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Water Cooler: Understanding the inner monologue

UPDATED: Sat., Feb. 20, 2021


“That little voice in your head” has been characterized in many ways, but it is now generally referred to as an inner monologue.

Having thoughts in your head that you can “hear” is a common experience, although many would be surprised to know that not everyone experiences this.

Those who do have an inner monologue may have a hard time imagining their life without it. Some people have an active inner monologue that helps them organize their thoughts, especially in moments when there is no way to write things down or to speak aloud. As with most psychological phenomena, the majority of people experience inner monologue on a spectrum. It is far more common for people to have an inner monologue part of the time rather than all the time or never at all.

This phenomenon is hard to study because it is difficult to describe what our own inner experience is like and there are huge variations as to how aware we are of our inner monologue at any given time. For example, we might have an ongoing inner monologue while driving home from work that is more automatic than cognizant, compared to the focused inner monologue you might have when taking a test.

It is also difficult to define the inner monologue and to pinpoint exactly when it happens. To differentiate it from other cognitive processes, it is simplest to think of it as thoughts that are experienced through specific words and phrases. Even after clarifying the definition of an inner monologue, we might not always be sure when it occurs. If you sleep through your alarm, you might wake up with an especially colorful and frustrated inner monologue, but can you even be sure that words were “spoken” in your head, or was it just a flurry of heightened thought?

Psychological research on inner monologue has been contested due to studies relying on prompting inner speech rather than observing it as it occurs naturally. One research method that was developed to avoid this discrepancy is Descriptive Experience Sampling. Participants in a DES study carry beepers that go off at random points of their normal day. When it beeps, they jot down a note about their inner experience at that moment.

That method isn’t perfect, but it has helped psychologists get a better grasp on how inner monologue varies between people. DES studies suggest that about 70 to 85% of people occasionally experience spontaneous inner speech, and of those people, they are likely having inner speech about 15 to 30% of the time.

Inner speech also varies in many ways, such as some people hearing complete sentences while others experience abbreviated thought. It is also common to have simultaneous inner experiences, such as having an inner monologue while also mentally visualizing something. There’s also inner speech that takes the form of what psychologists call imagined interactions, where people imagine and play out a conversation such as predicting how someone will react to what you want to tell them.

Because there is still so much to learn about inner monologue, there are many theories and topics of discussion surrounding it. Some scientists think it evolved out of human use of language. Some connect it strongly to mental health and the characteristics of our self-talk. There are theories that it varies between people due to different upbringings and that the inner speech we have as adults mimics conversations we had when we were young, especially with caregivers. It has been noted as a tool for our working memory and other cognitive processes.

The research on inner monologue is still fairly new and psychologists are eager to understand more about its influence and importance in our lives.

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