Inner Speech, Internal Monologues and “Hearing Voices”: Exploring the Conversations Between Our Ears (2023)

It’s slightly strange that we talk to ourselves inside our own heads. It’s even stranger that we do it virtually the whole time we are awake. What’s strangest of all is that, despite coronavirus isolation making our internal chatter all the more apparent, we don’t often outwardly discuss the conversation in our heads.

Similarly, our scientific investigation of inner speech has made surprisingly little headway. Charles Fernyhough is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Durham University and author of
The Voices Within, a book focusing on inner speech. He suggests that the first challenge is defining exactly what to call the noises we make inside our head: “A lot of people talk about the inner voice, which is a term I avoid, because it is very vague and fluffy and hard to pin down.”

Fernyhough says that people may associate the term “inner voice” with concepts like “gut feeling” or “moments of inspiration”, but what he and his team study is inner speech, a formal scientific term that involves the word-based conversations we have with ourselves inside our heads. Fernyhough has argued in his
research that inner speech is a distinct type of auditory thinking, separate from, for example, imagining a siren going off. As we’ll see, inner speech’s developmental origins and unique characteristics separate it from these other between-our-ears phenomena.

Getting a grip on inner speech

Researchers in Fernyhough’s field have not chosen an easy area of study. Whilst behavioural neuroscientists can mimic fear responses in a mouse and neuroimaging researchers can look at highly-conserved reward pathways in non-human primates, studying inner speech in humans really requires human volunteers. These test subjects often aren’t particularly cooperative: “People find it very hard to reflect on their own inner speech. The reason it's had little attention, publicly, culturally, but also scientifically is that it's very hard to get a grip on one’s own inner speech,” says Fernyhough.

Fernyhough’s quest to understand inner speech began by observing outer speech at the beginning of the brain’s development. His research began in developmental psychology, studying how young children behaved when playing alone. Fernyhough noticed that his subjects would spend a lot of their time talking to themselves out loud. This seemed to fulfill a function beyond just annoying nearby working-from-home parents. “[
The children] give a strong impression, and the research supports this, that they are doing it for a reason – they're doing it because it's helpful. They're getting some sort of cognitive benefit from it,” says Fernyhough.

As the children aged, this helpful out-loud speech gradually stopped. Had parents just asked them to keep quiet, or was there something more complicated involved? Fernyhough found an answer in the work of influential Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky, Fernyhough tells me, believed that speech was something that began as a purely social instrument for communication between people that over the course of development became gradually internalized. This process of internalizing, Fernyhough says, gives us “tools for thinking” that benefit our development.

An evolutionary benefit to inner speech?

Not all aspects of our inner speech give obvious advantages to our behavior. Anyone who has anxiously spent hours internally processing worried thoughts about an exam, only to have no time to actually study for it, might wonder why such unhelpful examples of inner speech were not chopped out at an earlier point in evolution. Surely an early human would have been much “fitter” to their environment if they just threw a spear straight into a mammoth without ruminating on how they were going to extract the spear later, and whether this particular mammoth was going to be as delicious as the one they had caught last winter?

(Video) Dr Charles Fernyhough, ‘Inner Speech’

Jonny Smallwood, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of York, has made the study of one particularly aimless form of rumination, daydreaming, his own research niche. “Things like daydreaming, even though they might seem "purposeless” must be having some kind of quite important role in how we guide our lives,” says Smallwood.

But what is that role? Smallwood’s studies have looked at how people from different countries and cultures daydream. All his participants had one thing in common – they tended to think about the future. Smallwood reckons that this common finding hints at why internal states like daydreaming and inner speech have become so widespread. “One of the ways that the internal representation system can be selected for is because you can prepare for an interaction with another person and you can think about the kind of things that they might be happy or unhappy for you to say. Then, when you get into that circumstance, you're less likely to say the wrong thing, which might make the interaction smoother,” says Smallwood.

No such thing as a universal behavior

Internal processes like inner speech and daydreaming might give us an evolutionary advantage. But the most interesting thing about these processes isn’t their function, but their prevalence. Fernyhough has noted that inner speech, despite perhaps seeming to many people like the most innate behavior of all, is not ubiquitous. “You certainly find that private speech in children is pretty universal. You don't find many kids who are developing in a typical way that don't use private speech. But when it comes to adults, I came across people who clearly just weren't doing much inner speech,” says Fernyhough.

These internally silent volunteers instead commonly relied on imagery in their day-to-day thoughts, with pictures replacing words as their thinking tool of choice. “To my mind it says it's something that a lot of humans do because it's handy. But it's by no means an essential component of consciousness,” says Fernyhough. “We find different ways to get to the same outcome and I think that's one of the marvels of psychology.”

Variation in how we think isn’t limited to whether we use words or images. Sometimes, the very nature of our thinking can become disrupted. Fernyhough became acutely aware of this when he shared his developmental psychology findings with psychiatrist colleagues, who took his comments about inner speech to be referring to auditory hallucinations, or “hearing voices”.

Inner Speech, Internal Monologues and “Hearing Voices”: Exploring the Conversations Between Our Ears (1)

(Video) The Science of the Voices in your Head – with Charles Fernyhough

Durham University's Palace Green Library hosted an exhibition titled Hearing Voices: suffering, inspiration and the everyday in 2016-17. Image credits from Durham exhibition: Andrew Cattermole Photography


These hallucinations are most commonly linked in popular culture to the mental health disorder schizophrenia. In reality, schizophrenia is a complex disorder, and auditory hallucinations are just part of an often varied range of symptoms. The idea that hearing voices is unique to schizophrenia is also misleading, suggests Fernyhough. “The experience of hearing voices is involved in all sorts of different psychiatric diagnoses, everything from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to eating disorders. It is also experienced by quite a small but significant number of people who are not mentally ill who hear voices quite regularly, but don't seek help for them because they're not troubled by them.”

Hearing the voice

Is there a fundamental difference between inner speech and auditory hallucinations? This question has been the target of a project Fernyhough is helping run at Durham, funded by the Wellcome Trust, called Hearing the Voice. The study is still ongoing, but some early conclusions are that the difference between these internal states is very simple. “The idea is that when somebody hears a voice, what they're actually doing is some inner speech, but for some reason, they don't recognize that they themselves made that bit of language in their heads,” says Fernyhough. “It’s experienced as coming from somewhere else or from someone else.”

What complicates this idea are the many types of both inner speech and auditory hallucinations. Fernyhough thinks that his theory will apply to some types of both experiences, but not all. Some hallucinations have acoustic properties, as if the speaker is in the room with you. Sometimes the voice has an accent or a timbre or a pitch. “It's very hard to pin down what it is that makes some people have an experience that feels alien, that is distressing, especially when some people have what seems to be the same experience, but don't find it distressing,” says Fernyhough. “I think the only thing you can really point to is that for some reason, that experience of hearing your voice doesn't feel like you. It comes from some other author or agency. And that's what can be, as you can imagine, very distressing.”

Inner speech inside a scanner

Bringing relief to that distress will require research into both "normal" and pathological forms of inner speech. To do that, psychologists rely on imaging techniques like fMRI and PET scanning. Nevertheless, the biggest advances in the field have been less to do with the hardware used and more about the way in which researchers get their participants to “do” inner speech.

(Video) #174 Exploring our Inner World: Hearing Voices - Johanna Badcock

At the beginning of these neuroimaging studies, researchers noted that when they asked their participants to engage in inner speech, areas of the brain’s basic language system began to light up. For most people, Fernyhough tells me, that means activation of the left hemisphere, particularly in an area at the front of the brain called Broca’s area.

As we talk, our respective Broca’s areas will be lighting up. Given the developmental connections between outward and inner speech, it might make sense that the same brain areas would be activated. But Fernyhough tells me these initial studies had some serious flaws.

“The problem is that when we do scanning experiments like this, what we tend to do is put people into a scanner, and we say to them, right, whilst you are lying there I want you to do some inner speech, and we tell them what inner speech to do,” says Fernyhough. Volunteers would be asked to say a particular phrase, such as “I like football,” in repetition whilst they lay inside the scanner.

Fernyhough points out that, except for the most single-minded fan, few people’s inner speech consists of repetitive statements about their love for sports. It’s more often complex and chopped up into smaller chunks of thought. To try and monitor this kind of natural inner speech, Fernyhough’s team took a different approach that made use of descriptive experience sampling, a technique where subjects are prompted to note down what their inner experience was just prior to the sounding of a beeper. The process is labor-intensive, as people often need to be coached to effectively capture the details of their inner experience.

Listen to a podcast by Hearing the Voice, in which we hear testimoniescollected by Elisabeth Svanholmer (voice-hearer and mental health trainer) of how people have shared their experience of hearing voices.

(Video) Hearing VOICES?! COMMUNICATING With ALTERS Part 2: INTERNAL |Dissociative Identity Disorder REUPLOAD

Over time, Fernyhough believes the end result is much more valuable. “We were able to capture the moments in which they just happened to be doing inner speech spontaneously because it's what was in their head at that time. Not because we told them to,” says Fernyhough.

So was there any difference in brains doing this more “natural” inner speech as opposed to the repetitive, proscribed type? Fernyhough says there was a stark contrast. “Using descriptive experience sampling, we got a totally different pattern of brain activations. We found activations much further back in the brain, in areas that you would associate with speech perception and understanding, not speech production.” Whilst the findings need to be replicated, Fernyhough believes that if people’s brains act differently depending on whether they perform tasks spontaneously or in response to instruction, there could be ramifications for all kinds of imaging-based neuroscience.

These fundamental findings about the nature of our inner experience will only be expanded upon if neuroscience makes changes to how experiments are conducted, says Fernyhough. These changes in practice will also need to be at a fundamental level. “We've got fantastic machines and software for telling us what's going on in a particular cluster of neurons at a particular moment. We're not very good at the other thing, which is asking people about their experience, of getting at the subjective quality of experience. We really have to raise our game on that,” says Fernyhough.

Going forward, Fernyhough will try and bring this alternative focus to the analysis of voices as part of Hearing the Voice. Fernyhough thinks that exploring the vast range of different types of voices people hear in health and disease will raise questions not only about the brain, but about the nature of language and the mind itself. Exploring these differences could be brain research’s greatest challenge yet. But it’s a challenge that Fernyhough, at least, relishes: “So many people in psychology and cognitive science are kind of looking for the thing that makes us all the same. And I think that's a mistaken enterprise a lot of the time. I think we are so different in so many ways, in fascinating ways. And I think our minds are just one way in which we are very, very different. “

Worried about hearing voices? Visit the resources at Understanding Voices to get more information.

FAQs

What part of the brain is responsible for inner monologue? ›

Scientists also know that Broca's area is involved in talking to yourself in your head. That is, it is important in producing inner speech. Another area that seems to be active when someone hears a voice is at the top and back of the temporal lobe (on the side of the brain).

What is an inner monologue called? ›

Intrapersonal communication, also referred to as internal monologue, autocommunication, self-talk, inner speech, or internal discourse, is a person's inner voice which provides a running monologue of thoughts while they are conscious. It is usually tied to a person's sense of self.

What is the concept of inner speech? ›

Inner speech can be defined as the subjective experience of language in the absence of overt and audible articulation.

Can people control their inner monologue? ›

There are several ways to help control this inner voice, including meditation and by practising imagery. Meditation can help keep our most fervent critic, ourselves, in check. The default mode network (DMN), which is brain activity which occurs when we aren't actively focused, likely drives our inner voice.

How do you control the inner monologue? ›

Regular meditation may also help manage a critical internal monologue. A meditation practitioner can teach you how to dismiss negative thoughts that don't serve you well, while also creating more balance in your thought patterns. Writing out your feelings in a journal can help, too.

What does it mean if you have a constant inner monologue? ›

Research shows that critical internal monologue is a result of one's early life experiences. For example, if you have many negative memories with your siblings, parents, peers, or other people, it can influence how you see and think about yourself. It may have negative impacts on how you perform in school or at work.

How do you know if you have an inner monologue? ›

Those who do not have an ongoing narration often rely on visual imagery when laying out their thought process. For example, if milk was needed from the grocery store, people with an internal monologue would think to themselves: “I need to get some milk today,” whereas those without would imagine purchasing the milk.

Does everyone have an inner monologue? ›

It was developed by psychology professor Russell Hurlburt and requires research participants to report on their inner experience at random times throughout the day. For example, Hurlburt estimates that between 30% and 50% of people frequently experience an inner monologue.

What is inner speech and why is it important? ›

Inner speech (IS), or the act of silently talking to yourself, occurs in humans regardless of their cultural and linguistic background, suggesting its key role in human cognition. The absence of overt articulation leads to methodological challenges to studying IS and its effects on cognitive processing.

What are the 3 inner voices? ›

The three inner voices are: Voice of Judgement (VoJ) Voice of Cynicism (VoC) Voice of Fear (VoF)

Why is inner speech important? ›

Inner speech — the silent production of words in one's mind — is a core aspect of our mental lives. It is linked to a wide range of psychological functions, including reading, writing, planning, memory, self-motivation and problem-solving.

How do I stop the voices in my head? ›

Ignore the voices, block them out or distract yourself. For example, you could try listening to music on headphones, exercising, cooking or knitting. You might have to try a few different distractions to find what works for you. Give them times when you agree to pay attention to them and times when you will not.

What is spiritual inner voice? ›

This voice goes by different names: inner voice, inner guide, spiritual guide, inner wisdom, or whatever you choose. It's not a voice you hear necessarily, but a sense or a feeling (though it can be a voice for some). It can be a hunch or fleeting feeling, image, or impression.

How do I stop conversation in my head? ›

  1. Get ready to “go there” This sounds like a way to do exactly the opposite of getting out of your head, but it's not. ...
  2. Be a storyteller, not an ruminator. ...
  3. Talk to a stranger. ...
  4. Deactivate the “Me Centers” of your brain by meditating. ...
  5. Focus on someone else. ...
  6. Learn what mindfulness really is.
19 Aug 2014

Are people with inner monologue smarter? ›

Is inner monologue a sign of intelligence? The inner monologue is associated more with personality than intelligence. If someone has more developed verbal skills, they are more likely to have a wordier inner voice than someone with less language development.

What is it called when someone doesn't have an inner monologue? ›

The lack of an inner monologue has been linked to a condition called aphantasia — sometimes called "blindness of the mind's eye." People who experience aphantasia don't experience visualizations in their mind; they can't mentally picture their bedroom or their mother's face.

Do people with inner monologue have more anxiety? ›

But Reisinger suggests that having a predominance of negative self-talk can be unhealthy. “Negative or critical self-talk is associated with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, burnout and even suicidal thinking,” he says.

Can you train your inner monologue? ›

"Simply studying your intuition can awaken and strengthen your inner voice." Racioppi adds, "By getting to know how your intuition speaks to you, you'll deepen your capacity to receive information, and more importantly, you'll attune yourself to understanding to your unique ways of being guided."

How do you tap into your inner voice? ›

7 Ways to Pump up the Volume on Your Intuition so You Can Listen to Your Inner Voice
  1. Create space for your inner voice to come through. ...
  2. Pay attention to your emotions. ...
  3. Look for your inner voice patterns. ...
  4. Set the intention to tune into your inner voice. ...
  5. Don't let your mind take over. ...
  6. Take a moment to pause and breathe into it.
26 May 2019

Are people with ADHD more likely to have an inner monologue? ›

For the adult affected by ADHD, the negative comments from a lifetime of struggling with ADHD symptoms can lead to harsh internal monologues. Self-compassion becomes a skill, as the adult learns to accept mistakes and develop resilience. ADHD is a complex brain disorder affecting executive function.

Do people with ADHD have a constant inner monologue? ›

Individuals struggling with ADHD tend to have thoughts they can't shut-off that manifest in non-stop talking (that is rather distracting for them and those around them), and individuals with autism tend to have a strong internal focus and/or obsessive thoughts about any random item or interest.

Do schizophrenics have an inner monologue? ›

When it comes to schizophrenia, one of the most common questions is where do these inner voices come from? It turns out that people with schizophrenia are actually hearing their own voices in their heads. This is due to a phenomenon called subvocal speech, which most of us experience in a slightly different way.

How much inner monologue is normal? ›

According to Hulburt, not many people have an inner monologue 100 per cent of the time, but most do sometimes. He estimates that inner monologue is a frequent thing for 30 to 50 per cent of people.

Is the voice in my head my own? ›

Our inner voice is actually a prediction

In effect, our inner voices are the result of our brain internally predicting our own voice's sound.

Is it inner monologue to talk to yourself? ›

Call it your inner monologue or your self-talk. Either way, you are talking to yourself all the time in your head – and the way you do it can make a big difference in your growth and mental health, said Melinda Fouts, a psychologist and certified executive coach based in Colorado.

Are there people who don't have an inner voice? ›

Earlier this year, a lot of people were surprised to discover that some people don't have an internal monologue, while those people who don't were surprised to learn other people do. Having only ever lived in your own head, it's pretty weird to discover that other people think differently than you do.

What is the voice in your head called conscious? ›

What is an internal monologue? Whether you refer to your internal voice as your inner dialogue, self-talk, internal speech, or stream of consciousness, an internal monologue is the voice inside your head that you can “hear” when you think.

Why does my inner voice sound like someone else? ›

The researchers suggest that perhaps what's happening is the dampening or quietening just isn't happening as it should, so to our brains these internal voices end up sounding like someone else.

Is the inner voice the Holy Spirit? ›

God gave you your inner voice so that you hear the Voice of Jesus Christ, speaking to you as the Helper in the name of God. Just listen to your own inner voice and you hear Jesus speaking to you as the Holy Spirit. Jesus helps you to walk your path.

Can you have 2 inner voices? ›

Many people have what you might call an 'inner voice' — some even have several.

What medication is used to stop hearing voices? ›

Medication. If your voices are very troubling and you have been referred to a psychiatrist, they are likely to prescribe an antipsychotic drug. These drugs may: stop the voices or make them less frightening for you.

What kind of voices do schizophrenics hear? ›

Most commonly though, people diagnosed with schizophrenia will hear multiple voices that are male, nasty, repetitive, commanding, and interactive, where the person can ask the voice a question and get some kind of answer.”

Can anxiety put voices in your head? ›

Yes, severe anxiety can cause a person to hear voices. It's not that severe anxiety can lead to psychosis, but that severe anxiety stresses the body, and stress can cause psychosis-like sensory symptoms, such as hearing voices that aren't real.

How can I hear the inner voice of God? ›

  1. Quiet your mind. If you want to access your inner voice, it's important to clear out your mind and become as peaceful and relaxed as possible. ...
  2. Be humble, and take your ego down a few pegs. ...
  3. Trust your gut. ...
  4. Ask for help. ...
  5. Be open and believe that you are not alone in this world.
28 Mar 2021

What mental disorder makes you talk to yourself? ›

People with schizotypal personality disorder have difficulties forming relationships and experience extreme anxiety in social situations. They may react inappropriately or not react at all during a conversation or they may talk to themselves.

Is it normal to imagine conversations in your head? ›

In fact, "thought-chatter" is completely normal for human beings. Usually, whenever our attention isn't occupied, a stream of mental associations flows through our minds — thoughts about the future or the past, fragments of songs or conversations, daydreams about alternative realities or friends or celebrities.

Why do I always imagine scenarios in my head? ›

It's also known as "catastrophising," and it happens to many people at some point in their lives. It might be a result of your previous bad experiences that you can't shake, or it could be linked to mental health issues like anxiety or chronic depression.

What part of the brain makes you hear voices? ›

The basic form of hearing is processed in the temporal lobe in the brain. This part of the brain is found inside the ears. The research concluded that a particular region of the left temporal lobe is more active in auditory hallucination compared to non-hallucinating people.

What part of the brain controls voices? ›

Our ability to speak is controlled in the sensorimotor cortex, part of the brain's cerebral cortex.

What part of the brain affects voice? ›

In general, the left hemisphere or side of the brain is responsible for language and speech. Because of this, it has been called the "dominant" hemisphere. The right hemisphere plays a large part in interpreting visual information and spatial processing.

Where do inner thoughts come from? ›

Where Do Critical Inner Voices Come From? These inner voices usually come from early life experiences that are internalized and taken in as ways we think about ourselves.

What is it called when you hear voices in your mind? ›

Hearing voices is sometimes called an 'auditory hallucination'. Some people have other hallucinations, such as seeing, smelling, tasting or feeling things that don't exist outside their mind. Whatever your experience, you're not alone.

Why do I hear talking at night? ›

Voices as you fall asleep or wake up – these are to do with your brain being partly in a dreaming state. The voice might call your name or say something brief. You might also see strange things or misinterpret things you can see. These experiences usually stop as soon as you are fully awake.

What do you do when you hear voices in your head? ›

Ignore the voices, block them out or distract yourself. For example, you could try listening to music on headphones, exercising, cooking or knitting. You might have to try a few different distractions to find what works for you. Give them times when you agree to pay attention to them and times when you will not.

How does the brain control talking? ›

Motor cortex

To speak clearly, you must move the muscles of your mouth, tongue, and throat. This is where the motor cortex comes into play. Located in the frontal lobe, the motor cortex takes information from Broca's area and tells the muscles of your face, mouth, tongue, lips, and throat how to move to form speech.

How many voices does the mind have? ›

Some schools of modern psychology use the term sub-personality to describe these different voices. Based on Jungian work they say the average person has about 12 sub-personalities.

Does voice Affect Memory? ›

Schirmer and team conclude: "Emotional voices produce changes in long-term memory, as well as capturing the listener's attention. They influence how easily spoken words are later recognized and what emotions are assigned to them.

What hormone controls voice? ›

Thyroid hormone receptors have been identified in the laryngeal tissue and the thyroid hormone plays an important role in the development of the larynx. [16] Thyroid hormone excess rarely leads to hoarseness of voice due to the stuttering movement of the vocal cords.

Which hormone is responsible for voice? ›

At puberty, guys' bodies begin producing a lot of the hormone testosterone (pronounced: tes-TOSS-tuh-rone), which causes changes in several parts of the body, including the voice. For starters, a guy's larynx (pronounced: LAIR-inks), also known as the voice box, grows bigger.

Are there people without inner thoughts? ›

—Can we ever stop thinking? The lack of an inner monologue has been linked to a condition called aphantasia — sometimes called "blindness of the mind's eye." People who experience aphantasia don't experience visualizations in their mind; they can't mentally picture their bedroom or their mother's face.

Do all people have inner monologue? ›

Inner monologue occurs due to a brain signal called corollary discharge, a common occurrence among all humans. Everybody experiences it, but not everyone has inner speaking. This brain signal allows you to distinguish between internal and external stimuli.

Is your inner voice God? ›

Yes! God speaks to you in your times of need and praise. God knows how to reach you because God speaks your personal language, because God knows your heart. God gave us the Holy Spirit through His Son Jesus Christ, Who is with us as the Helper, to guide us by our inner voice.

Videos

1. Your Internal Monologue: Why People Talk to Themselves in 3 Minutes
(Thought Monkey)
2. Do You Have an Inner Voice?
(BrainCraft)
3. Q&A - The Science of the Voices in your Head - with Charles Fernyhough
(The Royal Institution)
4. The Ezra Klein Show | 29 July 2022|Best:Ruth Ozeki’s Enchanted Relationship to Minds and Possessions
(The Ezra Klein Show)
5. The psychology of inner monologues
(KTNV Channel 13 Las Vegas)
6. SCHIZOPHRENIC EPISODE ON CAMERA
(Schizoin Through Life)
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