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Talking to Myself

Don’t we each hear at least one voice in our head?

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Saying someone “hears voices” is sometimes shorthand for “insanity”—but don’t we each hear at least one voice in our head? Whenever we think, after all, it always “sounds” like words. When called upon to explain our thought process, we often describe it in terms of spoken language: the voice in our head is an “inner monologue;” when we can’t quite remember something, “it’s on the tip of my tongue;” when we pause to think, we’re “composing” our thoughts.

But when you’re thinking—when you’re literally talking to yourself—who is the listener? And what—or who—is talking back? Answering these questions can teach us a great deal about human consciousness, and particularly about disruptive or intrusive thoughts such as those associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

The connection between spoken words and inner thoughts has origins in developmental psychology. Significantly, we learn language through conversation. Children don’t independently discover language; they gradually learn that certain vocal sounds refer to certain ideas by listening to their parents and caretakers. “Verbal sense of self begins to evolve at around the fifteenth to eighteenth month. This sense of self is already self-reflexive and makes it possible to objectify the self, as shown by the use of personal pronouns or by behavior in front of a mirror," writes János László in The Science of Stories.

“An important aspect of verbal behavior is that when it occurs, there is always a speaker and a listener. This is particularly obvious when the verbal behavior occurs with another person present, but there is a listener even when someone is thinking; it’s just that in this case the speaker and the listener are the same person.” Because we learn language through conversation with others, when we use language to compose our thoughts, thinking feels like engaging in a conversation; our “internal monologue” actually plays out more like a dialogue.

Another component is the cognitive strategy of “perspective taking”—putting together other people’s words and actions to figure out what makes them tick. “The mind… appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities," says Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

So when you put it all together—the internal dialogue and perspective taking—suddenly it’s very easy to imagine that some of our thoughts are coming from an alien or otherwise disassociated place. “What happens between two, and between all the 'two’s' one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only talk with or about some ghost… Even and especially if this, the spectral, is not. Even and especially if this, which is neither substance, nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such," writes Derrida in Specters of Marx. When we experience thoughts we don’t like, thoughts that horrify or disturb us—they take on unnatural substance, they have their own monstrous personality and intelligence. And yet in some ambiguous way, we remain responsible for their content.

This is the origin of many of the intrusive thoughts experienced by OCD sufferers. It’s not “What if something terrible happens to me?” but “What happens if I do something terrible?”—or even worse, “What if I secretly, subconsciously WANT to do that terrible thing?” Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, writes, “How upsetting it is for a child to think that, unbeknownst to him, powerful processes are going on within him may be illustrated by what happened to one seven-year-old when his parents tried to explain to him that his emotions had carried him away to do things of which they—and he—severely disapproved. The child’s reaction was: 'You mean there is a machine in me that ticks away all the time and at any moment may explode me?' From then on, this boy lived for a time in real terror of impending self-destruction.”

Human culture is filled with stories of the suppressed “inner demon.” It’s far older than Sigmund Freud’s conflict between the ego and the id, as old as Plato’s model of logos, thymos, and eros at war in the human soul. It’s the werewolf, Mr. Hyde, the Incredible Hulk, Tyler Durden in Fight Club, or Johnny Cash’s “The Beast In Me.” Most famously in OCD discourse, it’s Edgar Allen Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse,” which provided the title for Lee Baer’s seminal book on intrusive thoughts, The Imp of the Mind. So if that “voice in your head” sometimes sounds dangerous or antagonistic—you’re hardly the only one that feels that way.

Even if intrusive thoughts are generated by some mysterious, malevolent force in your subconscious (and I hope I’ve provided evidence for a likelier explanation), that’s not something you have any control over. We can only be held responsible for the choices we make and the actions we take in the real world. Our intrusive thoughts are no more significant than, say, glancing at the wrong exit on the highway before taking the correct one.

Considering and discarding bad ideas is a natural part of decision-making—no inner adversary or imp of the mind required.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2020.

Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012.”

Read my Psychology Today blog: Triggered


Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books, Random House, NYC, 2010 ed., Pg. 44.

Jacques Derrida. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Routledge, NY, 2006.

Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2011.

János László, The Science of Stories: An Introduction to Narrative Psychology, Routledge, NY, 2008.

Niklas Törneke, Learning RFT: An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory and Its Clinical Application, Context Press, CA, 2010.

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