- About 30 to 50 percent of people regularly think to themselves in internal monologues.
- Inner monologues have a function in language development and in information and memory processing.
- This phenomenon demonstrates a rich diversity of experience in what we deem to be "normal" thought lives.
Flashback to college: I’m sitting in the dining hall with my best friend Dave, and a student enters in a firefighter outfit. Assuming (and probably correctly) that this man is part of the arts/creative “Western campus program,” a woman at our table exclaims, “Those Western people….! They just think all of the time!” My friend and I give each other the side-eye, and he later asks incredulously, “Really? Is there any other option?”
It turns out there is, at least in the sense of having an inner conversation in unspoken words. About 30 to 50 percent of people, according to psychologist Russell Hurlburt’s research, regularly think to themselves in internal monologues. Inner or "private" speech is something most of us likely did as very young people seeking to develop our language skills, and later as a way of rehearsing information to successfully encode and retain working memory. So it’s clearly functional and not a sign of mental disorder.
To get a read on whether you have inner monologues, try listening in and noting an internal voice or intrusive thoughts during meditation. Mindful practice provides tremendous insights into whether you have and how often you have inner monologues. But what about the 50 to 70 percent of folks who don’t have or infrequently have words in their heads?
There are different theories, but the simplest (and least condescending/least pejorative) view of folks who don’t regularly have inner monologues is that many of them are processing information and prepping for tasks using visual imagery rather than words. That is, they see images, such as a to-do list, rather than thinking about or hearing the words for the items on the list. I found this explanation helpful because I think in terms of words, visual images, and music all day long, and it’s easy to perspective take on folks who are a bit “quiet” in there by relating to their use of images or their playing back a song in their heads, things I do, too. It’s helpful to think about their inner experience in visual terms, as while it might be quiet as the occasional cricket when it comes to words, it’s not a total void or vacuum in there.
Too Much of a Good Thing
And before those of us start to feel wonderful about our rich inner monologues, it’s important to remember that too much of a good thing is possible. Inner monologues can become a little like King Midas’s golden touch when we can’t turn them off. For instance, anxious minds continuously scan for and entertain intrusive thoughts, and rumination on these can lead to brooding, and brooding can give itself over to highly critical talk about self and others. In the particular instance of an inner critic, a lack of inner monologue sounds like a quiet, peaceful reprieve from constant chatting and potentially corrosive self-talk.
I know people who have internal dialogues and “think in words all of the time.” I know a person who has internal monologues and external dialogues with himself, engaging in rich conversations that can lead in unexpected, even challenging, directions. I can imagine that sounds weird to folks who have only inner monologues or those who have no inner monologues at all. But as Vulcan philosophy states, “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” which is another way of saying “Different strokes for different folks,” and empathy, perspective-taking, and imagining what others’ experiences are like—and what it’s like inside their heads—are worthwhile, growth-enhancing, and humanizing exercises.
Inner monologues can represent a rich, deep, “pristine” experience (Hurlburt et al., 2016) for some, as long as they don’t get out of hand, and as long as external monologues/dialogues don’t freak out your friends, family members, and co-workers.
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Hurlburt, R.T., Alderson-Day, B., Kuhn, S. & Fernyhough, C. (2016). Exploring the ecological validity of thinking on demand: Neural correlates of elicited vs. spontaneously occurring inner speech. PLoS One, 11(2), e0147932. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0147932