It is difficult to notice things that are closest to us, especially if they are there all the time. No wonder, then, that we think so rarely about the strange fact that we think: Nothing could seem to be more intimate than this inner speech, and it appears to be incessant, footnoting our wakefulness from the end of infancy to the last days of our dotage.
Even when we actually notice thought, it remains difficult to study. No one else can listen in, so researchers must rely on reports generated by introspection. These are intrinsically unreliable. Trying to reflect on one’s own thoughts, William James famously remarked, “is like “trying to turn up the gas up quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” Or perhaps, to change the metaphor, endeavouring to take hold of tassels of fog with tweezers made of mist.
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Nevertheless, by using relatively simple methods—such as a beeper worn for months at a time that prompts subjects to note their thoughts at random intervals—as well as more high-tech approaches, such as brain scanning, researchers have begun to make some progress in addressing what this talking “in loud” is about. “The Voices Within” by Charles Fernyhough, a professor of psychology at Durham University, is a lucid, authoritative survey of our current knowledge. It is also appropriately modest in its claims for eavesdropping on a place where the eavesdropped and the eavesdropper are mutually entangled. The author’s investigations, at once scientific and humane, represent the discipline of psychology at its rare best.The Voices Within
By Charles Fernyhough
Basic, 305 pages, $27.50
What is thought for? Why are we always telling ourselves things that we must already know in order to be able to tell them to ourselves? Our silent soliloquy seems to have a variety of functions, evident in different circumstances. It can be a means by which we motivate ourselves: Sportsmen and other high-level performers give themselves a steady flow of silent instructions, encouragement and guidance. We often rehearse our lines in future conversations or pick over past ones. Rehearsing what we have just experienced can help to transport it into short-term memory, where it is available to steer our actions. Our endless commentary, Mr. Fernyhough’s account suggests, seems to assist the mysterious process of making sense of what is going on in and around us.
Though thought may incorporate other material, such as images, it seems to be predominantly linguistic and involves the parts of the brain most implicated in overt speech. Because words do not belong to any particular sense, they are particularly effective in integrating information from different senses, helping us to piece the world together. As well as assisting us to plan, control and direct our actions, thoughts also propose alternative realities. They are virtual experiments.
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The phenomenology of inner speech is correspondingly rich. Monologue often divides into dialogue. As Mr. Fernyhough puts it with characteristic eloquence: “A solitary mind is actually a chorus.” Inner speech develops through the internalization of dialogue. Our heads are echo chambers of our own and other people’s words, and thoughts come in a variety of styles, with a pitch and accent, as it were—as if they were meant to be spoken out loud. (The author cites experiments on subjects asked to read silently limericks whose rhymes are accent-dependent.) Thoughts are often fragmentary and frequently condensed or elliptic: Many things are left unsaid, and the dots are not joined.
This presents a challenge to novelists who want to deliver a character and her world entirely through interior monologue. Our consciousness, after all, doesn’t have to tell itself many things that readers may need to know in order to follow the plot. That Mr. Fernyhough is a novelist as well as a psychologist is evident in his illuminating discussion of the polyphonic art of fiction and the way in which writers such as Virginia Woolf, Muriel Spark and William Golding unpack characters from the voices they generate in those characters’ heads. As the critic Patricia Waugh expressed it, novels are “fictional worlds built out of voices.”
How do I know that the voices I “hear” are mine? The most sophisticated brain-scanning techniques, Mr. Fernyhough notes, do not show reliable neural markers corresponding to identifying thoughts as our own rather than being voices originating from without. The question touches on one of the great puzzles of psychology: Our mind’s ability to identify events as originating from ourselves, as things that we have done rather than as mere happenings.
This is not just of theoretical interest. Some people are intensely disturbed by their thoughts when they seem to come from an external source; the thoughts are heard as voices that may be menacing, aggressive, scornful or merely meaningless. The distress of hearing voices may be compounded by a fear that it is evidence of psychiatric illness. In a secular age, as psychiatrist Thomas Szasz pointed out, if you talk to God, that is called prayer; if God has the courtesy to reply, that is called schizophrenia. “Schizophrenia” is in fact an umbrella term for many conditions—as Mr. Fernyhough, always resistant to reductionism, points out—and many people who hear voices have no other features of psychosis.
Some of the most compelling pages in Mr. Fernyhough’s book describe how hearing voices may be a response to traumatic, sometimes repressed, memories, rather than merely being the result of the atypical processing of inner speech. The voices carry messages that cannot otherwise be spoken. One patient began to understand her voices as a response to horrifying sexual torture, “a blasphemy, a desecration beyond expression” that, she said, “left behind a tiny child whose mind broke and shattered into a million tiny pieces.” Behind the façade of a successful organized young woman “adept at presenting a serene face to the world” was “psychic civil war.” Recognizing this helped her to cope not only with the voices but also with her past. She realized that these apparently alien intrusions were not just misattributed sounds but emanations from a person: herself. This is why, for some, voices may be protectors as well as tormentors: They are familiars, missed when they fall silent.
There is much more work to be done to make sense of our minds’ incessant chatter. Mr. Fernyhough ends his book with a multitude of questions, the most fundamental being whether this voice is “you speaking to you” or whether you are “the thing that is endlessly spun by that conversation.” After reading “The Voices Within,” you may never again be quite as thoughtless about the fact that you think.
—Mr. Tallis is the author, most recently, of “Black Mirror: Looking at Life Through Death.”