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.