The science of how we talk to ourselves in our heads

Studying the ways people talk to themselves in their own minds is incredibly tricky because as soon as you ask them about it, you’re likely interfering with the process you want to investigate. As William James said, some forms of introspective analysis are like “… trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.”

For many years Russell Hurlbert and his colleagues have used a technique that they believe offers the best way to study what they call “pristine” inner speaking, unaltered by outside interference. They provide participants with a beeper that goes off randomly several times a day, and ask them to record in precise terms their mental activity that was happening just before the beeps. Early in the process, this “descriptive experience sampling” (DES) approach also involves cooperative interviews between the participants and a trained researcher, so that the participant can learn to identify true instances of inner speaking from other mental phenomena.

Now Hurlbert’s team has documented some of what they’ve learned so far about the ways that we talk to ourselves in our own minds. Our inner voices usually sound to us like our external spoken voice – instances of inner speaking occurring in another person’s voice are very rare. Just like our spoken voice, the voice of inner speaking can also express degrees of volume and emotion.

Inner speaking is perceived as wilful – something done, rather than experienced passively. There is huge variation in the frequency with which people speak to themselves in their mind. In one study with 30 participants that involved ten beeps a day for three days, some reported no instances of inner speaking at all, while others reported inner speaking for 75 per cent of the beeps. On average inner speaking was reported at 23 per cent of beeps, although note that doesn’t mean people are speaking to themselves 23 per cent of the entire time.

Another curious variation in inner speaking is where people report its location. Some people describe it as occurring in a particular location in their head; others say in their head but are no more specific; still others say their inner speaking occurs in their chest.

Also notable is some people’s descriptions of inner speaking occurring while they are speaking aloud – with the two voices saying different things. There are also reports of inner speaking that has no meaning, and inner speaking that is at a much faster rate than would be physically possible for aloud speaking.

Hurlbert’s team say it is also important to outline what inner speaking is not. They say it is different from “inner hearing,” which is when an inner voice is experienced passively, even if it is one’s own voice. This can give rise to a situation where a person has an inner discussion between their inner speaking voice and their heard voice. The researchers give this example from their records, of a man eating dinner in a restaurant, who then notices a woman:

Innerly speaking voice: Why are you bringing this woman to my attention?
Innerly heard voice: She’s pretty (spoken in a matter of fact tone). Innerly speaking voice: Uh huh (“in a that’s-bullshit tone of voice”) [Beeper goes off]

Inner speaking is also different from “unsymbolised thinking” according to the researchers. Unsymbolised thinking is a “thoughty experience” about a distinct concept or issue but does not involve words, pictures or symbols. Inner speaking also is not “sensory awareness” – when we’re focused on a specific sensory aspect of the outside world or our bodies.

Hurlbert’s group believe their approach has advantages over the questionnaire methods used by other researchers, which obviously rely on people remembering their past mental lives, and are often vague in what they mean by inner speaking. And Hurlbert’s group think their method is more trustworthy than simple armchair introspection, because if you sit back and deliberately attempt to analyse your own inner speaking you will immediately interfere with the natural course of your mental activities.

They conclude by outlining many puzzles that remain to be investigated, including why some people appear to experience so much more inner speaking than others (some people report that they experience inner speaking 100 per cent of the time, yet others report none). Also, are there cross-cultural differences in inner speaking? And when and how does inner speaking first appear in life?

Hurlburt RT, Heavey CL, and Kelsey JM (2013). Toward a phenomenology of inner speaking. Consciousness and cognition, 22 (4), 1477-94 PMID: 24184987

–Further reading–
Don’t do it!’ – how your inner voice really does aid self-control
The same voices, heard differently?
What are elite cricket batsmen saying when they talk to themselves?

Thinking aloud about mental voices (pdf)
‘Life in the Chatter Box’

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

20 thoughts on “The science of how we talk to ourselves in our heads”

  1. I am interested in this topic and so I will like to make a comment. I belief that , there are several factors, which contribute to the phenomenon of people speaking to themselves in the head. I belief it could be biological or psychological.
    Biological in the sense that the human nervous system composed of many subunits that function involuntary. It could be possible that, it is another way in which the human mind or brain function.
    Secondly , according to psychology people with mental disorder, such as depression , mood disorder and schizophrenia Could behave in such a manner.
    I belief scientist still need to do more research on this topic.

    1. really sometime I would love to speak to someone over interstate going it was just brought to my attention on her speaking I never thought of it but the conversations that go on in my head I would like to talk to somebody about this because I never knew the inner speaking with something real thought I was just weird

  2. I have always wondered how we talk in our head. This really makes me think about schizophrenic people. The average everyday speaks in their head to talk themselves through a situation, entertain, organize, and think about what we are going to do for the day. How freaky would it be to believe that someone else is inside our head and we hear this other voice that isn't our own. Talking to us and telling us to do things that we don't want too. It's mind blowing. Or even thinking about what some who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder might be saying in their head. I could just imagine them counting every single thing out in their head and how something in their head is telling them to clean everything excessively. Very interesting.

    1. I would love to chat with someone on this subject. I’m schitzoaffective I’ve have not been medicated since I was 12. I was institutionalize 3 times from the age of 6 to 12. The first time bc o thinkn I was going to kill my mother.

    2. I have ocd like thoughts, im 100% aware of my inner-voice all of the time and im always thinking about why am i so quiet, you better not say anything what will others think, and then overwhelmed with massive fear of it and its a constant loop of this since ive been alive.. over 30years

  3. Hmmmm? As one who experiences constant inner-speaking, except when listening to or reading matters of interest, I find it hard to comprehend what might be happening in the minds of those who don't or only experience such intermittently. Are they, in effect, brain dead during these interregnums (sic)? What fills the vacuum other than, say Hollyoaks or X Factor? Can correlations be drawn with IQ or not? In conclusion I think much more could have been made of this study and as a general topic

    1. Up until today reading this stuff I didn’t know this was something that really went with other people but even while I’m talking to this typing this out this conversation going mad about other things as well as think about this like four five six people talking

  4. Do you realize that as you read this you can hear yourself speaking the words in your own voice inside your mind? It seems that our conscious thinking process is a linguistic processor while our so-called subconscious is the part that does our actual thinking. Something like what happens when we talk and don't know what we're going to say until we hear ourself about to say it.

    1. I hear my voice out loud. But honestly I’m usually thinking of something else so I’m not really invested In the convo if it is not really interesting. Also I’m capable of having multiple conversations with myself at one time

  5. I constantly have at least 2 personas in my head (myself and another one). I am well aware that I do not have any mental illness, it just makes reality and fantasy better handled when both of them talk. I don't find it weird, I think it is really amazing.

  6. Yes, me too. I could actually download the personality of people I know onto my brain and engage into mind conversations with them most of the time. Especially when I'm at work, which means alone in my office. I like to debate with someone, other than myself, and this is the way I generate my thoughts.

    1. For an emperical update see:

      Netsell, R., Kleinsasser, S. & Daniel (2016). Rate of expanded inner speech during spontaneous sentence productions. Article online at Perceptual & Motor Skills Journal.

  7. I have 2 voices in my head a domain and the God and father of Jesus Christ I can choose which one to listen too

    1. Mike D. Cibhave Jesus in my head too as another person. What I mean is, when I think I always say WE need to go to the grocery store or we should do such and such. I’ve always believed the other person much be Jesus. Do you think like that? I am not mentally ill. I’m 71 years old and thought like this all my life

  8. So.., I get these conversations going on,like there is myself and several people talking around me.There is always one that’s so negative, it doesn’t let up until I’m reduced to tears.the others talk as if they kinda have my back,on my side.
    But they are always talking about me as if I’m not there.I wish I could capture/write it down as it’s going on,but I can’t because it’s too fast

  9. honestly, I have conversations with my inner voice all the time I believe it could be a mental scar or trauma that has happened to the person who does inner talking but I have experienced having philosophical discussions with my inner voice and several other things I was looking at this article to see if it was just me or others

  10. but it could also be a sense of loneliness that creates this “person” in your head

  11. Black ops 1 talk to myself I have complete full bong three to four person conversations at the same time while that’s going on I’m also contemplating on what I’m going to do how I’m going to do it because if I do it one way what will the result be about do it this way what will the result be crazy but I just want to talk to you actually it’s fine. They can tell me what’s going on

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