Listen closely while you’re reading the words on this page. Are you hearing each one in your head as you go, as if you’re tuning in to a podcast inside your head? If so, is it being presented in your own voice? What if I told you that as I’m writing these sentences, I’m hearing them in my head, too, in my voice, which is slightly thin and whiney, with a nondescript British accent. And if that’s just ruined your whole reading experience, I’m very sorry. Here, let me adjust the bass level for you, add a little reverb, apply some echo and there we go: THE VOICE (Voice… voice…) OF ZEUS (Zeus… zeus…). Is that better?
Of course, for many people, being aware of involuntary chatter inside their heads is no joke — especially if the voices take the form of vivid auditory hallucinations, common in a number of psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But according to therapist and author Margalis Fjelstad, we all experience inner speech — also known as an “internal monologue,” “covert self-talk” or “verbal thinking” — and not just when we’re reading. “Everyone will always have some level of inner speech,” she explains. “Our brains are constantly assessing information and relaying it to our consciousness. It’s how we stay alive and function.”
For some, inner speech is an occasional visitor in our conscious thoughts and often barely audible; for others, it’s a loud and constant companion. And while a few people experience internal monologue as friendly and supportive, for many others — who wouldn’t consider themselves to be suffering from a clinical condition — the voice can be a harsh, unforgiving critic.
But however your inner voice speaks to you, its presence is at the very least unsettling: If you’re not consciously choosing its words, who exactly is doing the talking? And how did this inner prompter, sitting somewhere near our conscious thoughts but hidden just offstage, get into our heads in the first place?
The deeply private nature of inner speech makes it a notoriously tricky phenomenon to study, but there’s no shortage of theories. One idea that was influential back in the 1970s, floated by the psychologist Julian Jaynes, hypothesized that the voices we hear might be relics of a more ancient neural structure in humans, in which one region of the brain would crudely transmit instructions for another to carry out. According to Jaynes’ theory, people who were alive just a few thousand years ago would experience this messaging system as a deafening interior discourse and would interpret the voices as interventions from the gods. On Jaynes’s reading, Homer’s Iliad is full of interior monologues that Achilles and the other Greek and Trojan heroes keep mistaking for pronouncements from Olympus (and so the residual patterns of inner speech we’re left with today really are the echoes of Zeus).
Among the less poetic — though much more widely accepted — theories currently under investigation is the idea that inner speech emerges as a side-product of our efforts to absorb language in childhood. This idea stems from research in the 1930s by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who noticed that young children start to interpret the world around them by talking to themselves. As they get older, he thought, they learn to internalize this private dialogue with themselves, but the process of using language to develop their cognitive understanding carries on, in the form of a conversation in their heads.
Fjelstad believes that this internalizing process starts much earlier in life, and she emphasizes its connection with our need to be accepted by others. “Initial inner voice is primarily a reflection of our parents’ comments and admonitions to us from the moment we’re born,” she argues. “We internalize their words, preferences and expectations in order to be an acceptable part of our family social group.” As we move toward adulthood, she says, “we start culling inner-voice comments that don’t fit our observation of reality, our values or our sense of self.”
Once we’ve come to grips with language and our own place in the world, it seems those inner voices hang around to regularly intrude on our lived experience — like watching a DVD when you can’t figure out how to switch off the director’s commentary. But are these resonances from our early life simply background noise we can safely ignore, or does inner speech serve some practical purpose for our psyche?
Romeo Vitelli, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto, believes inner speech can indeed be a benefit to our everyday lives, playing “an important role in memory and problem solving as well as helping people function in social situations. It also allows us to rehearse social situations ahead of time to prevent screw-ups.”
Fjelstad, meanwhile, sees the inner voice as a valuable hotline to our social conscience. When it’s serving us well, she says, “We should be hearing warnings, suggestions, cautions and instructions about how to respond to others. These are typically done in whatever way the individual’s inner voice normally delivers messages — encouraging, critical, demanding, reassuring, loving, hostile, etc.”
But why this range of commentary styles? Why is it that some people are spurred on by an inner cheerleader, while others are subjected to a relentless barrage of criticism from a snarky back-seat driver? Here, Fjelstad points to a combination of influences on people’s experience in early childhood — from how naturally content they were as babies to whether they were treated with warmth and love by their parents or with hostility and rejection. “Most of us experience a combination of positive and negative responses from the world,” she explains. “So our inner voice develops out of all of these factors: temperament, parents and situational factors.”
Anyone for whom all of that has aligned to create an upbeat internal monologue should count themselves lucky: “Research shows that we’re more adaptable, learn better and have more effective responses when we’re surrounded by encouragement rather than criticism,” says Fjelstad. “So inner speech that encourages you is definitively more useful [than the other kind],” she says. But, she notes, the information delivered with an inner, “Yay you!” won’t necessarily be agreeable: It can still “include reminders about past disappointments, issues and problems,” albeit sugar-coated in a non-critical voice.
The good news is that if your inner voice is bringing you down, you can change it. “The kind of inner voice someone develops may be shaped by early childhood experiences, including harsh parenting or emotional abuse that might affect how people see themselves,” says Vitelli. “With therapy, however, they can develop a more positive inner voice that can be constructive rather than critical.”
To take control of a critical monologue, says Fjelstad, you have to tune into it. “Conscious awareness of what the inner voice is saying to you is the first step.” Unduly negative inner speech may be a symptom of traumatic experiences from earlier in your life, she advises, in which case the voice may be stuck in the past as well as stuck in your head. So you should monitor its criticisms and, if it seems out of touch with your present situation, confront it.
In his book The Voices Within, the British psychologist and novelist Charles Fernyhough discusses the case of Eleanor Longden, whose life came close to being ruined by a number of spiteful voices, and who traces their emergence to the horrific abuse she suffered as a child. After she offered forgiveness to her most malicious internal critic, Fernyhough reports, the voice’s tone softened. In her words, “A turning point was coming to the realization that the voices weren’t the actual abusers; rather, that they represented my feelings and beliefs about the abuse.” Now Longden, a psychologist herself, lives with her voices as collaborators rather than tormentors.
“As an adult, an individual definitely has the ability to change their own inner voice,” says Fjelstad, who prescribes seeking out positive social interactions and events as a way of training your inner speech to be more optimistic and reassuring. “Consciously changing the message over and over, seeking out new experiences and relationships, checking in with current reality can all contribute to changing that voice.”
However hostile or alien it might sound, your inner voice is a deeply entrenched part of your inner world, and it’s unlikely to be going away any time soon. So don’t ignore it. Instead, get yourself to give yourself a break — and give yourself a good talking to.