The Disintegration of Thought Revisited: Fifth Nest

We rely on keeping our sight, hearing, and thoughts in sync with one another.  It is necessary for everyday tasks such as walking, extraordinary abilities such as sinking 3-point shots in basketball, or just about anything we do in musical performance. Indeed, I am often reminded when performing in ensembles how important it is to keep all three of those processes tightly coupled.

But decoupling has tremendous value as well and relates directly to what I termed “the disintegration of thought” in a previous article.  It is a practice that has been particularly welcome in the past couple of days as psychic entropy reached a crescendo.  Indeed, doing so this afternoon relieved some of that stress, even as personal and professional challenges and relentless cruelty of current events swirl around.

It is a relatively simple process, and not that different from more traditional forms of meditation except that there is no focus or control.  One lies flat in a comfortable place, not too dark but not too bright.  It should be quiet but not silent to allow for deep listening.  I find the bedroom area of HQ during the day perfect for this.  The urban sounds beyond the windows form a gentle syncopation with just enough detail.  With eyes closed, one turns to mental visuals – I once heard them described as “eyelid movies”.  It’s important not to concentrate on either the internal visuals or the sounds, but not to ignore them either.  Just experience them decoupled.  In this way, thoughts seem to organize themselves into their own separate stream, often nonsensical but organized nonetheless.  The decoupled channels together form a complex free improvisation, not too different from free improvisation in music when it is at it best.

Most of the thoughts are words are forgettable.  But in a session this afternoon, one phrase, in particular, popped out: fifth nest.  I have no idea what it means, and honestly, it doesn’t really matter.  I didn’t want to dwell on it, as it would break the spell of the experience.

Today’s session was successful in that I emerged calm with much of the entropy dissipated but not groggy the way one would after a nap (it’s important not to fall asleep).  There is a deep melancholy in the calm, but that is OK.  And the phrase “fifth nest” seems to have stayed with me.  I still have no idea what it means, but it could be a point of departure for a piece of music or creative writing in the future.



The Disintegration of Thought

There is a particular and peculiar state of mind that for a long time I have named the disintegration of thought. It occurs in periods of mental drowsiness, but not when falling asleep, and is characterized by thoughts becoming less coherent. One can start out with a coherent statement like “I need to clean the studio” but it will manifest only halfway before turning to nonsense, such as “I need to clean the…there goes a fish on the road next to the green eight” – not a real example, it is really hard to mimic the specific type of partial nonsense that occurs, or to remember it. Usually there is not much in the way of visualization involved. It is almost entirely thoughts consisting of words, and maybe a little bit of abstract imagery such as slowly changing colors or patterns. It does, however, involve detachment from sensory input and the external environment.

While this state can occur when sleep deprived or extremely bored, it is more interesting as a tool to manage stress or anxiety. It is particularly useful for the kind of low-level but constant anxiety associated with being trapped in a place or situation or being overstimulated – for example, spending large amount of time in the large open-floor-plan offices of tech companies over the past seven years or so. Even completely fun and positive things like NAMM can leave me very drained by the late afternoon, not so much anxious but socially exhausted. In such states, I find the best thing to do is find a quiet, safe, and solitary space, lie down or recline, and just let go of any control over thoughts. More often than not, the “disintegration of thoughts” will follow naturally, as the words become more jumbled and nonsensical, and the outside world fades. But I do not for asleep, nor do I try to. Sometimes gentle external stimuli, like the patterned noise of the freeway near CatSynth HQ, or a cat purring contentedly on my chest, can facilitate entry.

This state of being internal and having non-cohesive thoughts turns out to be incredibly pleasurable and relaxing. Perhaps even better than external drugs or alcohol for that purpose. In a sense, it is liberating, not unlike an empty stretch of desert road, even though I have retreated entirely inside my mind. It has become an almost daily practice, especially on days where there is much overstimulation. Interestingly, however, I can’t access it at night when trying to sleep.

driving through the desert

It also appears to be somewhat associated with meditation, but not the highly concentrated type where one focus on a specific word or thought or a strict pattern of breathing, and I can’t experience the state sitting upright (lest my back become the focus of my thoughts). But a deliberate act of “letting go” or deep relaxation does work, as long as one doesn’t fall asleep in the process.

So, this state of consciousness must have a name, right? Well, that is not entirely clear, the closest phenomenon I can find is hypnagogia.

Hypnagogia is the experience of the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep: the hypnagogic state of consciousness, during the onset of sleep. Mental phenomena that occur during this “threshold consciousness” phase include lucid thought, lucid dreaming, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis. [Wikipedia]

Or perhaps a specific subset of hypnagogic phenomena. As described above, there is very little in the way of visions or auditory input, mostly just words and thoughts. So the cognitive aspects without the sensations. And there is also in my experience no correlation with creative thinking as documented in numerous cases; except of course for the fact the diminishing stress leads to greater creativity for me (perhaps for others it is the opposite).

One description of hypnogogia that particularly stuck with me is “REM intrusions into waking state”, as described in this paper. It also describes interaction with the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is discussed in much contemporary psychology, but one particular aspect makes is seen relevant to this discussion.

The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. [reference via Wikipedia]

The biological and psychological details, although quite interesting, are beyond my current skills to fully understand and discuss. But I am certainly intrigued to understand it more, even as I continue to explore and practice this “disintegration of thought.” I also invite those with their own knowledge an experience to share in the comments below.