Appliance of Science: Why do we talk to ourselves inside our heads?

Our inner voice is important for language development and our sense of self, writes Dr Naomi Lavelle

Appliance of Science: Why do we talk to ourselves inside our heads?

Our inner voice is important for language development and our sense of self, writes Dr Naomi Lavelle

It can be a comfort, a companion, or even a mild irritation, but we are all familiar with that little voice inside our head that chatters away throughout our day. The voice may take different forms for different people, but why is it there at all and does it serve any purpose?

What is an inner voice?

Our inner voice can be described as our silent, internal thinking. As you read this you are probably hearing your inner voice reading the words in your own head. That is your inner voice. Scientists often refer to it as inner speech and it can take different forms; it is complex and diverse, but research suggests that it plays an important role in our development and daily function.

How important is it?

Our inner speech is not simply an amusement of our own creation. It is linked to our development of language and our sense of self.

Scientific studies have implicated its importance in such cognitive functions as problem-solving, self-regulation, abstract thinking, and creativity. Some studies report that our inner voice is necessary for successful memory processing within the brain. It would appear that our inner voice is essential for our brains to successfully process information, to fine-tune our emotional processing, and to assist in our reflection of past experience and prediction of future events.

The brain bit

The brain activity recorded when we speak out loud is very similar to that observed with internal dialogue. When we speak our thoughts out loud, our brains record the information sent to our lips, mouth, and vocal chords. The brain discriminates between sounds we make ourselves and sounds created by others. It can damp-down the sensory response to our own vocal sounds, to prevent sensory overload. This is referred to as efference copy.

Electroencephalography studies, measuring brain activity for both internal and external speech, showed similar brain activity for both; these results suggest that the brain produces a similar efference copy during internal dialogue as that observed in external, vocalised speech.

Do deaf people have an inner voice too?

Deaf people also report an inner voice, but it is often a non-auditory one. The type of inner voice that a non-hearing person experiences depends on a number of factors. One is whether they are deaf since birth, or if their hearing loss has developed during their lifetime. Another is what form of language they use to communicate (sign-language, auditory communication, lip reading).

A person who is born deaf and has therefore never heard a human voice will not have an auditory inner voice. Their internal speech may be more visual, seeing words and ideas signed within their heads, or as written words. They may think in words, without sound, or they may use other senses to create inner sign language, rather than an inner voice. Whatever form this inner language takes, the effects can be just the same as an auditory inner voice in the mind of a hearing person.

The investigation into inner speech is a developing area of research, but studies suggest there is a common neural pathway when it comes to thinking in language, regardless of what form that language takes.

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