Book review: The Voices Within – why talking to yourself is a good thing
A young friend recently made a shamefaced lunchtime confession: sometimes, in fact quite often, he walks around wearing his headphones despite the fact that he’s not playing any music. Why? So that he has some “cover” for the fact that he’s talking to himself. And instead of sparking awkward looks or throat-clearing silence, his confession immediately elicited similar confessions. Everybody at the table admitted that they talk to themselves quite often.
In his utterly fascinating book on the subject, The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves, author and psychologist Charles Fernyhough makes offhand mention of the fact that such an activity – talking to ourselves out loud – is “by no means universal”. But surely the phenomenon he describes in such detail is as close to a universal human norm as anything could be?
The activity Fernyhough describes takes two general forms: short, telegraphic bursts of highly abbreviated content, and longer, more elaborate full discourses. And one of the most intriguing elements both forms have in common is that they tend to be done as dialogues. We don’t just monologue to ourselves – we converse with ourselves, making many of the same subtle switches and pivots we do when talking with others, even though we’re conversing entirely with ourselves.
Unsurprisingly, these conversations can serve many different kinds of purposes. For instance, Fernyhough explores the role of self-talking in professional sports, giving examples from the world of cricket and also touching on a 2013 interview given by Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, who claimed he never talked to himself at all until he began to lose in a key match against Novak Djokovic at the United States Open. Desperate to turn things around, Murray began psyching himself up verbally: ‘“You are not going to lose this match,” I said to myself. “You are NOT losing this match.”’
As nonsensical as it might appear objectively, Murray nevertheless reported that this inner (and outwardly vocalised) pep talk had quick and dramatic results.
I saw this myself once, years ago in the US Midwest, when a young college tennis champion made a couple of unforced errors in a crucial match. With a crowd of spectators watching, he stared angrily down at the court and yelled “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you WANT to win?” On paper, it was the kind of hectoring comment an overbearing coach might make in practice, and yet I knew his coach – a soft-spoken, encouraging man who never yelled at a player in his entire career. Clearly, however, that young champion knew what he needed from his own inner dialogue: the unforced errors stopped after his outburst and he went on to win.
“Thoughts are active,” Fernyhough writes. “Thinking is something that we do,” and in his conception, extrapolated in some very intriguing ways from the work of Soviet-era psychologist Lev Vygotsky (among others), thoughts are also social – inherently, inescapably and from their very earliest origins.
Vygotsky maintained that children are born as social creatures, deeply enmeshed in social networks, and it’s from such networks that they learn dialogue. The acquisition of language allows children first and foremost to hold conversations, which begin as public, social speech, and only later migrate inward, becoming “private speech”, but still retaining the form and dynamic of social interaction.
In this view, the actions of those stressed tennis players become even more clearly comprehensible; private speech becomes “an attempt to hijack words that, in other contexts, would control the behaviour of others and use them instead to control the behaviour of the self”.
This conception of the inherently social origin of both outer and inner language, if true, has some obvious and far-reaching ramifications, and the main joy of Fernyhough’s book comes from watching him chase down the faintest conceptual ripples extending outward from the ideas he discusses.
To some extent, the author has been breaking new ground with some of these inquiries; time and again in the latter half of his book, he’s forced to write some variation of “there isn’t much established research on this yet ...”
Despite the fact that humans have talked to themselves forever, despite how such self-talk is enshrined in our literature (characters in Homer have vigorous inner debates; Plato’s Socrates consults an inner voice that’s distinct from his own and capable of surprising or contradicting him, and so on throughout the canon), much of the actual study of self-talking has yet to happen.
This is surely in part due to the kinds of stigma that still associate with the subject, the kind that would prompt that friend in the restaurant to invent some subterfuge to disguise the fact that he likes to talk to himself out loud.
Fernyhough freely confesses to talking to himself all the time, but his book is likewise sensitive to the likely cause of the stigma: the thin and porous line between the kind of “hearing voices” we all do every day – where the voice is our own yet not, familiar yet surprising, but for the most part completely domesticated – and the kind of “hearing voices” that features prominently in psychiatric determinations of mental illness.
Fernyhough mentions the friction that’s often evident in test subjects between the “inner speech network” and, for instance, the cognitive systems in charge of more “executive” functions.
These systems bump against the often chaotic nature of the inner dialogues that are happening constantly in our brains and somehow, usually in a patchwork fashion, a compromise is reached. Specific task-oriented brain functions have a set linear sequence, whereas with inner dialogue, Fernyhough writes, “we follow the train of thought wherever it might lead us”. And yet in all those instances, for normally-adjusted people, the train of thought still has a conductor. The stigma hovering around the entire subject of self-talk is our real-world awareness of what happens when inner speech becomes hallucination, when the train jumps off the tracks.
Yet the reach of The Voices Within extends even to such dark corners of the subject. Fernyhough ends his fascinating account much as he began it: by wondering – again, in the absence of much quantitative research – just how many benefits might accrue from talking to ourselves, what we might learn to do, or do better, because “other people’s words get into our heads”.
There are strong indications that inner speech helps with sociability, with memory – even with morality: surely many of Fernyhough’s readers will share his own experience, that he tends to talk to himself most vigorously when he has some ethical problem to sort out.
This final, hopeful note is bracingly welcome: that this inner Greek chorus we’ve all been hearing, speaking and orchestrating our entire lives may ultimately be helping us, not only to feel less alone but to be better people. The Voices Within is essential reading for understanding that chorus.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.