The voice inside your head

On Saturday I learned something that blew my tiny mind, so much so that I was all out of wonder and awe by the time Eurovision came on. Apparently, some people don’t have an inner monologue – an “audible” voice inside their heads which narrates them ceaselessly and sometimes in complete sentences through their thoughts and activities. Actually, the mind-blowing thing to me wasn’t that some people don’t have a voice in their heads at all – it was that some (or most?) people do.

I don’t. I have never had one. I always thought “inner voice” was a metaphor (it makes me wonder what other things I’ve been taking as metaphorical that are in fact real. It also makes me wonder whether I have a barkingly different understanding of bicameralism to most people). It explains why I’ve never understood at gut level all that stuff about “silencing the critic in your head”. Again, to me, metaphorical. As a general rule I do not think in words, let alone sentences. As far as I can tell, the ideas I wish to express are sitting there conceptually fully formed in my brain, and somehow my speech facility selects the correct words from wherever they are stored and parses them into a sentence without any interim stage, at least not at conscious level.

This is, I hope, the only thing I have in common with Ricky Gervais:

Reading from Karl’s diary: “While I sat listening to The Kinks on my iPod, I wondered if everybody thinks in their accent. I know I do.”

Stephen: What’s this? What are you talking about?

Ricky: How do you know you think in your accent? Tell me a typical thought

Karl: I thought “that’s weird innit?” not “that’s weird isn’t it?” and I thought “I actually think in my accent”

Ricky: No, but, when I think I don’t think the sentence as like I’m saying it, it’s just a thought, the thought appears, it’s conceptual and it’s already there. It’s not like I go, “Rick?” “What?” “Just err… looking at that fella over there were you?” “Yeah, I was yeah. Erm, I was think he looked a bit weird” “Oh, so was I”, I don’t think out whole sentences…

What’s strange is that my verbal abilities in general seem above average. I’m eloquent in person, I’ve been a professional writer, so clearly my linguistic mode as a whole works fine. So what is going on? How am I able to get by? @Jackart wondered how I was able to do executive decision-making, for instance deciding to write someone a strongly-worded letter as an evolved alternative to stabbing them, and after I had hurriedly pushed all my stabby knives into a drawer I conceded he had a point. I’m not sure how I make decisions – they seem to happen, but it isn’t through an inner monologue. When I think about concrete things, like wanting toast (thanks to the ever excellent @CharlotteGore for this illustration), I don’t think “I want toast!”, I visualise a piece of toast sitting on a plate. (It’s always Platonic ideal toast too, white and fluffy, just the right amount of butter. Ahh.) Then something clicks into place, and there is a sense of “decision made”, without any verbalising. So I probably have the same ability to execute a decision to make toast as someone with an internal monologue.

Feature or bug?

But that’s concrete stuff, and given a toaster and enough training, a monkey can make toast. Thinking in terms of the human brain’s more evolutionarily recent capabilities, there are two ways I can suggest in which a lack of inner voice might be more feature than bug.

  1. It might free up capacity for more and faster conceptual problem-solving. Concepts do not translate as well as toast into imagery. But something visual is still going on when I think about ideas. The ideas or “thought units” I am interested in analysing sit in my mind’s eye (now THAT I have never thought of as a metaphor), often in the form of the page on which I read them, or the person who told them to me speaking, or the place I was when I learnt them. And I move these visual thought units around a blank space in relation to each other until I get a new insight (when there is a sort of internal “PING!”), which I am then able to “download” into words – and at that point if I am writing I DO hear the inner voice, I am hearing it right now as I type. At all times I believe I retain a full and rich sense of what each concept means; I am just not accessing it verbally when I’m moving it around. Something totally magical and synaptic is going on there that I have no conscious access to. Aren’t brains squidgy and fun? Now, by contrast, if I thought in sentences and had to think, or read, at the pace at which I can talk, I would find it unbearably slow and probably get less thinking done.
  2. No inner voice means no inner critic. Sarah Fox, the neuroscientist who provides the Ricky Gervais quote above, makes this point. A negative inner voice is correlated with depression, especially in people who are otherwise isolated and lack social inputs. In truth I wonder if this is a double-edged sword. If you don’t have an inner voice, you can’t use CBT to retrain it. And however I construct my thoughts I am still as prone to the nudges of my emotional neural network as anyone else, and I have indeed suffered from depression when younger – so clearly the causal mechanism of depression is something different. But it’s surely a structural advantage that I don’t have an inbuilt talking saboteur, perhaps akin to having better eyesight than most people or something. And it explains why my default mode on my own is to be a cheery soul. Sometimes, something verbal will break through, and it’s usually short and nice (and embarrassingly, it’s out loud for some reason, as if I can’t do it in my head at all). I will find myself saying “That’s good!” or even “You’re nice.” A decisive and galvanising “Right!” pops up fairly frequently. If this is my inner critic I should really take her out for a beer, she seems ace.

But features bring new bugs too – I wonder if, when you put the above two advantages together,  that is (a) thinking more and faster about more problems and (b) lacking an out-loud inner regulator (which is what a critic is when it’s operating healthily), what you have is a systemic explanation for something that definitely correlates with depressive tendencies: over-thinking. And indeed it is not in my nature to be satisfied with any of my own solutions. I tend to return to a problem and pick at it, in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t if I were verbalising my solutions as I went along and bringing them into the world of the logical right hemisphere.

There really isn’t that much on the internet about this, intriguingly. The Brainbank article linked twice above is the only direct and substantial thing I could easily find. I wonder what would happen if I taught myself to have an inner voice? And how might I make a start on this without disturbing everybody at bus stops?

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6 Comments

  1. This is fascinating to me. Sometimes I have an inner voice, sometimes not (or at least, not consciously). Careful deliberation is generally in language, but I can decide to, say, make toast wordlessly. I can realise things suddenly without words, although if I then check through a realisation with language it may turn out that it doesn’t make sense after all.

    It depends how focused I am and what I’m up to. In conversation, the words just come (or not) without any internal prepping. Alone, I’m more likely to verbalise internally, although it tends to be more a patchy series of fragments than an elegant flow of fully formed sentences. I can also spend long periods mentally ‘idling’.

    I also had depression many years ago, and I had CBT for it. The theory, if I remember right, is that you have negative assumptions that get activated by a given situation, which causes negative thoughts to run through your head and lower your mood. It took me several sessions to convince my therapist that those thoughts often just weren’t there. This didn’t mean that the assumptions weren’t driving my mood, just that they were doing so in a different way, and that we had to take a more indirect approach to get at them.

    I’m not aware of anything that’s been written about this, but you’ve got me in the mood to look.

    1. Let me know what you find. I didn’t look that hard, but usually it’s not hard with anything neuroscientific to find stuff. Don’t have a science background so can’t really use Google Scholar usefully on this, though I’m sure there must be a lot of stuff that has a bearing.

      Which is odd because the implications are huge, non? Not just for the whole abstract subjectivity/what-is-reality problem, but for what it means in practice – how people make decisions about politics, or maintain their mental health for instance.

      One thing that strikes me, I’m sure it’s just lack of imagination on my part, but it feels to me like it would be awful to have a structured voice in your head all the time. When would you ever get any peace? But that probably just says a lot about the associations I make with verbalising of any sort – to me it’s a largely “external” thing, and hence hard and takes energy.

      1. Well, my inner voice isn’t so much something I “hear” as something I do without any effort – it’s no more distracting to me than tapping my own feet (annoying as hell when someone else does it, but easily unnoticeable when I do it myself).

        But if people don’t feel in control of the inner speech their brains generate, it can be very distressing, and as you might guess this is tied up with voice hearing: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201508/listening-your-inner-voice

  2. Fascinating . And what an orderly place your brain sounds!
    Much of this rings true for me, including tom’s implication above that the answer isn’t binary. I definitely verbalise internally (for example playing out this comment before writing it) but my inner monologue is sporadic, often a dreamlike melange of words and images and sometimes of the ‘huh, look at that, a butterfly, isn’t it a nice day, oh here’s a door’ variety, I suspect allowing real thought it go on elsewhere in the brain. Indeed it rarely feels like the word version of thoughts has much to do with decision-making – although they can be cudgelled into service – and can sometimes seem an actual hindrance.

  3. I have an inner monologue — in fact I have five or six going on at any one time, most of them usually music rather than speech, and all going far faster than I think.
    I don’t, however, have any visual awareness at all — I’m almost completely aphantasic — and I actually find it gives me exactly the same advantages you ascribe to visualising rather than verbalising. I think entirely in sound, but I think *fast*… I’ve often complained to Holly about the immense bandwidth bottleneck between my brain and my speech…

  4. (I think *most* people don’t have an inner voice, from my experience — most people think more as you do. Most people are visually, rather than verbally/aurally, oriented… I’ve had people flat-out refuse to believe me, and call me a liar, for saying I can hear things in my head.)

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