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I was twenty before I learned to run properly. I was taught by Coach Johnson, the white-haired, cross-country coach. I only enrolled in his weight training course for partial fulfillment of my liberal arts college’s “health and wellness” requirement. We did spend most of an hour four times a week in the gym’s weight room, but ahead of that, we met at the carpeted track on the third floor where Coach Johnson presided over our execution of a mile run.
I had jogged for years before weight training, but never non-stop. Everytime I’d start, a single spot in the lower right side of my abdomen would tighten, then ache, a cramp radiating pain through my stomach. So I’d stop and walk. Jog, walk, jog, walk, jog, walk. Till weight training. Coach Johnson insisted we run the full mile. When I explained about my cramp, he nodded his understanding but said, you have to run through it.
Because I had to, I did. It took practice, but for the first time in my life, I could run a mile without stopping. The success was exhilarating. I found that the cramps, though they inevitably came, would subside after a while and the pain would contract, from its permeation of my organs, back to a tiny place that blurred with the movement of my legs. The secret was in my focus. When the stab came, I concentrated on my breathing. If I could keep my breath consistent, my legs moving despite the ache, it would fade before it overwhelmed me.
It took another ten years before I recognized the generalizability of this lesson. Running by then had become a central part of my life. It had gotten me through four years of graduate school, a mile run opening or closing the regular hour I spent each morning in the weight room—a rare deviation during days filled with homework, classes, and computer screens.
Running got me through the last year of my dissertation research. That year, I stopped listening to music entirely during exercise, I found I didn’t want it. Instead, five, six, ten-mile runs doubled as brainstorming sessions. I’d focus on a problem, think it through. Then I’d explain it to my partner, who’d silence his music and listen to my proposals so I could sanity check my solutions and remember my ideas long enough to get home and implement them.
I could think easier when I ran, that much was clear. Something about the repetition of a physical activity made my mind cleaner. Having to focus on the road, on keeping my legs and arms moving, made my brain less prone to the twisted wanderings that disrupted my usual thinking. With each press and release of my feet against the sidewalk, I could hold an inner consistency that usually evaded me. My thoughts could be completed, a single track that coursed smoothly from one stop to another.
Still, it wasn’t until after the dissertation was defended, after years of running to nothing but the music of my own thoughts, that I wondered if I could align the same strategy I used to maintain my running to sustain my thinking. Hold one thought from beginning to end, I proposed to myself as I reached the end of my fifth mile, just hold a single thought.
A friend of mine who I’ll call Gina—also trained as an experimental psychologist with cognitive leanings—recently told me she has aphantasia. She’d never realized it until a discussion on internal monologues made it clear that her experienced absence of background chatter was the outlier. Then she learned when other people said things like “picture this,” they meant it literally.
When I was a child, I started a habit of holding my gaze on a scene I want to remember and deliberately blinking my eyes. I think of it as the press of a camera button, the physical reinforcement of a mental command to photograph the world. Gina’s mind has no photographer. No visual documentation of the past, no inner painter imagining the future on canvas.
I’ve known my friend for fifteen years, and never saw any indication that her internal workings were different from mine. As a trained cognitive scientist, I am a firm believer in the well-documented inability of humans to adequately understand or explain their own thinking. I am also, as a human, inconsistent in the practical application of my convictions. When Gina first told me of her realization, I ran her through a series of pseudo-experiments. Visualize a tree. The roots, the trunk, the branches stretching into the air, leaves fluttering, glistening in the sun. Can you see it?
Visualize your front door, I told her, what do you see? I visualized the entrance of my own place, the four steps to the gold-handled glass door. In my mind I looked beyond the glass, at the wooden door with its new coat of poorly painted red already peeling, the steel metal knocker corroding at its center.
Gina couldn’t visualize her door. She could tell me facts about it, though when I asked her its color she admitted she wasn’t exactly sure. She told me she couldn’t visualize my face when we talked, or ever really, though she knew things about it, like that my hair is blond and I have lightish eyes. Other details were even more generic. A nose. Eyebrows.
I could not imagine thinking this way, without the slideshow of images that my brain produces, whether I invoke them or not. But the aspect that most caught my attention was not her lack of images but the absence of an internal monologue. How do you think? I asked her, and we both laughed when she said, I don’t know, like everybody else.
I have always had a difficult time holding on to my train of thought. When I tell a story, my narrative floats from one thread to another, catching intersecting stories, inserting backdrop there, historical context here. More than one of the people who love me are irritated by this tendency. My whole family does it though; my mother especially and it seems the habit has passed from her to us, to my siblings and me, to my grown-up nieces whose stories travel the same meandering, forest-trail routes that mine do.
My internal processing is not much better than my verbal exposition. I am always thinking, but the thread is not straightforward. It glides through my present—the light falling through the window on the floor, the tightness in my head, the languor in my limbs. It winds into the future—all the possibilities I crave and fear. It knots up my past, the reasons I can claim, the parallels I can draw, all the traumas and the joys. Then, I’m back, trying to recapture where I started, what I wanted, what it is I was trying to think of.
For centuries philosophers and more recently, psychologists, have speculated about how humans store information. The mind is a vast collection of memory, accessed intentionally, or surfaced unintentionally in involuntary response to inner thought or the wider world. A library is a natural analogy. The mind as storage space, all shelf-lined walls, book-crammed shelves.
But the analogy is inadequate. There is no entrance to the mind, no arriving or departing, no helpful guide to lead you to the moment you want to find. The contents of an internal life are not arranged in a reliable system. You may search in vain for a face, for a feeling, and find it nowhere, only to have it rise unbidden, summoned by the scent of cut grass, the shriek of a whistle, the gait of a stranger a block ahead.
We see, and store and process the world via associations. The words we know, the facts, the ideas, are laden with memory, place, feeling, and impression. I cannot hear the name Almodovar without thinking of the man who introduced me to him, the lanky professor at the front of the classroom, the chalk on his faded jeans, his particular way of running a hand through his silver hair. A sharing of wine and brie before scenes of the forced sex change of an assumed rapist.
The mind, unlike a library, is more like a web. Circuitous pathways strung from here to there, connecting crossroads at every turn, tempting a longer, more peripheral journey. We rarely appreciate how tenuous this structure is. How delicate the strings we take to be our knowing, our worldviews, our selves.
In 2019, someone close to me suffered a psychotic break. I expected tears in the thread. An unraveling. Holes and gaps like a web that has been brushed against. Instead, I found a web stronger than before, but its routes were wild, as though drawn by a drunken spider. I could see the associations, why the threads had been pulled this way then that. Yet the places they led were strange. The lines drew patterns most minds would dismiss as meaningless, mapped puzzles in which every piece was bizarrely related, the picture entirely wrong.
That was the first time that I was truly afraid of my own thinking, my tendency to pull at every thread, to draw everything in. I had always thought the more that tied together the clearer a story, a life, a world. For the first time I considered maybe the more we tie together, the more lost we can become. Looping trails wearing ruts on a journey that leads to nowhere. A mangled web, labor that yields no insight.
While I studied how to observe human cognition, more than one friend studied intervention and from them I learned clinical psychology was awash in mindfulness. The exercise of mindful thought was everywhere, hailed as the new great panacea. Studies claimed it rivaled even cognitive-behavioral therapy, that remedy praised by experimentalists, the only therapy I was taught to respect.
I was dubious of mindfulness. Even as I saw study after study lauding its capacity for effect, I argued its premise. It seemed tautological. If you get people to calm down, they will stress less. Isn’t that all it’s saying?
What I was really asking was how this approach could have any benefit for the more extreme versions of people like me. The willfully anxious, who are uninterested in taming their anxieties.
I could not imagine myself without my anxieties. I attributed everything I was to my wild, constant thinking. In my vision of myself, my every success was fostered by the chasing of the thread, the never finding of the end, my need to label what had been and to shape what would still be.
My every drive was fueled by fear, a fear I fed each day with worry, nourished at night with ruminations on my past and anticipations for my future. If that fuel was gone, I reasoned, what would happen to my drive?
To wish to abandon my anxious thoughts seemed like wishing to be someone other than who I was. And I liked myself. Who I had been. Who I was. Who I had become. Who the endless wanting and wishing and trying had made me into. To want to be otherwise felt like an indictment of the self that I was proud to be.
When Gina told me she thought like everyone else, we both knew it wasn’t true. How can you know, though, how everyone else thinks? Given no information, it is best to guess that your experience is average. That your internal world is the same as most other people’s, falling in that tallest, widest region of the bell curve. The most commodious place, that is where you should assume you fit. At least until you know better.
I asked Gina what she thought of when she wasn’t purposely thinking. She told me nothing at all. When I’m thinking I have my thoughts of course but otherwise, it’s just low-grade static in there, she said cheerfully. We speculated together on the implications of her mind. For intellectual ability (which she has always strongly demonstrated), for autobiographical memory (hers is poor), and for delight.
The oldest documented reports of the inability to generate visual imagery are more than a century old but the name for it—aphantasia—was only coined in 2015. As it has only recently reclaimed the interest of researchers, we don’t know all that much about it. Studies so far have found that people with aphantasia have poorer memory of their pasts and weaker imaginings of their futures. They aren’t any worse at tasks that typically involve visual memory, but they seem to use strategies other than sensory retrieval. As I observed anecdotally with Gina, aphantasia doesn’t seem to have any effect on intellectual capability.
What most fascinates me about aphantasia is the internal silence Gina described. It’s been dubbed anauralia, a name that to me invokes a sun cresting over the all-encompassing thrum of the sea. A simpler term for it is auditory aphantasia and it’s been found to be common among those with the more well-known visual effects of aphantasia. It might be an absent inner voice, like what Gina experiences, or just a quiet one, that speaks soft or seldom.
One paper I read suggests that aphantasia is really a condition of the episodic memory system in which mental representations more generally—visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and affective—might be reduced or absent. I ask Gina if music conjures memory for her. It does not and I find it impossible, then sad, that a Goo Goo Dolls song doesn’t bring her a flood of the scenes and emotions of our shared adolescence, like it does for me.
The impact of aphantasia on emotion is still being explored. I want to believe that without an inner voice my life would be peaceful, yet so far there’s no evidence that people with aphantasia differ in their emotional responses to stressful life events. They don’t score lower on on depression and anxiety scales. They do have a lower physiological response to fear-inducing prompts that rely on visual imagery (frightening stories) compared to people without aphantasia, raising the question of whether they might fare better against conditions involving intrusive images and memories. I wonder if they worry like I do, if they can’t stop thinking back on the day’s encounters, if thoughts of catastrophic events, of massive, personal tragedy, come unbidden to their mind.
During my interrogation, Gina says she does not ruminate. She does not play her conversations, conflicts, her day, her week, her life on a loop late at night, tying up patterns, strengthening associations, weaving webs from here to there, traversing lines, tying knots.
Does it make you happier? I ask, then correct myself to the general question, do you think aphantasia is positively associated with greater well-being? Lower neuroticism? Gina thinks it is possible. I tend to be easy-going, she tells me, I don’t really stress. I can’t imagine a constant inner dialogue.
Since this conversation, I have spent a lot of time imagining low-grade static—a kind of silence in my mind—and what it might feel like.
I don’t know what came first, the thinking clearly or the wish to clearly think. In witnessing the mind in post-psychosis what I felt was fear. Broken strands seemed less frightening than that knitting in of all the wrong threads, filaments running tight and strong in false directions. But fearing one thing is not wishing for another. I am used to fear. Fear is my default.
I like to think that what comes first is not desire but experience. Once when my advisor suggested I had some soul searching to do to resolve my uncertainty about the direction of my career, I countered that soul-searching would get me nowhere. What I wanted was to finish my degree and get out into the world and try things. The subject of our research together was the use of information in judgment formation. I was skeptical of the notion that sifting through old information would get me somewhere new. There have been things I was sure that I wanted until I tried them, I argued.
I don’t think you can know what you want without trying it. You might think you know what you want, but if you haven’t actually done it, you can’t know if your desire is based on an idea that is all wrong.
I had heard so much of mindfulness, of the value of singular focus, but I had no desire to experience it. I had sat cross-legged and breathed. I had stretched my body and held it in strange positions. Not for thinking though. Because I ought to. Because I wanted external silence, moments alone, or physical flexibility. I don’t think I truly believed that my thinking could be improved upon, it had served me so well.
Not until I came to it by accident, while running.
When I’m running my mind has greater clarity. I can steer my thoughts to just one thread, one train of thought. I can hold on to my topic, take only the digressions that enhance my understanding, ignore those that confuse it. Keep my focus. And not only while running. I’ve found that any physical activity at which I sufficiently exert myself has the same effect. Running a trail, sweating on an elliptical. Cardio, full body engagement works best. Walking, lifting weights, calisthenics, don’t have the same effect.
I’d wondered what mindfulness could do for people who want to be anxious. Who see their anxiety as their defining characteristic, or more, a scaffold on which their whole self, the life they lead and love is built. The true answer, I suspect, which no one gave me, is nothing at all. The remedy can be objective, it might work whether you believe in it or not, but those who don’t believe themselves diseased never seek out treatment. Despite my skepticism towards programs like alcoholics anonymous, I admit there may be something to the recognition that acknowledgement is necessary for recovery. That a person who disbelieves that they are unwell will never seek a cure.
The experience of singular focus made me realize that I want it. I found my motivation, the drive I thought was fueled by fear alone, doesn’t vanish. It just becomes more pointed. A precision laser, instead of a floodlight. Smaller, but more powerful, more exact. More useful, not less.
I am not sure what mechanism makes my mind most controlled when breathing is hardest, when my feet bear out a constant beat that is easy to follow. I can’t bear not knowing. I want to know why it works, to pull the thread, tie together cause and effect, find the reason behind the feeling. I’ve long known that research has associated exercise—particularly aerobic exercise—with the reduction of a world of harms, both physical maladies and psychological ones. But the more I read the more I find the causal link is not precisely clear. I often say endorphins and it is true that endorphins flood the body during vigorous exercise but through my reading I discover that experts think it’s unlikely that endorphins directly impact the brain because they can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. Other chemicals join the suspect list. Endocannabinoids, maybe, which can cross the blood-brain barrier. Tryptophan, perhaps. That one is a precursor of serotonin, that outsized neurochemical, celebrity herald of a good time.
I keep looking for the connection, pulling more strands, looking for the right strings to tie together. I scan journals with methods I don’t understand, chemical analyses and neuroimages I strain to interpret. Most relevant to my experience of improved thinking are findings that indicate exercise increases activity in the hippocampi, the curving, seahorse brain structures associated with memory and spatial learning. Exercisers have greater neural connectivity between this structure and other areas of the brain which seems to be a consequence of higher activity in those areas during exertion. Other factors associated with improved cognition—increases in white matter throughout the brain, the size and blood flow of the hippocampi—also seem to be related to physical exercise. Animal studies indicate growth factors, released in the body and the brain during aerobic exercise, might be the underlying mechanism causing these changes.
While some researchers search for physiological ties, others caution ruling out sociocultural and perceptual influences. Studies have found that what we expect to get out of exertion can impact our physical results, so perhaps the psychological impacts are merely a powerful placebo. It’s also possible we’ve mixed up the order, that people do not feel better because they exercise but that those who exercise do so because they are already feeling better, their improved well-being just a natural continuation of whatever unknown redirection made them more inclined towards exertion in the first place.
After many hours, I start to close my tabs. I snap shut my laptop, pull on my tennis shoes, head for a run. Maybe in this instance, I can accept that the mechanism is unimportant. There is statistical significance and clinical or practical significance. The first is about reliability, the validity of an observed effect, its generalizability to a larger population. The latter is about the impact on the individual. The how, the when, and why is important on the scientific level, but for the individual it is not. The likelihood of a terrible disease does not matter if you contract it; the statistical efficacy of a treatment is inconsequential if it heals you. Perhaps I can be happy then, that I have found a form of relief, even if I can’t exactly trace its path.
I have, by no means, found a cure for my overthinking. My mind by default wants to wander, wants to find each thread and pull it till the end, to keep on winding more and more until it doesn’t remember where it started or why. I try to apply my experience of thinking while running to my thoughts more generally. I try to steady my mind against my breathing, to pace my thoughts like a metronome, let them ride a continuous wave of motion. It isn’t the same, but it is closer. Just knowing the potential, the possibility for singular focus, has opened up a new direction. I still think clearest on the trails, but maybe I just need more practice.
About the Author
Kristi Ferguson is a researcher and writer. Originally from Brazil, she currently lives in Arlington, Virginia, USA, with her husband. She holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology with a specialization in Judgement and Decision Making and Quantitative methods. In addition to scholarly work published in scientific journals, Kristi’s fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in (mac)ro(mic), The Daily Drunk, Fabula Argentea, and others.