The Voices Within

On the voices in our heads

Where Do All the Words Come From?

Scientists are beginning to understand the voices in our heads.

I’ve been blogging for Psychology Today for nearly five years now, and in that time have covered a diverse range of topics. It’s time for another change. I’m relaunching this blog for 2014 with a new title and a new focus. I’ll be writing about the voices in our heads: the typical and atypical voices, the guiding and creative ones, and those that can cause distress. 

How did I, a developmental psychologist by training, get interested in this area? One of my first topics of research was children’s private speech: the phenomenon where children talk to themselves out loud as they are engaged in play, solving a puzzle, and so on. Inspired by the writings of the Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky, my colleagues and I have investigated how private speech takes different forms and how it relates to social and cognitive functioning. I've covered some of this research in previous posts, such as this one on a study showing that children use verbal planning on cognitive tasks

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Vygotsky thought that private speech had a special status in development, representing a waystation between social speech (talking to others) and inner speech (the 'talking to ourselves' that we do in our heads). A psychologist interested in private speech is drawn naturally to asking about inner speech as well. Vygotsky's theory has important implications for how we understand thinking in words, and points us towards some interesting experimental questions. I considered some of these in a previous post, including the question of whether children really 'think' in the manner that we do, before they have internalized private speech in this way.

Most recently, I've been investigating the role that inner speech might play in a fascinating and often troubling phenomenon: 'hearing voices' or auditory verbal hallucinations. No topic I have studied so far in my career has intrigued me quite like this one, and I'll be having lots to say about it on this blog. In this earlier post, I sketched out how the inner speech theory of voice-hearing currently looks. It faces several challenges and problems, though, which will be the subject of future posts. 

One belief guides this research above any other. Phenomena that are as varied and complex as the voices in our heads need to be understood in their full richness. That's why I won't be restricting my interests to psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience; I'll also be asking how our mental voices are depicted in literature and other artforms, and how the insights of humanities scholars can help us to understand these fascinating aspects of our experience. Along the way I'll be referring to the work we are doing in our project Hearing the Voice, which takes an ambitiously interdisciplinary approach to all of these questions. For a taster, check out our blog

Here are a few other resources that might be of interest. Last year I was asked to write a cover feature for New Scientist on the topic of inner speech, and I was delighted that it was chosen as one of the magazine's top features of 2013. Subscribers can read the article here. You can also read a summary of the article on our Hearing the Voice blog. The latest edition of Scientific American Mind also has an article on the topic of inner speech by the excellent Ferris Jabr. 

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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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