“Did You Hear the Quiet Noise Outside?”
“It's in my mind. I can’t talk what’s in my mind.”
For a long time, I wondered what it might be like for Kina to realize that her thoughts are her own, and only hers. It’s a weird notion, really, that everything we believe and understand can only truly be experienced by each of us, alone. There is no streaming button behind our mind’s eye that will allow another person to know exactly what we know, to reckon with our confusion, to help us make sense of it all. It’s just us, and that must have taken some getting used to, if you think about it.
We have spent so much of Kina’s life learning to watch for her nonverbal signals that it probably seems to her as though we might be able to read her mind, but reality suggests that we fall short. Case in point: One of Kina’s signature tantrums in the last year has been the enraged pantomime, in which she becomes angrier and angrier that we cannot know exactly what it is that she secretly wants (a particular snack, say, or a specific hug). Even though we built up all those skills, when she was small, to discern between hungry Kina and sleepy Kina, we still somehow end up playing this absurd game of angry charades for long stretches at dinner. “We cannot read your mind, Kina,” I’ll tell her. “You simply have to tell us what you are thinking.”
Easy enough for me to say.
When you’re four, there’s a lot of frustration involved in trying to convert your thoughts into somebody else’s thoughts. First, you need thoughts, which is a pretty big deal, if you spend any time studying it. Then, you need to understand that they are thoughts, and that they stand in for the things around you. Next, you need language—and not just any language, but the kind of language that will create in somebody else’s mind the very same thing that you’re holding in your mind. That language, those words, have to be specific and evocative, but they also have to be tailored to account for the lived experiences of your listener. Finally, you have to assess whether or not the image or noise or smell you’ve described for your listener has taken root in their consciousness—by watching their eyes, hearing them react, or (in a comedy of inefficiency) listening as they explain it back to you. Can you believe that this is what it means to be human? We expect four-year-olds to do this!
I remember being a kid and wondering if the color purple that I saw was the same as anybody else’s. How would I know? If you and I agreed that eggplants were purple and grape juice was purple, but you saw them as what I understand to be red, we’d never have any idea. We may all be walking around here seeing totally different purples and just agreeing that grapes and eggplants are the same color. What seems totally normal to you might be technicolor ridiculous to me, and without the little streaming button in your brain, we all just assume that eggplants are predictable.
It’s only the kids that understand this, of course, because they think we haven’t, for example, discovered puddles yet, and if we would just come over and stomp in one with them, we would really get it. Everything in the world is making an impression in their minds, and they need to validate it with us, to make sure that what they have come to know about puddles is something we also know. To do that, they must first research the parental mind—the most complex thing of all. No wonder babies cry so much.
But some ideas, unlike eggplants, are too hard to convey, and so they remain ours alone. A passing sound that reminds us of a moment in a song we can’t remember. The smell of a friend’s house (which the friend cannot, by definition, smell). The sound of our mother’s heart as we rest our head on her chest. These things defy explanation, are too complex to put into words, and we eventually come to understand that they have unique value to us. They are precious, and they will always be secret, like the quiet noise Kina heard last night when she was falling asleep. “I can’t talk what’s in my mind,” she explained. I know exactly what she means.