Inner speech, self-talk, internal monologue – we unpack the psychology of our thoughts
The human brain has more possible neurological connections than there are atoms in the known universe – between ten quadrillion vigintillion, and one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion – that’s quite a lot. So why does it come as a surprise to hear that most people don’t convert this immense computing power into words?
If you asked most people, they would probably say that they ‘think in words’, or that they have an ‘internal voice’ at least some of the time, which they use for planning and day-to-day thinking. When you woke up this morning, you probably thought to yourself ‘here we go again’. But, did you actually think that in ‘words’, or did it feel more like a conceptual wave of existential dread? There is a population-spanning, plethora of ways that people experience inner thoughts – emotion, sound, feeling, text, imagery – and we’re also pretty hopeless at accurately articulating what our own inner experience is really like. A recent Twitter thread both fascinated and freaked people out on this very subject.
Russell T Hurlburt, a professor in psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has devoted his career to studying the psychological phenomena of what he calls the ‘Pristine Inner Experience’. Collating his research from over the years, he found that only 26 per cent of samples experienced ‘innerly speech’ – a figure taken from a 2011 blog post of his, which, having resurfaced, has sparked the recent internet frenzy around the subject. In his tests he would expose participants to a beeping sound several times a day, and ask them to recount what was going on in their head just before they heard it. The idea being that they would get better and better at it and he would end up, after a few weeks, with an accurate portrayal of their mental landscapes.
“Almost all research about inner speech says there is a lot of it. I think it is all mistaken” – Russell T Hurlburt, psychology professor, University of Nevada
Dr Hurlburt is somewhat of a maverick in his field; his research hasn’t been warmly welcomed by the scientific community, despite the fact he has authored several books on the subject: “I’m trying for the n+1th time to make the point to scientific psychology that inner speech is not as common as we think it is,” he tells Dazed of his life’s work, “almost all research about inner speech says there is a lot of it. I think it is all mistaken.”
Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist and pioneer of research into inner thought, coined the term ‘Private Speech’ after his studies in the 1920s noted that children learn how to talk to themselves through talking to others. He was of the opinion that inner speech was an internalised form of speaking out loud. More recent research places importance on what is now known as ‘inner speech’, with Dutch neurobiologist Bernard Baars concluding in 2003 that when people reflect upon their own inner experience, they often report a verbal quality, and researchers Dolcos & Albarracín findings in 2014 showed that people often talk to themselves using the first‐person pronoun.
But given methodological issues – measuring something in someone else's brain comes with a whole host of problems – research is generally limited. The very nature of asking someone “what is going on in your head?” results in a triggering of their “verbal apparatus”, says Dr Hulburt. He thinks current research on the subject – mainly in the form of written questionnaires – is flawed. By posing the question in a textual way, you’re inviting the person to look at their experience from a textual standpoint. “Therefore,” says Dr Hulburt, “it is likely that they will find verbal stuff to report back to you.”
“I feel like language limits,” says Annabel, a 29-year-old marketing campaign manager who works in London, and who believes she thinks outside of the ‘textual realm’. “If I was getting out of bed in the morning and thinking that I need to get up and get some coffee, I see the picture of the coffee cup.” These icons floating above her head plague her until the tasks they illustrate are complete: “When I've made the coffee and drank it, then it stops. It’s almost like a Sim.”
There’s more complexity to this way of thinking, she says: “It’s not just the next action. That would be really quiet, my head is awash with symbols, icons, and sensations all at once. I get frustrated when I need to think for specific words for things. If I’m worried about something, I’ll see an exclamation mark pop up in my head, and that’s all the explanation I need.”
This seems like a very literal and direct way of visual processing, but things aren't the same for all non-textual thinkers. For Elena, a PhD in linguistics at the University of Texas, her own inner language is a landscape of visual references that she has to strain to convert into the written or spoken word. It’s a world of associative imagery and metaphor, and is often overwhelmingly visceral – a blend of art, culture, fantasy, and personal experience.
“My grandmother used to skinny dip with me when I was little,” Elena tells Dazed, “and then she would go back in the house when the moon came up. It was weird as my relationship with my grandmother changed in that moment. She became very stern again. She was playful until the moon came up. She was like a werewolf. That image became part of my inner language for a change in fate or change in relationship.”
If Elena senses a souring in conversation, or if a social interaction takes a turn for the worse, the scene of her grandmother leaving her to bathe alone in a moonlit lake will flood her consciousness. “If a person suddenly changes and I see a different side of them and they are abrupt, that is the image,” she says.
While Elena may have a relatively consistent visual library to draw upon for each emotion, these are merely guiding principles, a backdrop for more nuanced thought. It’s not as simple as one picture means X and another means Y, the sequencing of these images is where meaning is often found: “It’s the space in-between where the information is. It is really complex and changes all the time. Mostly the images are rich and will mean different things in different contexts, then I have to mine the image for what I’m thinking about”.
“I often will see individual colours for word,” says Elena, who believes this way of thinking is pretty common for people, like herself, who are on the autism spectrum. “Our sensory system is hyper wired, so we take in more sensory information. It is too much to process in real life so we shut down and then reflect on it. In a particular case, when it is visual, we hold onto visual memories. There are an unlimited amount of memories that we draw from. When we do come up with something then it will be completely outside of the box. That is basically why, because autistic people don’t think verbally or linearly.”
Although our understanding is limited, thinking in imagery is generally considered a characteristic of autism. However, purely non-verbal ‘inner speech’ is not limited to people with the condition.
“It’s the space in-between where the information is. It is really complex and changes all the time” – Elena
“God, it must be so annoying to have words in your head!” says Charlie, a 28-year-old social media manager. “It’s not like I have a picture, I just have the intention to do things.” If you’re in a dream you kind of know where you are, even when there is nothing to suggest you know where you are. You just have an implanted knowledge. Day-to-day thinking is similar to this sensation for Charlie: “I visualise stuff or have a feeling about something. It’s not like me actively thinking words.”
“I’m being quite arrogant to think that people who think in words are not connected,” she continues. “The only time that I have something close to words is when I’m chanting – I’m a Buddhist. When I’m doing this, I tend to get caught up in my own thoughts in words. I’m speaking out loud, and trying to think of the next step.”
BEEP! Okay, what was in your head just before that beep? Be honest. Chances are, it wasn’t text-based, even though you’re reading (chanting even?), so claims Dr Hulburt: “If you were a typical subject – which almost all subjects are – then you would have to wear a beeper for a day. Every now and then it will beep randomly. Your task is to pay attention to whatever was going on in your experience and what I call the last undisturbed experience before the beep. Maybe on the third day, you are pretty good at it. Then, when that happens you will discover that – if you’re a typical subject – that there isn’t much inner speech.”
This is terrifying and intriguing in equal measure. Yes, the brain is a complex organism, and consciousness is difficult to pin down to any singular coherent definition, but the idea that you are somehow not in control of your own thoughts, that they wash over you in forms that you don’t truly recognise – and that this is essentially occurring all the time – is unsettling.
“The point that I’m trying to make is that I never ask you in general about the characteristics of you inner experience. I don’t think people are in a position to answer that question,” says Dr Hurlburt. “I asked you what was in your inner experience at the moment of the random beep.” His method is designed to catch you off guard, to dig beneath any preconceptions you may have about the inner workings of your brain, and take good measure of the true essence of being.
What’s interesting about this is the idea that, essentially, much of our existence as sentient beings happens without ever entering our consciousness. It's operating in the background and is hidden from us. To pry into the inner workings of your day-to-day thinking, you have to stretch your mind, almost like a muscle, and train it to dig deeper. And maybe on the third day of your brain bleep test, you might have an accurate picture of what constitutes your own ‘Pristine Inner Experience’.