By Essie Bester
When you woke up this morning your first thought probably was something like “here we go again”. But – and this is the real brain breaker – did you express it in words or did you experience it more like a wave of existential fear?
For a long time it was accepted that an inner voice was simply part of being human. This appears not to be the case. New studies indicate that, even if you say you think in words, this is not necessarily so. According to statistics only 26% of all people experience inner speech.
What is inner speech?
Experts say with inner speech you virtually “hear” your inner voice. You are aware of its tone and intonation. The voice could, for instance, sound angry or worried. You can also sometimes use full sentences while at other times you rely on a shortened wordplay that would be meaningless to somebody else.
Experts say children can make use of an inner voice from as young as five years, and some studies suggest that toddlers can use a form of inner phonetics from the age of 18 months.
Is it a sign of intelligence?
According to experts inner speech is not a sign of intelligence. It has more to do with personality. A person with better developed verbal skills will be more inclined to have a more wordy inner voice than somebody with less language development.
Some people experience continual inner speech while others experience less inner speech. Research has also found that people use more inner speech when they are under pressure, for example when you are practising the answers to questions for a job interview, or if you are an athlete who is trying to focus.
Not as common as we think
And then there are those who do not experience inner speech at all. Russell T Hurlburt, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, says that these people can for instance experience images or sensations, but not a voice or words.
In reality there are quite a number of ways in which people can experience inner thoughts – emotion, sound, feeling, text, visuals. For example, if somebody else says the word “dog”, one of three things are probably happening in your thoughts – you see a dog in your thoughts, you see the word itself, or you hear a voice saying “dog”. There is also a fourth option, namely sound. Some hear a dog barking.
Hurlburt says we only think inner speech is a common phenomenon because current research on the subject – mainly in the form of written questionnaires – is deficient. He explains that when we ask a question in a textual way, we invite the person to look at his experience from a textual point of view.
In other words, we trigger a person’s verbal response when we ask him or her what is going on in their head. In support of this, research shows that the internal monologues of hearing-impaired people comprise sign language.
Hurlburt’s research method involves the use of questions designed to eventually lead to precise answers without urging them to say that they, for instance, thought in words or images.
This is how he, apart from the four phenomena that occurs regularly (inner speech, inner seeing, feelings and sensory awareness) discovered a fifth, viz. unsymbolised thinking. This comprises experiencing an explicit, differentiated thought that does not include experiencing words, images or other symbols – some psychologists, however, believe that this is impossible.
Hurlburt himself is of the opinion that the most important conclusion that he drew from his studies is the fact that people do not know what their own experience is. Apparently we are fairly hopeless when we have to put into words precisely how and what our own inner experience really is.
While most people believe that they experience inner speech, his research shows that it occurs in only one quarter of those who participated in his studies. Furthermore inner image (seeing) occurred in about one quarter while feelings also occurred in about one quarter.
An online debate on inner monologue also shows that there are some who cannot imagine that there are people who do not have an inner voice, while others find the idea of ongoing internal chats surprising and even exhausting.
- One commentator says she sees the words somebody is uttering as they would look if typed on a computer screen. If a person should express sadness, she does not hear the words in her head but she sees an image of a physical heart divided in two together with a sound that could go with the thought – it may sound like eggshells being trampled on.
- Annabel, a 29-year-old marketing manager working in London, believes that she thinks outside of the area of “text”. “ If, early in the morning, I think that I have to get up and make coffee, I see a picture of a coffee mug.” This image will keep on drifting over her head and bothering her until the task it represents has been done.
- Charlie, a 28-year-old social-media manager, says: “ It must be irritating to have words in your head! I visualise things or have a feeling about something. It is not as if I actively think words.”
A better understanding of inner speech and the wide variety of thinking processes that are experienced is necessary. What has been said makes it clear that the type of inner speech and experiences that people can have, have probably been underestimated until now. This includes the experiences of children as well as the resources they may need for learning. It could therefore be especially important for learning methods and education in general.