The Running Voice in Our Heads

by | Nov 13, 2018


Most people (and maybe everyone) have a running dialogue in their heads. It is a constant stream of a voice (or voices) doing a play-by-play of our lives; a narrator. In fact, as you are reading this sentence your inner voice is likely narrating along as you read.

Related IFOD on Metacognition – Thinking About Thinking.

The barrage of words from our inner voice can be rapid: in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker reports that “In your head, you say between three hundred and a thousand words every minute to yourself.” Other research suggests that the inner voice can run at 4,000 words a minute. That is remarkably fast given that the average person speaks at 125-150 words per minute.

We do much of our thinking in words and our inner voice can make up a large part of our thinking, but our thinking is more than just words. (What exactly “thinking” encompasses is a huge topic and might be a future IFOD.)

Steve Taylor, Ph.D of Leeds Beckett University in the UK writes that “usually, whenever our attention isn’t occupied, a stream of mental associations flows through our minds — thoughts about the future or the past, fragments of songs or conversations, daydreams about alternative realities or friends or celebrities. It’s almost always random and involuntary. It runs through our heads, whether we like it or not.”

A leading researcher on inner speech, Charles Fernyhough of Durham University in the U.K. says that “our inner dialogues are an internal version of the conversations we have with other people.” In terms of how much of our lives we are immersed in inner speech Dr. Fernyhough says “the best estimate I could come up with was that around about a quarter of the moments of experience that we can study scientifically seem to involve inner speech.

Research is also finding that there are different types of inner speech. One type, referred to as “extended inner speech” is slower, usually in full sentences and similar to complete sentences that would make sense if spoken out-loud.

Another form of inner speech is “much more compressed, condensed, telegraphic and squashed together. It’s more like a note-form version of what we might say to ourselves out loud.” This usually is the rapid, jumping from topic to topic narrated thoughts we have and usually are not in full sentences. For instance, you see a billboard for auto insurance, which makes you think about your car, and then that you need your oil changed, which leads to thinking about Jiffy Lube where you get your oil changed, that offers 20% off to Uber drivers, which causes you to think about the upcoming UBER IPO which leads to concerns about the stock market and worry about the coming year or two, which causes you to think about the 2020 election and worry about how our country is becoming more divisive and how Rush Limbaugh recently introduced President Trump in Cape Girardeau, Missouri which causes you to think about a fraternity brother who is from Cape Girardeau, etc.

Sometimes the chatter in our heads can be very frustrating and distracting. In order to quiet these voices we turn to distractions such as television, social media and the like. These methods are of questionable efficacy as we are just trading internal chatter for external chatter.

A more effective way to train our brains to calm the inner speech chatter is through meditation practice. IFOD on Meditation.

Note, however, that completely silencing our inner voice is neither possible nor necessarily always desirable. According to this article, “research carried out by Canadian professor Alain Morin has show that people who talk to themselves more frequently score higher on measures of self-awareness and self-evaluation.” This might be because similar to dreaming, our inner chatter helps us make sense of our experiences.

A good strategy is to train our inner voices to be a positive force in our lives. The stories we tell in our heads can have a powerful effect on how we live. From Barking up the Wrong Tree:

A Navy study revealed a number of things that people with grit do—often unknowingly—that keep them going when things get hard. One of them comes up in the psychological research again and again: “positive self-talk.” Yes, Navy SEALs need to be badass, but one of the keys to that is thinking like “The Little Engine That Could.” In your head, you say between three hundred and a thousand words every minute to yourself. Those words can be positive or negative. It turns out that when these words are positive, they have a huge effect on your mental toughness, your ability to keep going. Subsequent studies of military personnel back this up. When the Navy started teaching BUD/S applicants to speak to themselves positively, combined with other mental tools, BUD/S passing rates increased from a quarter to a third.


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