As you’re reading this blog post silently to yourself, do you hear an inner voice speaking the words in your head? A new paper published in Psychosis suggests that most people do hear an internal voice when they’re reading. But as this is one of the first ever investigations into the question, and it used an unconventional methodology, it’s fair to say the results are far from conclusive.
Ruvanee Vilhauer at New York University took advantage of questions about the phenomenon posted on Yahoo! Answers, the largest English language Q&A website in the world (where people post questions and members of the community chip in with their answers). She found 24 relevant questions posed between 2006 and 2014, and 136 answers in which people described their own experiences when reading.
Vilhauer analysed all the relevant content and looked for recurring themes and insights. Overall, the vast majority (82.5 per cent) of contributors said that they did hear an inner voice when reading to themselves, 10.6 per cent said they didn’t, and the status of the remaining contributors was unclear. Of those who said they heard an inner voice, 13 per cent said they did so only sometimes, with various factors tending to increase the likelihood of this happening, such as their interest in the text.
Among the contributors with an internal reading voice, another key theme was whether or not they only ever heard the same voice (this was true for about half of them) or a range of different voices. For those who heard different inner voices, these tended to vary based on the voice of the character who was speaking in a story, or if it was a text message or email, on the voice of the sender. For people who only ever heard the same internal reading voice, this was usually their own voice, but it was often different in some way from their speaking voice, for example in terms of pitch or emotional tone. Some contributors described or implied that their inner reading voice was just the same as the inner voice they used for thoughts.
Nearly all those who said they had an inner reading voice or voices referred to it being “audible” in some way, for example they spoke of its volume or depth or accent. Another issue that came up was the controllability of the inner reading voice. Some contributors spoke of the voice as distracting or even scary, while others said they deliberately chose the voice they used. You can see why this paper was published in the journal Psychosis. Indeed, Vilhauer said that the insights from her analysis provided some support for theories that say auditory hallucinations are inner voices that are incorrectly identified as not belonging to the self.
Why has this topic been largely overlooked before now (although check out these studies from 2011, and Charles Fernyhough’s forthcoming book The Voices Within)? Vilhauer’s study hints at an answer because she found that many people assumed that their inner experiences when reading were shared by everyone. This worked both ways, so some of the people who had an inner reading voice were convinced of its normality: “We all hear our voices in our heads at times – even those of others we know – especially while reading,” said one Yahoo contributor. Yet others who claimed to have no inner voice felt they were the normal ones. For example, in response to a question posted on the site about whether anyone else hears an inner voice while reading, one responder said “Nooo. You should get that checked out” and another wrote, in capitals: “NO, I’M NOT A FREAK”.
Vilhauer speculates that perhaps psychologists have failed to study this question because they’ve simply assumed, like many of the Yahoo contributors, that there’s no variability in this and everyone has the same reading experience as they do.
Vilhauer, R. (2016). Inner reading voices: An overlooked form of inner speech Psychosis, 8 (1), 37-47 DOI: 10.1080/17522439.2015.1028972