The Voices Within

On the voices in our heads

Twittering out loud

Can Twitter help us to think?

I confess that I have become a bit of a Twitter nut. Where once I would have considered publishing my text-length musings a serious waste of time, I have had the medium's charms generously demonstrated to me. I am employed part-time as an academic, and for the rest of my time I work from home, writing fiction and non-fiction. I usually see and talk to no one from the moment my wife and kids go out in the morning to when they come home in the afternoon. I often don't answer the phone. I defend my solitude and seal myself off against distractions. But I keep looking at my Twitter stream, and I will normally tweet up to about ten times a day. It's my line to the outside world. My Twitter friends are the people I spend my day with.

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That ought to be a terrible distraction. I'll admit that I'm a sucker for being led astray by the cricket scores and the links to spoof news stories and pictures of cute and resourceful pets. I certainly enjoy the daft side of Twitter, and I'm not above making up silly hashtags to try to start a worldwide joke, even if it never comes off. 

But what if it's actually helping me with the thing I'm trying to do? The writing I'm doing at the moment, a non-fiction book on autobiographical memory, is about trying to understand the experience of remembering from the inside, and linking it to the cognitive neuroscience. I'm looking for stories of memory: how it works, how it feels, how it matters, how it fails. I use Twitter as a research tool, gathering stories from people about their recollections, and hoping that folk will answer and retweet so that I can find new respondents and make new connections. 

But I suspect that I also use Twitter to think out loud. I've written previously on this blog about children's private speech, and how it seems to be their medium of thinking before verbal thought becomes internalized. I wonder whether I use Twitter for some of the same purposes. Talking to yourself seems to have many different functions, for adults as well as children. For one thing, it can express feelings. Many of children's private utterances seem to have a function in emotion expression and regulation. I don't have any data on the topic, but I suspect that a decent proportion of tweets involve people saying that they are happy, sad, excited or angry. A comment like 'Wow, I wish this delivery guy would show' can get a frustration off your chest while clearing mental space for the next thing.

Just as importantly, the medium can be used to think through a problem. Twitter can be an unfriendly place when you're not a superstar, but the fact that I often get no response to my tweeted nuggets of wisdom is not really the point. Just putting it down in words seems to get me somewhere. When I want to tweet about something I'm grappling with, I find it amazingly useful to push myself to express it clearly in 140 characters. Stripping it down forces me to work out what I want to say.

Private speech is also abbreviated1, for reasons that probably have more to do with processing costs than capacity limitations, and it often makes us cut to the quick of our thoughts in a way that surprises and informs the self. How many times have you listened to yourself saying something and realized that you've succeeded in expressing something new: a novel formulation of the problem, or a possible solution to it? I find these bits of public thought working their way back into my writing. The other day, for example, I tweeted about the link between memory and imagination. When I looked back at what I had just posted into the ether, I realized that I had finally succeeded in expressing my question clearly, and I pasted it straight back into the paragraph I was working on. 

It has been known for a long time that private speech has an odd status as a form of language. It can be about broadcasting one's thoughts and intentions, as a means of social communication, but it is perhaps even more important as a tool for communicating with the self. In a classic study of private speech2 conducted in the late 1960s, researchers noted its 'parasocial' nature: the fact that it is stimulated by the presence of others while being apparently for personal consumption. Similar observations were made by both Piaget and Vygotsky, who pioneered the study of the topic in the 1920s and 1930s. We may talk out loud mostly for our own benefit, but sometimes people can overhear us. Once we have moved on from private speech in the classroom or playground, Twitter and other online media make possible that same conjunction between private and public thought. 

This is a serious question in philosophy and psychology. Philosophers such as Andy Clark have argued that we extend our cognitive resources by offloading some of our processing demands onto external entities. We use notepads, for example, to record and structure our thoughts, the results of which then feed back into our thinking. For some of us, Twitter is one such medium for thought. The fact that there are people at the other end, seeing our musings bubble up into their own timeline, means that we are constantly being offered the possibility of another perspective: a fruity riposte, a piece of confirming evidence, an agreement or note of dissent. Twitter is full of arguments, as any user will know. Its form is dialogic, which for me is an important characteristic of thinking, accounting for the flexibility and open-endedness of our cognitive processes. 

I should note that I am not doing this all the time. I don't use mobile Twitter, for example. When I'm with people, I'm with them, not updating my status on my smartphone. (I don't have a smartphone.) I only do this from my computer, on which I am usually working for most of the day. I use Facebook too, but that's more private and more centered around friendships. My Facebook friends have helped me enormously with my memory project, but I know who they are, and so the medium doesn't quite have the same capacity to surprise. I may only update my Facebook status once a week, but I usually tweet every day. The comments themselves may be utterly trivial—I'm not sure that many people will be interested in the behavior of our chickens, for example—but expressing them can still be useful, clearing processing capacity for other, more valuable thoughts.

I'm sure that most people don't look to Twitter for this kind of intellectual support. People log on for all sorts of purposes, and sharing links, flirting, and generally being silly are all great uses of the technology. One of the joys of the medium is its flexibility. In my more credulous moments, I sometimes wonder whether Twitter itself 'thinks'. If you've ever witnessed a Twitter storm, such as that surrounding the death of Michael Jackson or the recent outcry in the UK over homophobic journalism, you'll know what an extraordinary event it is. Twitter seems to know what is happening before the outside world does. This is fanciful, I'm sure: tweets are written by real people, and so they can't know more than real people do. But because Twitter is a medium that allows thinking to be shared, it gives you an impression that you are contributing to a thought process that extends beyond you. 

Needless to say, I don't have a shred of scientific evidence to support this point of view. If you are a tabloid journalist looking for a sensational story about the power of Twitter, please go and read something else. All I'm doing is reflecting on my own experience and speculating on how it might be working for me. The connection with children's private speech is not proven, and I don't really know how you would go about proving it. But amid all the media storms about the evils of online social networks, it might be worth asking whether these digital obsessions can sometimes do us some good. 

1 Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, Vol. 1. New York: Plenum. (Original publication 1934).

2 Kohlberg, L., Yaeger, J., & Hjertholm, E. (1968). Private speech: Four studies and a review of theories. Child Development, 39, 691-736.

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Charles Fernyhough is a Professor of Psychology at Durham University and author of Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts.

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