I talk to myself a lot. I'm doing that now.
I don't really know what I'm going to say in this blog post until a voice speaks inside my head. It seems to speak simultaneously with both my thinking and my typing -- inner speech, thought, and communication all happening together in some mysterious fashion.
This feels normal to me. And according to an article in this week's issue of New Scientist, "LIfe in the Chatter Box," most people do the same thing. Here's how the article starts out:
Our inner speech turns out to shape our thoughts and decisions in more ways than you might have imagined
IT CAN happen anywhere. I can be driving, walking by the river or sitting quietly in front of a blank screen. Sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually and imperceptibly, I become conscious of words that no one else can hear, telling me things, guiding me, evaluating my actions. I am doing something perfectly ordinary – I am thinking– and it takes the form of a voice in my head.
If you ask people to reflect on their own stream of consciousness, they often describe experiences like this. Usually termed inner speech, it is also referred to as the inner voice, internal monologue or dialogue, or verbal thought. But although philosophers have long been interested in the relationship between language and thought, many believed that inner speech lay outside the realms of science.
That is now changing, with new experimental designs for encouraging it, interfering with it and neuroimaging it. We are beginning to understand how the experience is created in the brain; its subjective qualities – essentially, what the words "sound" like; and its role in processes such as self-control and self-awareness. The voice in our head is finally revealing its secrets, and it is just as powerful as you might have imagined.
I looked around the Hearing the Voice web site referenced in the article, but came away disappointed. Mostly the project seems to be focused on inner voices related to schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
Yet the author, Charles Fernyhough (director of Hearing the Voice), does a good job in his article of discussing the pros and cons of inner speech for those of us who seem to be mentally OK, more or less. I'd hoped to find more on the web site along these lines:
Quite how much our inner and outer speech overlap remains a matter of debate. According to one view, inner speech is just external speech without articulation: the brain plans an utterance, but stops short of kicking our muscles into action. If that is the case, our internal voice should resonate with the same qualities of tone, timbre and accent as our ordinary external speech.
There are some hints that this may be the case. In their lab at the University of Nottingham, UK, psychologists Ruth Filik and Emma Barber recently asked participants to read limericks silently in their heads. One was: There was a young runner from Bath, Who stumbled and fell on the path; She didn't get picked, As the coach was quite strict, So he gave the position to Kath.
The other limerick read: There was an old lady from Bath, Who waved to her son down the path; He opened the gates, And bumped into his mates, Who were Gerry, and Simon, and Garth.
Importantly, some of the participants had northern English accents, with short vowels (pronouncing "Bath" to rhyme with "Kath"), while the others had the long vowels of a southern accent ("Bath" rhyming with "Garth"). By tracking the volunteers' eye-movements, the researchers showed that reading was disrupted when the final word of the limerick did not rhyme in that volunteer's accent – when a southerner read "Bath" then "Kath", for instance.
Although this study suggests that inner speech does indeed have an accent – and presumably other qualities of our spoken voice – one concern is that the inner speech we produce when reading is not necessarily the same thing as our everyday, spontaneous inner speech, which means that more naturalistic studies are needed.
So much for the subjective qualities of inner speech. What, if anything, does it actually do? Vygotsky proposed that words in inner speech function as psychological tools that transform the task in question, just as the use of a screwdriver transforms the task of assembling a shed. Putting our thoughts into words gives them a more tangible form which makes them easier to use. It may also be that verbal thought can allow communication between other cognitive systems, effectively providing a common language for the brain.
One of Vygotsky's most enticing predictions was that private and inner speech give us a way of taking control of our own behaviour, by using words to direct our actions. While driving up to a roundabout in busy traffic, for example, I'll still tell myself, "Give way to the right", especially if I've just been driving overseas. Knocking out the systems responsible for inner speech should therefore impede our performance on certain tasks that require planning and control, offering a powerful test of the hypothesis.
For many years I was an avid mantra meditator. Meaning, I repeated a mantra both during an hour or two of morning meditation, and also during the rest of the day as much as I could.
The basic underlying hypothesis, though not exactly expressed as such, was that speaking less to myself with my inner voice was better than speaking more to myself -- the whole "monkey mind" thing. However, experiments have shown that inner speech enables us to do some things better.
Not surprising, really.
Such experiments typically require participants to repeat a word to themselves out loud to suppress their verbal thoughts while they perform a task (a technique known as articulatory suppression). Using this set-up, Jane Lidstone, one of my colleagues at Durham University, looked at the performance of children aged 7 to 10 on a planning task known as the Tower of London, which involves moving coloured balls around between three sticks of differing lengths in order to match a given pattern.
Lidstone found that children performed worse if they had to repeat a word out loud, compared with trials in which they instead tapped repetitively with one of their feet. Similar findings have emerged from studies with adults. Alexa Tullett and Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto in Canada gave student participants aclassic test of control known as the Go/No-Go task, which required them to press a button the moment they saw a yellow square pop up on the screen, but to remain still when they saw a purple square. It is a considerable test of impulse control, and, as predicted, the students were less accurate during articulatory suppression, compared with when they were doing a spatial task.
Although experiments like these seem artificial, they allow researchers the kind of control over conditions that good science demands to test something like self-control.
So we know that inner speech has a role in regulating behaviour, but could it also have a role in motivating it? The research on children's private speech (Vygotsky's precursor of inner speech, remember) shows that it frequently has an emotional or motivational flavour. Athletes often give themselves pep talks before, during and after performances. In our study of the quality of inner speech, McCarthy-Jones and I found that two-thirds of students reported using internal speech that either evaluated their behaviour or served to motivate it.
Inner speech may even help us to become aware of who we are as individuals. Some philosophers have proposed that awareness of inner speech is important for understanding our own mental processes, an aspect of what psychologists call metacognition.
Children typically do not become aware of their own inner speech until around age 4, although it is uncertain whether that reflects their inability to reflect on their own thought processes, or the fact that inner speech is not yet fully internalised by that age.
At Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, psychologist Alain Morin has found that people who use inner speech more often show better self-understanding. "Inner speech allows us to verbally analyse our emotions, motives, thoughts and behavioural patterns," he says. "It puts to the forefront of consciousness what would otherwise remain mostly subconscious."
In my current churchless frame of mind I'm considerably less concerned about shutting up my inner speech via a mantra or some other means.
The New Scientist article provided some reasons for being skeptical about the oft-heard meditative claim that a silent mind is a wise mind. Sometimes, it seems. Sometimes not. It all depends.
Inner speech must be good for something, or many things. Otherwise us humans wouldn't have evolved to have it.
Yes, you wouldn't want satsangees to have much time for inner speech. It could lead to something dangerous, like thinking.
Posted by: Skeptic | June 05, 2013 at 01:08 AM
To understand your self, you must become
extremely simplistic. Jiddo Krishnamuti
said just watch your thought. That this
would bring about a radical transformation
Can you see the exact moment when thought
becomes a WHO ? Can a dry thought have
a persona ? Can thought, which is a thing,
have a WHO ?
We all see thought ..........
and we all assume WHO.
WHO is the frosting we place on dry cake.
WHO is a feeling, which we add on top
of thought, which has no feeling.
An emotion, WHO, is felt.
The emotion exists, the WHO does not.
Posted by: Mike Williams | June 05, 2013 at 10:25 AM
Yes, as Charan always said
This thinking is useful to put a spoon in your mouth,
to throw a stone on the moon
to play at Cern
But did you ever stop it Brian for
90 seconds without sleeping , hypno or semi sleep ??
Cheers and peace to all
Posted by: 777 | June 06, 2013 at 03:42 AM
If you take a magnifying glass
and focus the sunlight, it will
cause paper to spontaneously
burst into flame.
If you listen to yourself think thought
as you are thinking it, the self
will spontaneously catch on fire
and instantly burn itself up.
If you can see the exact spot
where a thought transforms itself into a WHO,
there will be instant enlightenment.
How can a thought, which are words spoken
to your self in your head silently, weave
itself into a WHO ?
If all thought is impersonal, WHO
personalizes it ?
Posted by: Mike Williams | June 06, 2013 at 04:41 AM
777, of course I don't think all of the time. How about you? You just left a string on comments on this blog. Do you ever stop thinking about stuff on the Internet?
Thinking is part of life. Just not all of life. Every day I meditate; most every day I do Tai Chi (moving meditation); I go on walks in nature; I "land paddle" my longboard for 5 to 7 miles; I pat our dogs. Etc. etc. etc.
You're quick to quote Sant Mat/RSSB teachings. Just realize that each of us, you, me, everybody, is learning about life from... life. Largely wordlessly.
Don't be eager to disparage other peoples' experience of what life is all about, just because it differs from your own beliefs.
Posted by: Brian Hines | June 06, 2013 at 08:08 AM
"If you can see the exact spot
where a thought transforms itself into a WHO,there will be instant enlightenment."
---Is the Who, the nondual Self or Something Else? And, what is it that can see the exact spot?
Posted by: Roger | June 06, 2013 at 09:54 AM
The brain sees the exact spot. WHO is
a fantasy. It is only when the fantasy
is seen that nonduality can come
in the picture.
If there is no self, then you are
Non duality is a very bad word. Because
the person whos self collaspes does not
have an experience of nonduality. They still
see things as seperate and dual.
But, their self can no longer act selfishly,
because it no longer controls action, because
it is seen as a myth. Why wax a myth ?
Something Else is completely seperate
from us. We can only contact it.
Posted by: Mike Williams | June 06, 2013 at 12:08 PM
"If there is no self, then you are
Oh yes, thanks. I like this statement. It is the essential point. I just feel as if I've waited so long for that expression. It was the hope I had, but couldn't say it, did't dare. It's just so wonderful.
I like this video
Posted by: Sandra | June 06, 2013 at 01:34 PM
"""Non duality is a very bad word. Because
the person whos self collaspes does not
have an experience of nonduality. They still
see things as seperate and dual."""
The person / jeeva will never collaps
I just thought to assist a little in a group where everybody seems desperate.
Try to hear that tiny little sound at the right
and after grows it will absorb you
next you glue the words on it, in it and the non thinking state will start
It's like tiny orgasms but above the eyes
Brian : I don't refer to any book
This is just me, still existing and obviously rather happy
One needs 2 todance the tango
Posted by: 777 | June 07, 2013 at 02:00 AM
I have had constant Inner Speech since mid-2011, probably always, but I have been constantly aware of it since the middle of 2011. I read something about this "inner writer" that was characteristic of those of us who write memoir or have kept journals for a long period, who perhaps feel compelled to record every waking moment of our lives. The writer stated that he accepted it as a consequence, and instead of cursing it as inconvenient, embraced it.
Posted by: Julie Greene | May 15, 2016 at 03:49 PM