These days you can't jump to conclusions when you encounter someone who appears to be engaged in an animated conversation with himself.  You have to determine whether a communications device is attached to his ear before making judgments about his sanity.  As often happens, these technological marvels first appeared in science fiction -- in this case, a sixties-era spy spoof called The President's Analyst.  This loopy little gem of a film featured a dizzying array of enemies foreign and domestic, all of whom suffered from similar paranoid delusions.  But the real villain was the phone company, which had hatched a plot to implant tiny communications devices in everyone's cranium to save the trouble and expense of installing old-fashioned land lines and telephone equipment.  As it has turned out, the communications devices we now have are implanted in the ear, not the brain, but the effect is the same.

Now that you no longer have to duck into a phone booth to make a call, and everyone is party to the conversation, you wonder why people pay good money for all those minutes.  The conversations are rarely much more coherent than the ones involving people who merely talk to themselves.  If idle chatter is all we crave, we should pay more attention to what normally goes on between our ears. 

I have my eleventh-grade English teacher, Kenneth Thomas, to thank for a valuable insight in this regard.  As a classroom exercise, he had us write down absolutely every thought that came into our heads, as if we were taking dictation.  The purpose was to show us the critical difference between an interior monologue as a literary device and the way we actually think.  Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses or Virginia Wolff's Mrs. Dolloway may give the appearance of a stream of consciousness, but their thoughts are carefully crafted to achieve a certain narrative effect.   Left to its own devices, the human mind can no more pursue a consistent train of thought than a drunkard can walk a straight line.  Buddhists use the term "monkey mind" to describe the mind's tendency to jump randomly from thought to thought the way a monkey swings from branch to branch.

Come to think of it, there may be less difference than we suppose between people who talk to themselves and everybody else.  The difference may boil down to a question of ownership.  People who talk to themselves are often responding to a voice in their heads they think belongs to someone else, whereas the rest of us think the voice in our heads belongs to "me."  The truth is that we really don't know who these voices belong to or how they got there.  We are generally suspicious of those who claim to hear the voice of God or Satan or some other colorful personage.  On the other hand, how do we know that the voice claiming to be me is the genuine article?  And who is this "me," anyway, apart from a string of desultory thoughts that present themselves in the first-person singular?  Buddhists and other contemplative types have developed meditation techniques for quieting the mind, but we practice them at our peril.  Once those thoughts of "me" go away, we may discover there is no one there at all.        

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