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Not Everyone Conducts Inner Speech

Inner speech is frequent but not for everyone.

Key points

  • People often make assumptions about others' inner experience, such as that others talk to themselves or see words in their heads as images.
  • When it comes to inner speech, some people talk to themselves a lot, some never, and some occasionally.
  • In one study, 26 percent of a random sample of 30 people talked to themselves inwardly.

Your pristine inner experience is whatever is directly in your experience, before the footlights of your consciousness, as William James would say-at some moment. My previous blog posts have observed that some people—women with bulimia nervosa, for example—have frequent multiple simultaneous experiences, but that multiple experiences are not frequent in the general population.

If not multiple experiences, what are the frequently occurring phenomena of pristine experience? Chris Heavey and I gave random beepers to a stratified random sample of 30 students from a large urban university and interviewed them about the characteristics of their randomly selected pristine experiences. Five main characteristics emerged, each occurring in about a quarter of all samples (many samples had more than one characteristic). Three of those five characteristics may not surprise you: Inner speech occurred in about a quarter of all samples, inner seeing occurred in about a quarter of all samples, and feelings occurred in about a quarter of all samples. The other two phenomena occurred just as frequently but are not so well known.

Consider inner speech. Subjects experienced themselves as inwardly talking to themselves in 26 percent of all samples, but there were large individual differences: some subjects never experienced inner speech; other subjects experienced inner speech in as many as 75 percent of their samples. The median percentage across subjects was 20 percent.

As a result of this study and others we have conducted, I'm confident that inner speech is a robust phenomenon; if you use a proper method, there's little doubt about whether or not inner speech is occurring at any given moment. And I'm confident about the individual differences—some people talk to themselves a lot, some never, some occasionally.

But Bernard Baars, one of the leading researchers in consciousness science, says: "Human beings talk to themselves every moment of the waking day. Most readers of this sentence are doing it now. It becomes a little clearer with difficult-to-say words, like ‘infundibulum' or ‘methylparaben.' In fact, we talk to ourselves during dreams, and there is even evidence for inner speech during deep sleep, the most unconscious state we normally encounter. Overt speech takes up perhaps a tenth of the waking day, but inner speech goes on all the time.

And John McWhorter, noted linguist, says:

When we utter a word, we cannot help but mentally see an image of its written version. In our heads, what we have said is that particular sequence of written symbols. When we say "dog," a little picture of that word flashes through our minds, Sesame Street-style. Imagine saying "dog" and only thinking of a canine, but not thinking of the written word. If you're reading this book, it follows that you couldn't pull this off even at gunpoint.

I'm pretty sure that Baars and McWhorter are entirely mistaken. Maybe Baars talks to himself all the time, and maybe McWhorter himself sees images of written words while he talks (there's reason to be skeptical of both claims), but I've investigated such things as carefully as I know how and become convinced that most people (let alone all people) do not do such things.

My aim is not to criticize Baars and McWhorter; their comments are typical of claims that many others make about inner experience. Instead, I wish to draw your attention to the theme of this series of blog posts: Most people (including psychologists and consciousness scientists and quite likely you), don't know the characteristics of their own and others' inner experience. Otherwise, there would be editors, reviewers, and readers saying "Bernie! I don't talk to myself every moment!" "John! I don't see written words when I talk!"

I'd be happy to have you or science say: "No, Russ, it's you who is mistaken. Bernie and John are right," as long as you go on to say, "and we know that because we've developed a method of exploring pristine experience that's better than the one you and your colleagues use."

But as far as I know, you and science are not in a position to say that.

Q: So what are the fourth and fifth most frequently occurring features of pristine experience?

A: You make my point: Psychological science, and probably most readers of this blog post, don't know the main features of experience. And it's not that the remaining phenomena are minor, in fourth and fifth place after inner speech, inner seeing, and feeling. All five are in basically a five-way tie for first place. I'll describe features four and five in subsequent posts; in the meantime, I urge you to commit yourself to your speculation: Send yourself a text (or jot down) a few words describing what you think are the fourth and fifth main phenomena of inner experience. Don't feel bad if you find that difficult, you're in good company.


Baars, B. J. (2003). How brain reveals mind: Neural studies support the fundamental role of conscious experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, 100-114. (See p.106.)

Heavey, C. L., & Hurlburt, R. T. (2008). The phenomena of inner experience. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 798-810.

Hurlburt, R. T. (2011). Investigating pristine inner experience: Moments of truth. New York: Cambridge.

McWhorter, J. (2003). Doing our own thing. New York: Gotham. (See p. 3.)

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