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A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below. Is inner speech a subcategory of thought or are they one and the same? So I try to avoid it—quite a difficult term to avoid.


A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below. Is inner speech a subcategory of thought or are they one and the same? So I try to avoid it—quite a difficult term to avoid. A certain category of thinking that we call verbal thinking, and that's essentially inner speech, the stuff that we do in words.

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But I certainly think you can be intelligent and do lots of really clever stuff without language. Babies prove it every day; animals prove it every day. Beck: The obvious challenge to studying this is that the only thoughts you can really know with any certainty are your own. So what are the ways researchers have devised to get around that? That's tricky because the very act of observing the process could change the process. And that started to change, I'd say, in the last 20 years or so.

People are studying consciousness as a scientific topic of inquiry. And they're getting better techniques for studying things like inner speech. We can look at individual differences between people and how much they seem to use inner speech and how that relates to their cognitive profile. Chwt can look to see if you block the language system through giving people a secondary task like repeating a word over and over, does that affect the primary thing that you're interested zomeone

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I think it was assumed that inner speech was just this kind of monologue, the output of a solitary voice chattering away in your head. And we now atlk there are a few main kinds of inner sojeone. Inner speech varies according to how compressed it is, how condensed. And that fits with the idea that inner speech has a lot of different functions. It has a role in motivation, it has a role in emotional expression, it probably has a role in understanding our selves as selves.

I know one common example is in sports, people talk to themselves to improve their performance. But what are some other reasons why we might do this? As young children, we galk in social dialogues, we talked to other people, and we went through a stage known as private speech, where we talk to ourselves out loud.

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If you watch a small child playing with her toys, you'll probably see her talking to herself. There's a commentary, which is apparently helping her to think through what she's doing, and plan what she's going to do. But we use inner speech to reflect on the past as well. It has functions in imagination, in creating alternative realities. And it has these roles in motivation, very commonly as you see in sports. Where people will psych themselves up, but also tell themselves off.

They'll use private speech to give themselves a ticking off after they've done something dumb.

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And I think we all do that, it's just sort of accentuated in sports. Beck: So I talk to myself all the time, out loud. As well as in my head. You mentioned that Vygotsky's theory is that all these things we used to chatt as kids, talking to ourselves out loud, moves inside the mind. Whether it's out loud or in your head?

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As adults, in particular situations, we find it really useful to say it out loud rather than just in our he. The words are out there, echoing through the air for a split second. So it sticks chay your head a bit easier. I think we particularly start to say things out loud when ttalk going gets tough. That certainly fits with how private speech works with children, children will talk to themselves more when things are more difficult. The very fact that adults do talk to themselves does suggest we need to rethink that bit of Vygotsky's ot.

Although the inner speech in our he comes from that social language initially, and then this out loud private speech, when it goes underground, it can come back out again.

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It doesn't go underground permanently. It's not a one-way street. I would say most people talk to themselves, but there's still a sort char social embarrassment about doing it. And then there's a sort of social and cultural pressure as well. So there are some good reasons for doing it silently. Beck: Of course, most of the situations we're doing it in now are not that extreme.

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It's funny, I always find I talk to myself out loud most at the grocery store. Just something about the grocery store stresses me out, all the people looking at you while you're trying to buy your food. Fernyhough: Although this is solitary speech, it's speech for the self, it seems to be stimulated by the presence of other people.

Children do it more when there are other kids around. And I think that might apply to adults as well—if you're in a context where everybody else is muttering to themselves, [you might, too]. I do it in the supermarket because I'm trying to remember the last things on the list. Beck: Or you can't find something, it's supposed to be over here but it's not.

Fernyhough: There's a neat study that shows that kind of self-talk actually helps you do exactly that—pick items from a supermarket array.

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Beck: You mention that part of Vygotsky's theory is that as we're learning social speech, we're also learning internal speech. Walk me through: How does the development of spoken language correspond with the development of inner speech?

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Fernyhough: So Vygotsky thought that two things come together in early childhood. You have some basic intelligence, which any one-year-old baby is showing. They're able to do all sorts of things, initiate actions, work stuff out, remember stuff. It's quite phenomenal how quickly most kids acquire language.

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The idea is not that you need language for thinking but that when language comes along, it sure is useful. It changes the way you think, it allows you to operate in different ways because you can use the words as tools. Somewhere around age 2, language comes together with intelligence and bang! Something really special is created.

And the thing that is created might well be unique in the universe. They use to regulate their thinking just like we use spoken language. Some people are born completely deaf, some people are born with a bit of hearing and get exposed to a bit of language, some people go deaf in early childhood, and so on. So you tend to get a bit of a mix. Beck: You think of inner speech in terms of a dialogue.

If it's between the self and tp self, how does that splitting of the self work out internally? The key thing is that the self is multiple, that we have different parts to the self. It can be you as a listener but it can also be another person. I can have an inner dialogue with my mum, for example. It tp be a dead person, it can be an imaginary person, it can be God.

In the book I tried to use this as a way of rethinking the idea of spiritual meditation and of prayer. The idea of having a conversation with another being. Because we internalize social dialogues, we bring in that dialogic structure and it's right there at the heart of our thinking. Fernyhough: When we use descriptive experience sampling [in which people are asked to report on their own chag speech]we assume that a lot of what people say when they are asked about tal experience is kind of generalizations about what they think is in their own minds rather than what is actually in their own minds.

And that's why people can be surprised by DES. People can think their thoughts are a bit negative but they cht out to be quite joyful, or vice versa. And that is a really fascinating philosophical question, because it suggests we can be mistaken about our own chta. And if we can be wrong about what goes on in our he, then that's pretty wild. Beck: So people might have fundamental assumptions about their personality or their thought patterns and then find out they're not true?

Fernyhough: Yeah, exactly, and it somrone could apply to certain aspects of mental health. Russ Hurlburt, someoone created DES], has an example of somebody with OCD in one of his papers, where he talks about this character who complained of having constant intrusive obsessive thoughts, but when he did DES, he found there wasn't nearly so much of that. Beck: He was just noticing those ones more perhaps? Fernyhough: Yes. So I think what is happening is we make a lot of self-generalizations about talkk experience, we have a kind of self-theoretical approach to our experience that doesn't always match up with what's actually there when you try and capture it moment by moment.

Beck: So how does that apply to trying to understand what happens to people who hear voices or have auditory hallucinations?

Fernyhough: The basic story is quite a simple one. Hearing voices is a frequently very distressing experience. It's usually associated with severe mental illness, with a lot of different psychiatric diagnoses. A lot of regular people will have relatively fleeting or one-off experiences fo hearing a voice at some point in their lives. It can be very very simeone. It can also be rather neutral and it can even be positive, uplifting, and guiding in certain cases.

There's also a lot of problems with that idea. And also other factors must be involved, memory seems to play a huge part in this. Hearing voices is strongly associated with traumatic events.

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