Is Introspection Possible?

You learn something new every day, or at least that’s what the cliché would have us believe, and today I learned that I should be more careful about choosing words. A few days ago on Facebook, I posted an affirmation/resolution, saying: Today I will be . . . introspective.

mindA friend sent me an email in response: I was about to make a comment on introspection but hesitated when I remembered a “strange” entry about the topic in the “Oxford Companion to the Mind.” They had a short paragraph that began by judging the entire psychological technique of introspection as being in danger of misinterpretation. They then stated “It has, however, become clear that very little that goes on in the brain associated with the mind is accessible to conscious introspection, and “we” regard the mind as a much broader concept than awareness, consciousness, or what is known by introspection” (Pg. 389). Was the “we” the editors? Isn’t that odd that they would sidestep something that I think of as quite positive and I’m certain you do as well.

Huh? I was under the impression that introspection was a synonym for contemplation or reflection, so I emailed her back: Fascinating. I thought a bit of introspection was a good thing. Don’t be surprised if a blog post on this topic shows up. I do most of my “introspecting” via blog, and this certainly needs a bit of thought.

Today I finally got a chance to research the word, and it turns out that introspection is a particular type of contemplation — the contemplation of one’s own thoughts.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, introspection “is generally regarded as a process by means of which we learn about our own currently ongoing, or very recently past, mental states or processes.” To be classified as introspection, thoughts need to meet three conditions:

1. The mentality condition: Introspection is a process that generates, or is aimed at generating, knowledge, judgments, or beliefs about mental events, states, or processes, and not about affairs outside one’s mind.

2. The first-person condition: Introspection is a process that generates, or is aimed at generating, knowledge, judgments, or beliefs about one’s own mind only and no one else’s, at least not directly.

3. The temporal proximity condition: Introspection is a process that generates knowledge, beliefs, or judgments about one’s currently ongoing mental life only; or, alternatively (or perhaps in addition) immediately past (or even future) mental life.

In other words, (at least I think these are other words that explain the situation), to be introspective, you must be thinking about your current thoughts. Some people, however, debate if this is even possible. Can the brain know itself? Can the mind know itself? Which brings us back to the email from my friend. Apparently (at least according to the Oxford folks), very little that goes on in the mind is accessible to conscious introspection.

Confusing the issue of whether introspection is possible, there is something called an introspection illusion, where we tend to believe we have direct insights into the origins of our thoughts, but treat everyone else’s insights as unreliable, so everything we do or think is biased in our own favor.

Introspection might seem impossible to scientists who need non-biased input, but on a personal level, introspection is possible — those of us with a contemplative bent do pay attention to how we think, but to be honest, from now on, I’m going to sidestep the whole issue and simply use the term “reflection.” That would cover everything — thoughts about my thoughts and thoughts about everything else. And who knows — maybe someday I’ll even bypass reflection and go straight to awareness.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Building a Story from the Inside Out

Jordan Dane, national bestselling and award-winning thriller writer, is guesting my blog today. I know guesting isn’t a word, but I’m still pleased that she consented to be my guest blogger. She is also hosting a discussion on my Suspense/Thriller Writers  group on Facebook, so stop by and add your bit to the onion, or leave a comment for her here. Jordan writes:

Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out? (Come on. Humor me!!)

This little exercise of writing the dialogue first came from having to split my time between my day job and writing. On my special writing days, I’d grab lunch by myself and take a notepad with me. (I wasn’t really alone. Like Sybil, writers never are. Oh, I just scared myself.)

People would always comment that my scenes jumped right into the action with pace, sharp concise narratives and to-the-point dialogue. In trying to explain to another writer how I do this, I had to understand it myself. That’s when I realized how much my little lunchtime exercise had trained my brain to think this way-in terms of breaking down elements to any scene.

I had broken apart the dialogue from the rest of the narrative as a more efficient use of my time before I got home that night to finish the scene. Consequently, the dialogue got my full attention. And I usually tend to visualize the scene in my head as a TV program or movie. Visualizing it like a movie stirred my thoughts on the scene and helped orient me into the characters’ motivation too.

I later learned aspects of this method are called LAYERING. You can use it to build that onion as I describe below or use it to add more emotion or tension or atmosphere to your scenes-whatever you want more of-even after you think that scene or book is finished. Layering is one of the last steps I use when I’m doing my final edits on a novel. I read through the book and punch up the various scenes until I’ve come to the last page.

1. FIRST-Use dialogue as the framework for the scene (like a screen writer)

Consider writing the dialogue first so you can concentrate on it (Use this as an exercise only. Once you get this down, you won’t need to do this time and time again.)

Make the dialogue important-There’s nothing like witty banter or a clever verbal skirmish between two adversaries

If your character confronts someone at a high school reunion that they haven’t seen in twenty years when they buried a body after Prom, you better have them say more than, “Gee, nice sweater.” Chitchat would never happen in real life, given this situation, unless these two people are guiltless serial killers. Too much introspection can kill the impact of their first meeting. Personally, I like a challenge like this. And don’t get me started on the whimsical world of the serial killer. But think about it-what WOULD they say to each other?

2. SECOND-Body Language/Action

Body language can be fun, especially if it contradicts what the character is saying in dialogue-Use it! Manipulate it!

Be concise and not too wordy with action, but keep it REAL. If guns are blasting, remember your characters are dodging bullets, not witty banter. Bullets stop for no man…or woman!!!

3. THIRD-Mood & Setting-Use it to accentuate what’s happening.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the mood created with a great setting. It can embellish the emotion in a scene or add an underlying tension (ie an escalating storm or a well-placed gust of wind against a silk blouse or skirt). The beauty is in the details.

4. LAST-Emotional layering-Introspection

Give your character a journey through the scene. Don’t just repeat the same old thoughts over and over in different ways no matter how clever you are. Have their introspection grow or change.

Too much introspection, for me as a reader, slows the pace. But if an editor wants it, read my first point over again and build upon the emotional layers with new material. Insights into a character can be a wonderful gift to your reader.

5. THEN STAND BACK AND TAKE A LOOK-What’s there? Do you have a whole ONION or a lemon?

Make every scene into a tight mini-story with a hook beginning and a memorable page-turning end. Or end it with a beautiful image a reader will remember and feel long after they’ve put the book down.

Or stop in the middle of the action and continue it on the top of the next chapter.

You are in control of your story’s layout. Make it interesting.

NOTE: For more writer resources, please check out my website FOR WRITERS page for craft tips, promotion ideas, and other articles like my “First Sale” story or “How to Make a Book Trailer FOR FREE”.