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How does the mind go?

By Memrise Blog

I don’t know if this is true of anyone else, but my default way of understanding what goes on in my head is that different kinds of mental process go at different speeds.

So I typically think of perception (seeing, hearing etc) taking place really fast; and thought being a bit slower, and emotion being slower still.

And because when something happens fast, I intuitively figure that it can then happen more often, I tend to think of there being loads of experience of sights and sounds in my mind, then not quite as many thoughts, and then still not quite as many emotions.

But I think that’s wrong. I think that our thought and emotion and perception are so interwoven that it’s impossible, and maybe even incoherent, to think of one happening quicker or more often than the other.

I was reminded of this just now when I had what is quite possibly the weirdest and most entertaining 1/2 second of facial perception in my life.

To my left, I was vaguely aware of a middle-aged man. At some point my eyes flicked over to him, and in the half second or second that followed, something like the following sequence of thoughts, emotions and percepts was included:

First, I mis-recognized his bearded, somewhat prognathic face, as that of Harold Shipman (the infamous, and now deceased, serial-killer); the resulting admixture of thought and emotion -surprise, horror, “it’s impossible” were dominant- was almost instantaneously dispatched by the looming sense that it was Robin Williams with Good Will Hunting beard before me: a sense of rich recognition, fuzzy warmth and a clear aura of general wholesomeness arose in my mind; but this was just as soon replaced by a bemused neutrality when I realized I didn’t know the person; and that fresh neutrality was then shattered when the man made eye-contact with my somewhat astonished-looking face, and registered a horrified surprise of his own, which naturally amplified my horrified surprise, and I averted my eyes and continued on my way.

These kinds of kaleidoscopic mish-mashes of perception, thought and emotion happen the whole time, but in such speedy, automatic, microscopic form, that I don’t readily recognize it and can spend weeks at a time not noticing. But when it happens in this kind of extreme form, it really brings home just how much thought and emotion and perception intermix, how quickly they travel, and how enjoyably they interrelate. Such fun being a human!