The Voice Inside your Head
By Thymen Wijma
March 16, 2020
Have you ever experienced either a monologue or a forced dialogue inside your head rather than through regular speech? If your answer is yes, you are part of the majority of humans that experience an active form of internal discourse. Even though most of us are aware of the fact that we internalize this type of speech, often people lack the knowledge of how this discourse can impact our everyday lives. Negative 'thinking', being excessively conscious of the discourse or by not being able to shut out internal speech are all examples that can impede with our mental health or productivity.
History and testing
Since the dawn of modern Psychology, researchers have been trying to locate the origin of our internal speech. The scientific consensus as of now is that our internal discourse is mainly founded on the internalization of social speech that a person experiences starting in our younger years. The internalization of social speech serves to continue a dialogue so that a person can use experienced speech for private purposes. This allows us to form conscious thoughts about experiences so that we may review them, judge our actions in their respective situations and finally act according to the judgment that is formed by this process. Upsides of this conscious behavior are that we are not required to externalize speech to consciously come to new conclusions. As far as we understand this phenomenon, it comes from the same area that allows us to externalize speech. Our left temporal lobe works in conjunction with our left frontal lobe to understand, process and then externalize speech. Yet, inner speech defines itself by only using two out of three of these steps whereas externalizing this speech would take all three steps. Researchers have found that by analyzing brain activity we can locate responses in the brain that seem to reflect our focus on inner speech. Even though upsides like not having to externalize speech, speed of thought and being able to reflect on actions can contribute to the efficiency of our species, downsides seem to become more prevalent in modern society.
Impact on Mental Health
When using inner speech as a tool to assess our actions and place in society, we find that complications can arise through faults in the programming of this process. Mental disorders like Schizophrenia and Dissociative identity disorder come to mind when thinking of problems with voices in our head. However, the impact that our own internalized speech has on mental health can be tremendous. Depression, anxiety and even problems with staying focused when studying can arise from problems with our internal monologue. Researchers have found that the amount of negative output that the process of internal speech produces has increased by a significant amount over the past 50 years. During the '70s, groups of people were being tested on the number of negative thoughts that they had on a daily basis. By letting them push a button on a beeper, they were able to track the volume of positive versus negative thoughts that a person experienced over a period of a month. Most test subjects had about fifty to sixty percent negative thoughts and about 40 percent of their experiences with inner speech resulted in positive thinking. When the same researcher repeated the experiment in 2014 the results were quite different. Sixty to seventy percent of the consciously experienced internal monologue turned out to be negative. When focused on people suffering from problems with their mental health like subjects that experienced depression or anxiety this percentage could go as high as eighty percent. Factors that played a huge part in the creation of negative monologue were social media and social interactions. Many of us reflect on our own lives by comparing it to the lives of others. By experiencing positive information about the lives of others we often reflect negatively on our conditions. However, inner speech can also negatively manifest without having trouble with controlling the direction of our thinking. Subvocalization is the speech that some people produce inside their heads when reading. This speech can feel conflicting when trying to focus on understanding or remembering specifics of what we are reading. When reading we mostly use the same regions of our brain that we use for our internal monologue. For some people this can cause an abundance of information that has to be consciously processed by the same brain regions, this can cause partial dissociation from what we are reading. Even though most of us do not experience this abundance of information, drifting thought might be more familiar for most people. When trying to focus on a particular subject we might experience dissociation from what we are reading and we start to talk or think to ourselves about an unrelated subject. By not controlling the direction of our internal monologue, focus can be lost while we desperately feel like we have to focus.
So how do we control the direction of our internal monologue? Positive thinking might come to mind when thinking about how we can positively impact our thoughts. However, according to research people that suffer from excessive negative thoughts often suffer from the opposite effect when trying this. Our brain registers this positive thinking as a fabricated lie that we tell ourselves. Rather, we should focus on achieving an objective monologue that targets achievable goals. For instance, people that tend to procrastinate might tell themselves that they are not procrastinating. This will not help since we are lying to ourselves. Instead, we should set an objectively achievable goal. Set a goal that improves on your current situation, when succeeding this will have a positive impact and you can honestly say that you have improved. This way of thinking is often called Possible thinking, which stems from the often mentioned positive thinking. Another way to positively change our inner monologue is by recognizing negative speech and acknowledging it. When feeling or thinking a negative way about ourselves, change the phrasing that you use into a more temporary phrasing. For instance, change “I am so inconsiderate” to “I acted so inconsiderate”. This way, when trying to change negative behavior, our conscious will recognize that we do not have to change our entire being. Instead, we only have to identify particular points of time or instances that were negative and learn from them. As you might have noticed, these small improvements have a lot in common with Neuro Linguistic programming. In short, this means the usage of phrasing and vocabulary to change points of view that might affect us negatively. This is an established pseudo-science which I certainly will not refute. However, it is also widely recognized that tackling our thoughts by means of phrasing can result in recognizing how and when we are thinking negatively without merit. When we can better understand and recognize these negative traits, we can become more in control of handling these negative thoughts based on logic instead of pure emotion.
Lack of Internal Dialogue
Some of our readers might think to themselves; what is all this nonsense about inner monologues and such, I do not experience these at all. Scientists doubt whether the people in question cannot actually form inner speech or if they simply are not consciously experiencing the monologue itself. This lack of self-recognition might result in the inability to control negative internal speech. Most people will be able to identify, acknowledge and logically interpret their inner monologue. People without the conscious experience of this monologue might have trouble with one of these steps and when having signs of mental health issues, this can have a huge negative impact on their chance to combat it by themselves. Easy ways to find out for yourself if you are able to internalize speech is to try and think of a random subject. Take this subject and compose a dialogue in your mind that is formed from concrete sentences. Take up both roles of the dialogue and try it out. If words start to form like voices, you can consciously experience inner speech. If you are having a hard time doing this, do not worry. You probably are not used to conjuring concrete speech from thought in your mind. Instead, you could try to keep track of the thoughts that you have during miscellaneous tasks. Often it is found that when not trying, it is easier to recognize certain words and phrases that are used to communicate within ourselves.
I think it is safe to assume that most of us recognise that people have different processes that concern ‘thinking’. However, when realising that our inner monologue might be completely different from one another, we might discover that the difference can be worlds apart.Even though our inner speech is a highly valuable tool to determine our sense of self and our actions, often we might underestimate the importance of keeping this tool in check. By becoming aware of the logical flaws that might be made in the process of our inner monologue, a positive impact might be made on mental health, attention span and choices that we make.