The Internal Narrative Debate and What It Tells Us About Empathy

Many people became aware of the way they think last week when a tweet taught us about the way we form thoughts in our minds. The tweet mentions two different kinds of people: those who think their thoughts in words/sentences and those who think their thoughts in more abstract ideas. And @KylePlantEmoji is right, most of us didn’t know the other person existed… until he brought it up:

The tweet spiked curiosity in many people. How could someone else have thoughts the other way? There’s no way that is possible! Videos have already sprung up on YouTube and other websites with friends of each “type” interviewing each other. “Have you ever had a song stuck in your head?” ask some. “Doesn’t it get annoying listening to yourself ramble on all day?” ask others.

Amidst all the questions, we’re told by scientists not to think too much about it. Research shows that there is a spectrum of thought, with some people on each end and many of us in the middle, experiencing some auditory thoughts, some visual thoughts, and some more abstract ideas.

So, what does knowing we all think differently teach us about empathy?

How you process trauma is dependent on many things, including the way your thoughts are formed. In thinking about grief and loss, this can have many implications:

A person with a primarily auditory thought response may think about things more constantly when they experience a loss. They may have conversations in their head and play back scenarios that did or did not happen for days, weeks, months, even years in their mind.

A person with more abstract thought responses may find themselves caught off guard by their memories of or emotions surrounding a significant loss. They may find it easier to write down the feelings they have in a journal or say them out loud to themselves or close friends.

But, there is a lesson here to be learned from both types of people: we owe it to ourselves and to others to show empathy in all situations. People process things differently, and that is a fact. There is no timeline for “getting over” a trauma or loss. There is no “right way” or “wrong way” to grieve or to think, though it can be easy to make assumptions about others and the way that they respond to difficult situations. The greatest gift we can give to others is a little bit of empathy and a whole lot of love.

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