between hands, not necessarily 2 thoughts at once

Anonymous said...

You should read Distraction by Bruce Sterling. It features the only narrative account of simultaneous parallel thought that has ever made me feel like I understand what it might be like.

Amazon link:

Rigen said...

I think it would help if you pondered on how film works, 24 frames per second. Our brains perceive the film as being continuous yet we know the film is composed of distinct frames. When you talk about simultaneous thoughts I think what is actually happening is the thoughts being switched quickly between each other, giving the perception of simultaneity.

I have a sense that this way of the brain working is necessary to incorporate past knowledge (ie memory) into a working thought without the whole process being too cumbersome to be of any importance. Although our brains work faster then the thoughts that arise, this is necessary in mining the memory retrieval to solve problems, answer questions and utilize the lifetime of experience we build.

erika said...

this radiolab episode is about this guy who can hear four distinct symphonies playing at the same time. its pretty great.

[law] said...

If you grant that counting in your head is a form of 'thought' then I have a simple experiment for you that demonstrates a well-known example of parallel thought:

A common speed-reading technique is to count upwards from zero in your head while you read, which ties up your internal monologue with a 'mindless' task so that your eyes are free to drift across the page as quickly as your brain can interpret the information. It works really well and the results are measurable, repeatable and testable on yourself with materials right at your fingertips.

You don't even have to be a Victorian novelist's autistic savant brother to do it!