Most of us have an inner voice speaking to us inside our mind.
It can either be voluntary, as when I read "Most of us have an inner voice" and can hear those words silently echo within my brain. It can also be involuntary, as when I do something wrong and hear "You're an idiot" admonishing me without my consciously willing those words.
This inner voice generally is taken for granted. It's just part of our mental background.
But a few years ago, when I was into vaping cartridges filled with concentrated cannabis oil (marijuana is legal here in Oregon), I overdid a new cartridge that was more potent than what I'd used before.
After a few inhales, I started to feel strange. Well, let's make that stranger than usual. In my high state of mind, the thoughts being spoken by my inner voice suddenly seemed really bizarre. Who the heck was doing that speaking inside my head?
I didn't exactly freak out. However, I was hyper-conscious of my inner voice, which now felt more like a mental intruder than a companion that was part of me. It took an hour or two before I felt like my usual self again.
The July 9, 2022 issue of New Scientist has an article called "Internal affairs" in the print edition and "How to understand your inner voice and control your inner critic" in the online edition. Here's a PDF file.
Download How to understand your inner voice and control your inner critic | New Scientist
It turns out that my marijuana-induced experience of my inner voice pointed to a probable psychological truth. The voice inside our head reflects not just one self, but many.
Early theories of consciousness suggested that we each have one “self”, with distinct likes, dislikes and motivations. Yet while we generally feel like one coherent person, many psychologists now consider the singular self to be an illusion. Instead, they argue that we are made up of many selves, each with a different set of motivations and standards.
This means that our inner chatter may be a result of the different roles that form our sense of self. “I as a mother”, for example, would live by a different set of standards than “I as a friend”. And “I the deadline-meeter” has a different set of goals to “I, who likes a bit of celebrity gossip”.
So when I felt that my inner voice was an intruder, that may have been because the thoughts being spoken within my mind were at odds with the wordless sense of self that would have found the intense marijuana high more enjoyable without all that mental chattering.
A sidebar in the article talks about what happened when a woman lost her inner voice.
A silent mind
Losing your inner voice is an experience that neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor understands well. In 1996, a stroke knocked out her ability to talk to herself in her head for five weeks. Now recovered, she describes the aftermath of her stroke as a “blissful silence” without the cacophony of internal speech. It created a feeling of being untethered from her sense of self in a way that left her feeling peaceful. “It was liberating to not maintain the pressure of my ego self,” she says.
But it also had downsides. Bolte Taylor says the lack of a coherent inner narrative left her unable to function. Among other things, she couldn’t determine where her body was positioned in relation to the world around her, was unable to retrieve autobiographical memories and had a lack of self-conscious emotions, most notably embarrassment.
A typology of inner voices makes pretty good sense to me, though based on my own personal mental experience I'd quibble with the nature and number of these characters.
In getting to know our inner voice, it may also be helpful to identify who is actually doing the talking. Puchalska-Wasyl attempted to do this by asking hundreds of people to rate their most common inner speakers based on a variety of emotional outcomes.
Her analysis boiled down their inner speakers to four basic characters: the Faithful Friend, the Proud Rival, the Ambivalent Parent and the Helpless Child.
The Faithful Friend is an advocate: caring and positive and always on hand to provide encouragement. In Puchalska-Wasyl’s sample, this was the most common inner voice experienced. Second was the Proud Rival, a high-fiving positivity coach who challenges a person to up their game. The Ambivalent Parent offers love, support and, at times, a hefty dose of criticism. The Helpless Child is the most negative, arriving with a feeling of powerlessness and a need for support.
Determining which voice pops up most often can be difficult. One option is to pay attention to your inner dialogue and notice which version of your inner voice is talking and how it makes you feel. Given that internal dialogues are a useful tool in psychotherapy, identifying which type of voice predominantly guides you may help you to reframe the conversation for the better, writes Puchalska-Wasyl in a paper on the subject.