I’ve contemplated the voice(s) in my head all my adult life, though it’s only recently I’ve thought deeply about them. One big question I’ve had being why sometimes it’s a dialog rather than a monolog.
To be clear, I am fully aware that it’s all me; it’s my voice(s). “They” (or rather “we”) are aspects of my own mind — my inner voice. Something I’ve naturally assumed everyone had.
But some say they have no inner voice!
I’ve mentioned the idea of lacking an inner voice to a few friends. The reaction so far is universal: utter disbelief. That was my first reaction, too, but some videos I’ve seen have me reconsidering. There are those convinced they have no inner voice — certainly no inner monolog. They even find the latter notion a bit bizarre.
An obvious question is whether they really do lack inner speech, or do they simply lack awareness or understanding of inner speech?
What confounds is that we often don’t have a clear sense of our internal state. Self-observation is a skill to be learned and practiced. Casual claims about not having — or having — an inner voice must be studied and unpacked.
The inner voiced often initially claim the monolog is constant, but studies find it can be less frequent. Conversely, those claiming no inner voice often describe a form of what I might describe as inner voice. Therefore I think some of this may be a matter of definition and understanding.
Here’s a 12-minute SciShow video that lays out the basics:
Some thoughts about the video:
¶ A key point is that, as with so many things, this, too, is a spectrum. Very few experience the extremes — inner speech 0% or 100% of the time — most experience it some of the time and in various ways.
It’s the “various ways” that I think may have some thinking they lack inner speech. I think maybe some expect it to be more like actual speech, but it can also be more an appearance in our mind — something I’ve heard some “inner mutes” say they do experience.
¶ Much inner speech is about ourselves, and often negative. Here I think it helps to have intellectual hobbies (reading, writing, any form of study, etc). I’m familiar with the inward-spiral of dark thoughts, but I think having external interests can be a saving grace.
[That said, chronic depression, a chemical imbalance of the brain, can be the result of allowing the constant drumbeat of negative self-thoughts. That can lead to self-reinforcing destructive physical behaviors, which leads to more self-loathing, and so on inwards and downwards. The trick is to try to break the pattern before you have to be put on meds. If you can’t, seek help!]
¶ About 75% report having back-and-forth dialogs with themselves. That’s a relief; it absolutely isn’t just me. (Of course I knew it wasn’t. The idea is well documented in fiction. So, for that matter, is the very notion of an internal narration.)
I’m also in the 25% of those having dialogs with others — in my case usually people I’ve known. In some cases, fictional characters I know well enough to imagine how they’d respond. (I tend to like fiction with characters I’d like to talk with, so naturally I imagine such conversations.)
On the flip side, I never had an imaginary friend as a kid. Maybe because there were kids my age to play with when I was a kid. As teenager I was shy enough that I did imagine conversations beforehand, but I learned they never actually go as planned and gave it up.
¶ If it’s true the original purpose of inner speech was error correction, then it would seem anyone capable of speaking correctly must have some form of it. They may not be self-aware of it, or identify it as a voice, because its so fundamentally integrated into their thought process.
I recall from college how being high on marijuana could make me very aware — hyper-aware — of my inner voice. (My interest in that mental voice dates that far back.) Maybe everyone has some form, but some are just more aware of it.
¶ I’m (extremely) skeptical inner speech is a replay of childhood conversations. Mine has certainly gotten richer over the years, and I think our experiences as adults would swamp early conversations. I think the pattern of our speech, along with accents and other communication quirks, is laid down early, but the content? I’m dubious.
I think more likely the nature of the content of our thoughts reflects something deeper I’ll explore below, but it boils down to the ancient metaphor of “angel on one shoulder, devil on the other” — or more scientifically, something like Freud’s id and superego.
¶ I do think there may be some correlation between a clear inner voice and intellect, but that almost seems a tautology. Intellect is expressed and measured in words, so intellect and language are naturally associated. Crucially, intellect is different from intelligence.
Those who claim no inner speech generally speak well, obviously think clearly, and don’t at all seem lacking in intelligence. Given that the brain may require inner speech to speak, perhaps even to think, I suspect (utterly without foundation or hard evidence) the issue may be not recognizing their inner voice.
A lack of self-awareness (or misinterpreting) seems a far more likely human condition to me than a genuine lack of an inner voice. (But, of course, I could be completely wrong about that.)
An old metaphor features a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, both whispering their advice into our respective ears.
Sigmund Freud divided the mind into the id, the ego, and the superego. I’m struck by how well the id and superego match the role of devil and angel. We, the ego, navigate between them. I’m even more struck by how well the dialogs in my head fit that model. It often is a tug-of-war between the selfish child that just wants and the higher mind with morals and principles.
There is a theory (albeit not a well regarded one), called the Bicameral Mind, that suggests our inner voice evolved around the time written language did. Its radical suggestion is that our inner voice at first seemed to be not ours but the gods telling us what to do. That voice in our heads was at first a stranger’s.
(This theory was part of the background in season one of HBO’s Westworld series, which was when I first started a draft for this post. I was way into Westworld … at first.)
As an aside, Neal Stephenson, in Snow Crash (1992), views language, especially written language, a form of mental programming. In the book, the rise of written language, the Sumerian language, afforded a new way for humans to program humans. A written language enables and fixes thought patterns. Our ability to express ideas seems to depend on language (although our ability to have them actually may not).
All-in-all it seems humans do have voices — or at least one — in our heads, but we may not think of them as such. I’m not sure it’s possible to have language, let alone writing, without those thoughts forming mentally.
But perhaps some people don’t have a voice they hear. Comments by those claiming no inner voice sometimes seem to refer to something akin to what we experience when we listen to someone speak. Almost as if they expect something very much like the voice of god appearing in their thoughts. Some have expressed how weird that would seem.
There seems also some correlation between those claiming to have no inner speech and those who are multi-lingual. Perhaps when thoughts can be equally expressed in multiple languages, one loses a strong sense of a voice in any given language? Our inner speech, unless we’re recalling others, tends to be similar to our speaking voice. I really wonder if some just don’t identify that as their inner voice but merely as having thoughts.
There is what seems the opposite of no inner voice: having no “mind’s eye” — lacking the ability to internally visualize something. This is called aphantasia.
SciShow did a short video about it:
There are many unknowns about this and about having, or not having, an inner voice. The difficulty in both cases is trying to understand what goes on in other minds when all we have is our own experience and what others report — both of which turn out to be unreliable.
Here again I wonder if part of the confusion comes from different self-expectations about what inner speech or the mind’s eye involves.
That said, inner visualization seems seems more testable, and some of the tests mentioned appear to indicate real differences in how people visualize. I’m a bit more inclined to think people might be confused about inner speech.
The canonical test is to try to mentally picture a red apple. When you do, what, if anything, do you see? There is apparently a range from a vivid image, perhaps a remembered one, to drawing a literal blank.
One of my favorite quotes is due to Albert Camus: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” I’ve been paying attention to my mind, including my inner speech, for quite some time now.
One weird thing I’ve noticed is how often I use the pronoun “we” rather than “I” — I’m not sure if it’s editorial, royal, or just plain schizoid. For instance, I might think, “I need to fix that,” about something, but equally likely to wonder, “What shall we have for dinner tonight?” I think it’s editorial-ish (but I can’t guarantee there isn’t some royal “we” in there). I’m quite sure I’m sane (but I would be wouldn’t I).
Maybe I do have an imaginary friend, and it’s me! (Looking at the two phrases I just conjured, I think there might be some correlation between potentially sharable things and tasks I’d do alone. “We” might have dinner, but “I” write blog posts. And there’s no temptation to use “we” in writing.)
A constant monolog from anyone is boring (and many who claim no inner voice are even appalled by the idea). But ongoing dialogs are more interesting, and maybe the “we” is just a way of staying sane while living most of my life alone. It was a weird thing to notice, that I use “we” when thinking. Sort of like having an imaginary friend without the crazy of actually imagining one.
There is also something of a cast of characters in my head, although I recognize them as puppets I operate. People, even fictional characters, I’ve come to know well exist as mental models that allow me to predict what (I imagine) they might say.
Some, call them manifestations of my superego, act as advisors. For instance, there’s one part of me that acts as my “shrink” — it asks tough questions and doesn’t take excuses for answers. Another part of me reflects the kind of views my mom used to take, both the kind ones and the fearful ones.
[I don’t go so far as to unplug my toaster when not using it, but I can’t bring myself to throw a spent match into the trash (even if held under running water) until it’s sat out in a safe place, like an ash tray, for several hours. That’s my mom in me.]
I think we all have multiple actors in our head — various versions of ourselves that percolate to the surface of our mental tar pits when needed. Or when least expected in some cases.
We all have our Johari Window. The arc of an intentional life involves reducing the side of the self we don’t know.
Do people who read a lot develop a stronger inner voice? What about people who write a lot? I’ve noticed that some who claim no inner voice also say they don’t read much, especially fiction. That makes sense to me, and I’d think those with aphantasia would find reading fiction even harder.
When I read, I don’t hear my usual inner voice, but I do seem to imagine and hear the characters, at least somewhat. If I become too aware of my reading voice, it tends to take me out of the story. That’s one place I don’t want to hear myself!
Stay voiced, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.