Cognitive Polyphasia or Why We Contradict Ourselves

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Serge Moscovici, a French social psychologist, coined the term Cognitive Polyphasia in the 80s. Same guy behind the social representation theory (another interesting read).

This seemingly innocent frame of mind is all about having contradicting thoughts and multiple frames of references to explain an event either to themselves or to other people. In other words, or in the words of Orwell, cognitive polyphasia is a “double-think“.

E.g., you go to the gym every day for a week, justifying it to yourself as you’re a motivated individual with goals. You don’t go for a month after, and you build up your castle of excuses to justify it to yourself. “I don’t have the time“, or “I won’t build muscle easily” or a host of other frames of minds.

Here’s a direct quote from Serge’s publications:

Through belief, the individual or group is not related as a subject to an object, an observer to a landscape; he is connected with his world as an actor to the character he embodies, man to his home, a person to his or her identity

(Moscovici, 2000, p. 253)

The Neuroscience of Cognitive Polyphasia

If you continue down the rabbit hole of cognitive polyphasia, you inevitably end up thinking about neuroscience. Our brains are wired to constantly make new connections because of the thoughts we have about ourselves and our environment.

Synapses constantly fire off into new directions, and neurons continue to transfer information. Like a giant computer. And this giant computer, with all its storage and computational power, runs multiple simulations in itself to define a certain event. Declarative semantic memory too is affected by our own interpretation of an event.

And thus, what we see outside is directly associated with what we feel inside. That girl didn’t reject you because you behaved inappropriately, she rejected you because she wasn’t into manly-men.

Ok, consider the Pre-Frontal Cortex. Our PFC is designed for the executive-level decision making and has a strong role to play in our memory. I.e. if you had a bad experience with a certain place, space, or time, then you’ll categorize all the things connected to that event as things “to avoid”. Fight or flight, in other words.

These three facts, in conjunction, lead me to believe that the reason why we have conflicting thoughts about ourselves, our environment, our mood, our decisions, and our mind. It’s because of multiple theories running simultaneously in our mind. And by theories I mean justifications, or coming as close to a perceived truth as possible.

The inner noise in our heads could just be our mind going into overdrive with multiple off-shoots of theories, justifications, and interpretations. Like a person who’s depressed for a few days and snaps out of it almost instantly. He gets a hug from a friend, and suddenly the world is a better place.

Cognitive Polyphasia in Everyday Life

We’re constantly trying to crack the code, and in our efforts, we’re trying to hack into negative emotions like happiness, anger, depression, and hopelessness. We’re trying to find a way out, and so we build up our castles based on our assumptions, only to have them break down when another snippet of truth is presented to us.

E.g., you think that the world should have more happy people, and you choose to smile to strangers every day or so. You consider yourself to be a happy person that wants to share their inner happiness with the world. Until a stranger judges you for smiling at him, and you feel immensely hurt.

Now your mind’s racing into overdrive in the other direction. You add this event, as proof, to your memory – as a reason why the world is full of bad people. The next day, you try again and fail. You give up on the idea, coming to the conclusion that the world can’t be changed.

Until a week later, a little girl thanks you for reaching over the top shelf in a grocery store. Your world has changed again. You now add this event as a brick to your castle of “the world is a happy place”. You are happier and you will continue on until you face another event that will add a brick or two in the favor of “the world is inherently bad”.

Why do we constantly have conflicting thoughts in our minds?

We climb, we overcome, and we fail and feel depressed. Our mood swings start to define us, and we don’t even know who we are anymore. Our minds constantly fire off with multiple reasons, multiple theories, and multiple justifications that run simultaneously until we find the single unifying truth.

If your mind can control your breathing, your stomach acids, your hormone levels, your neurological functioning, effortlessly, how is it that this complex machine can’t handle the simple things like motivation, depression, mood swings, and sadness? Why do we constantly have conflicting thoughts in our minds?

Why do I feel happy at one instant, and sad during others?

Why can’t I just be above emotions and crack the code on living a happier life?

The latter is what we’re trying to achieve through cognitive polyphasia. We’re trying to find a consistent rationality for the world that we see by building up or by rejection hypotheses about what we see. And we take this too seriously. We stick too quickly to a certain ideology, and when we fail, we feel horrible.

See? It’s not the event that made you feel bad. It’s the fact that the event didn’t fit in with your current view of the world. “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, “How could my boss scream at me?”, or “How could he dump me?

When in reality, it is more like

  • Why do bad things happen to good people? I’ve always been going to church.”
  • How could my boss scream at me? I’ve always given him so much respect.”
  • “How could he dump me? I thought that we were going to be happy forever.”

And so our brains build up these suppositions, which fall. And when they fall, we do too.

And hence, there is no need to be taken away with our emotions, as our thoughts and how we feel inside are simply a matter of our minds considering multiple variations of processing the world. You feel depressed for a few days, thinking that you’ll realise something extraordinary in that sadness and add a brick to the “the world is a good place” castle.

And then you’ll come out with a new rationality about how the world is. And also how it should be.

So relax, there’s immense freedom in refusing to stick to ideas or thoughts that aren’t true representations of real life.

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About the Author:

Sometimes when my ego gets ahead of me, I refer to it as your I-ness. I love the fact that everyone is equally lost in a world that everyone is a part of equally. I also love music, and how the drums are similar to the crashing of the waves, and the guitar is a lion's roar in the deep jungles of our earth. I think re-incarnation is jazz, and nirvana is only yours to achieve and yours to deceive. For nirvana is like fine wine, everyone's got their preferences - but its still old grape juice.

3 Comments

  1. Mcivor Docherty June 30, 2014 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    The mind is a tool for learning just as the voice box is for making noise from the simplest gasp to a talk on the place of humanity in this universe…. We are careful to control what we say and learn to speak in various languages and emotions…. If only we all learned to control our thoughts as well

  2. Sanchit Khera July 1, 2014 at 7:05 am - Reply

    Hi Mcivor,

    Man am I glad you said that. If only we could control our own thoughts, because any efforts in that direction feel so difficult. I wonder if there’s a way to not have control over thoughts, but still be happy.

  3. Munisha May 11, 2017 at 7:44 pm - Reply

    Hi I loved your article but one thing just didn’t go down well with me and not taking any political position here but when you said “the girl didn’t reject you because you behaved inappropriately she rejected you because she is not into manly man” so here firstly u r saying “inappropriate is manly ” and so if any guy wishes to mistreat a girl that means he is just being a man and the girl is a sissy bcz she like timid girly man who again the manly man despise? And moreover she might have really rejected you because you were inappropriate n better learn to behave than think she is a sissy…please change the example you have quoted doesn’t suit well

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