The Chamber of Guf

By Scott Alexander

[I briefly had a different piece up tonight discussing a conference, but the organizers asked me to hold off on writing about it until they’ve put up their own synopsis. It will be back up eventually; please accept this post instead for now.]

In Jewish legend, the Chamber of Guf is a pit where all the proto-souls hang out whispering and murmuring. Whenever a child is born, an angel reaches into the chamber, scoops up a soul, and brings it into the world.

In the syncretist mindset where every legend has to be a metaphor for the human mind, I map the Chamber of Guf to all the thoughts that exist below the level of consciousness, fighting for attention.

We already know something like this happens for behaviors. From Guyenet’s The Hungry Brain:

How does the lamprey decide what to do? Within the lamprey basal ganglia lies a key structure called the striatum, which is the portion of the basal ganglia that receives most of the incoming signals from other parts of the brain. The striatum receives “bids” from other brain regions, each of which represents a specific action. A little piece of the lamprey’s brain is whispering “mate” to the striatum, while another piece is shouting “flee the predator” and so on. It would be a very bad idea for these movements to occur simultaneously – because a lamprey can’t do all of them at the same time – so to prevent simultaneous activation of many different movements, all these regions are held in check by powerful inhibitory connections from the basal ganglia. This means that the basal ganglia keep all behaviors in “off” mode by default. Only once a specific action’s bid has been selected do the basal ganglia turn off this inhibitory control, allowing the behavior to occur. You can think of the basal ganglia as a bouncer that chooses which behavior gets access to the muscles and turns away the rest. This fulfills the first key property of a selector: it must be able to pick one option and allow it access to the muscles.

So in the process of deciding what behavior to do, the (lamprey) brain subconsciously considers many different plausible behaviors, all of which compete to be enacted. I don’t know how this extends to humans, but it would make sense that maybe only the top few candidate behaviors even make it to consciousness, with the rest getting rejected without conscious consideration.

The particular qualities of a behavior that help it reach consciousness and implementation vary depending on mental state. Guyenet goes on to talk about how in dopamine-depleted states, only the simplest and most boring behaviors make it out of the Guf; with enough dopamine blockade, a person will sit motionless in their room for lack of any better ideas. In high dopamine states like mania or methamphetamine use, it’s much easier for behaviors to make successful “bids”, and so you tend to do bizarre things that would never have seemed like good ideas otherwise.

This is how I experience thoughts too. When I’ve had a lot of coffee, I have more interesting thoughts than usual. New ideas and clever wordplay come easily to me. I don’t think it makes sense to say that coffee makes me smarter; that breaks Algernon’s Law. More likely I always have some of those thoughts in the Guf, but the relevant angel considers them too weird to be worth scooping out and bringing into the world. This is probably for the best; manic people report “racing thoughts”, a state where the angels build a giant conveyor belt from the Guf to consciousness and give you every single possible thought no matter how irrelevant. It doesn’t sound fun at all.

I find this metaphor especially useful when thinking about Gay OCD.

Gay OCD, and its close cousins Pedophilic OCD and Incest OCD, are varieties of obsessive-compulsive disorder where the patient can’t stop worrying that they’re gay (or a pedophile, or want to have sex with family members). In these more tolerant times, it’s tempting to say “whatever, you’re gay, that’s fine, get over it”. But a careful history will reveal that they aren’t; most Gay OCD patients do not experience same-sex attraction, and they’re often in fulfilling relationships with members of the opposite sex. They have no good reason to think they’re gay – they just constantly worry that they are.

I studied under a professor who was an expert in these conditions. Her theory centered around the question of why angels would select some thoughts from the Guf over others to lift into consciousness. Variables like truth-value, relevance, and interestingness play important roles. But the exact balance depends on our mood. Anxiety is a global prior in favor of extracting fear-related thoughts from the Guf. Presumably everybody’s brain dedicates a neuron or two to thoughts like “a robber could break into my house right now and shoot me”. But most people’s Selecting Angels don’t find them worth bringing into the light of consciousness. Anxiety changes the angel’s orders: have a bias towards selecting thoughts that involve fearful situations and how to prepare for them. A person with an anxiety disorder, or a recent adrenaline injection, or whatever, will absolutely start thinking about robbers, even if they consciously know it’s an irrelevant concern.

In a few unlucky people with a lot of anxiety, the angel decides that a thought provoking any strong emotion is sufficient reason to raise the thought to consciousness. Now the Gay OCD trap is sprung. One day the angel randomly scoops up the thought “I am gay” and hands it to the patient’s consciousness. The patient notices the thought “I am gay”, and falsely interprets it as evidence that they’re actually gay, causing fear and disgust and self-doubt. The angel notices this thought produced a lot of emotion and occupied consciousness for a long time – a success! That was such a good choice of thought! It must have been so relevant! It decides to stick with this strategy of using the “I am gay” thought from now on. If that ever fails to excite, it moves on to a whole host of similar thoughts that still have some punch, like “Was I just sexually attracted to that same-sex person over there?” and the like.

I practice in San Francisco, and I rarely see Gay OCD these days. Being gay just isn’t scary enough any more. I still see some Pedophilic OCD and Incest OCD, as well as less common but obviously similar syndromes like Murderer OCD and Infanticide OCD. I’ve also started noticing a spike in Racism OCD; the patient has a stray racist thought, they react with sudden terror and self-loathing, their angel gets all excited, and then they can’t stop thinking about whether they might be a racist. There’s a paper to be written here about OCD patients as social weathervanes.

All of these can be treated with the same medications that treat normal OCD. But there’s an additional important step of explaining exactly this theory to the patient, so that they know that not only are they not gay/a pedophile/racist, but it’s actually their strong commitment to being against homosexuality/pedophilia/racism which is making them have these thoughts. This makes the thoughts provoke less strong emotion and can itself help reduce the frequency of obsessions. Even if it doesn’t do that, it’s at least comforting for most people.

This is not an official theory by an official professor, but I wonder how much of a role this same process plays in normal self-defeating thoughts. The person who can’t stop thinking “I’m fat and ugly” or “I’m an imposter who’s terrible at my career” even in the face of contradictory evidence. These thoughts seem calculated to disturb the same way Gay OCD is. They’re not as dramatic, and they rarely reach quite the same level of obsession, but the underlying process seems the same.

If you want to see the Guf directly, advanced meditators seem to be able to do this. They often report that after successfully quieting their conscious thoughts, they become gradually aware of a swamp of unquiet proto-thoughts lurking underneath. They usually describe it as really weird, which is a remarkably good match to the theory’s predictions.