‘I think, therefore I am,’ the 17th-century philosopher René Descartes proclaimed as a first truth. That truth was rediscovered in 1887 by Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl, then seven years of age: ‘I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no world … When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something,’ she later explained, ‘I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.’ As both these pioneers knew, a fundamental part of conscious experience is ‘inner speech’ – the experience of verbal thought, expressed in one’s ‘inner voice’. Your inner voice is you.
That voice isn’t the sound of anything. It’s not even physical – we can’t observe it or measure it in any direct way. If it’s not physical, then we can arguably only attempt to study it by contemplation or introspection; students of the inner voice are ‘thinking about thinking’, an act that feels vague. William James, the 19th-century philosopher who is often touted as the originator of American psychology, compared the act to ‘trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks’.
Yet through new methods of experimentation in the last few decades, the nature of inner speech is finally being revealed. In one set of studies, scans are allowing researchers to study the brain regions linked with inner speech. In other studies, researchers are investigating links between internal and external speech – that which we say aloud.
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William James had a complete disdain for the study of inner speech, because, to him, it was a ghost: impossible to observe. The French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget insisted that private speech signified simple inability – it was the babble of a child without capacity for social communication with no relation to cognitive functioning at all. Through much of the 20th century, Piaget seized the reigns of child development, insisting that children had to reach a developmental stage before learning could occur. Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Vygotsky said that learning occurred, then the brain developed. Piaget said the brain developed, then learning occurred.
Over years of meticulous experiment behind the Iron Curtain, Vygotsky continued to make his case. One thing he did was study children in the zone of proximal development as they worked with adults to accomplish tasks. In the experiments, the child would be presented with a challenge and a tool for overcoming it. In the zone, Vygotsky observed what he called ‘private speech’ – self-talk that children between the ages of two and eight often engage in. This intermediate stage, he held, was connected on one end to a prior period when we had no thread of memory (and no inner voice) and on the other end to true inner speech so crucial to self-reflection, narrative memory, and development of cognitive skills.
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By 1970, the push to validate Vygotsky’s ideas had picked up steam. A leader of that era was the American psychologist Laura Berk, professor emeritus at Illinois State University, an expert on childhood play. Berk observed children engage in imaginative, ‘make-believe’ play, and demonstrated that the substitution of objects – say a cup for a hat – requires internal thought (and self-talk) rather than impulse. Her studies show that during imaginative play, children’s self-talk helps them guide their own thoughts and behaviour and exert true self-control. She and many other child psychologists demonstrated the importance of the inner voice, beyond a doubt, elevating Vygotsky and burying Piaget for good.
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Do people in adulthood experience inner speech in the same way as children – or even as each other? Do most of us even have an inner voice – an internal commentator narrating our lives and experiences from one moment to the next?
These were deeply controversial and introspective questions in the 1970s, and they captured the imagination of Russell Hurlburt, an aeronautical engineer-turned-clinical-psychology graduate student at the University of South Dakota. Hurlburt had envisioned a way to accurately sample others’ random inner experiences. Today a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he’s been honing the technique ever since.
Hurlburt calls his methodology Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES), and it works by sampling the inner thoughts of a given interviewee during those moments when a beeper randomly goes off. After extracting the contents of inner experience from countless interviews, Hurlburt has defined an array of phenomena typically shared by humans – auditory and visual imagery, emotion, awareness of real stimuli and a category of thoughts that occur without words, images or symbols of any kind. The main contribution here, though, is actually DES itself. Before its inception, introspective methods had been shunned for decades, if not centuries, as being too highly influenced by bias to be taken seriously. Now, with DES, Hurlburt believes in the possibility of obtaining unbiased, accurate snapshots of inner experience that includes inner speech.
Freed from the mundane confines of a laboratory, the data come from ‘the wild’, as Hurlburt puts it. A participant wears the beeper, which can go off at any moment throughout the day. They go about their daily activities and are likely to forget its presence. When the beeper does go off, the participant makes a careful note of exactly what their inner experience was immediately beforehand. Subsequently, they are questioned by Hurlburt about that experience in a thorough but open-ended interview.
The interview process itself requires an exacting, friendly yet trial-like probe of what occurred. In one unedited transcript in Hurlburt’s book Exploring Inner Experience (2006), a participant named Sandy is quoted following a beep: ‘I was reading. I was starting with the word “life”… and I had an image in my head – it was a black and white image, by the way – of… OK, I was staring at the word “life” and I had said to myself “life” in my own tone of voice.’
Sandy was referring to inner speech using the word ‘life’. For the next six minutes Hurlburt probed her about this experience. His questions eventually helped Sandy divulge that as she was inwardly speaking the word ‘life’ she simultaneously ‘saw an image of that word in an old-courier like font – black on a white background’ and a moving image of ‘sand pouring’ from a hand of unknown agency below her face.
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‘There are a lot of people who believe that you talk to yourself allof the time, so that’s a form of external pressure to say you were inner speaking when maybe you weren’t,’ he notes. For example, noted consciousness researcher Bernard Baars has asserted that ‘overt speech takes up perhaps a tenth of the waking day; but inner speech goes on all the time’. Hurlburt’s research shows this isn’t true; he finds that inner speech consumes about 25 per cent of an average person’s day, and thus, he is careful to not communicate any assumption about what type of inner experience a DES interviewee may have had at the time of the beep.
Thanks to the accuracy of DES, Hurlburt has found thought patterns associated with various clinical populations, including those with schizophrenia, bulimia nervosa, and autism. In a sample of bulimic participants, for instance, he’s found the propensity for multiple inner voices experienced at the same time. Take ‘Jessica’, a patient watching television when the DES beep occurred. In the front of her head, Hurlburt explains, she was inwardly saying ‘blond’, ‘skinny’, ‘guys’, and ‘stare’ in what was her own, unspoken voice. At the same time, in the back part of her head, she was saying, in another, quieter inner voice, still her own: ‘Why is it that movies and TV shows always have ‘girls for’, ‘to’, and ‘at’? Importantly, such experiences are not often perceived by the experiencers themselves, let alone revealed to anyone else.
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Fernyhough calls the most familiar level of inner speech ‘expanded’ because it is basically the same as external speech – grammatical and fully formed, but not vocal. He believes this kind of inner speech is most likely engaged when we are under stress or cognitive pressure. Imagine, for example, while travelling, that you are making an important phone call regarding a lost passport. While on hold there’s a good chance that you’ll mentally rehearse exactly what you are about to say to the official on the other end – your story about how your passport went missing – in language that is full and complete.
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The second broad category of inner speech defined by Fernyhough is considerably more mysterious and enigmatic. He calls it ‘condensed’ inner speech, borne out of Vygotsky’s belief that as speech becomes internalised it can undergo profound transformations that set it distinctly apart from the expanded version. Condensed inner speech is defined as a highly abbreviated and ungrammatical version of regular speech. Although possibly linguistic – comprised of words – it is not intended to be communicated or even understood by others. For example, as a habit in the winter since my younger days, I often think to myself, ‘passlockmoney’ before heading out the door to go snowboarding. For you to understand what I mean, I’m required to expand this term: Remember your ticket or pass if it is still valid, your snowboard lock, and cash or credit card for getting lunch (and après beer).
While PG was reading the OP, he realized that one of the instances in which he is most aware of his inner speech is when he is composing a legal document, often a contract.
His objective during such exercises is to be extremely precise with the words he uses and their operations in sentences and paragraphs. He actively seeks for possible alternative meanings and changes what he has written to avoid such alternatives and to create an expression that can only be interpreted to mean a single thing.
To this end, PG (and other lawyers) will sometimes insert a sentence that begins with something like, “For the avoidance of doubt”. The purpose of such sentences is to rule out a possible misinterpretation of a prior contract provision.
A greatly simplified use of this technique might be, “Author grants Publisher the exclusive right to publish the Work in hardcopy and paperback form. For the avoidance of doubt, Author retains all rights to publish the Work or derivative versions of the Work in the form of one or more comic books or graphic novels.”
If a single “For the avoidance of doubt” sentence doesn’t do the trick, another sentence beginning with, “For the further avoidance of doubt” can be employed.
The technique is used to state as precisely as possible what rights each party owns or controls and help deal with potential edge cases by describing what each party does not own or control.
PG’s inner voice is, to the best of his knowledge, always hard at work on such occasions and he is actively seeking to discover any ways in which the contract language might be misinterpreted or used to support a double meaning.