Have you ever really thought about what your thoughts sound like?

Do your thoughts sound like your voice or someone else? Do they express themselves in words or some other way? When you talk silently to yourself, do you refer to yourself in the first person? The second? By name?

What about when you read? Do you read silently in your own voice? In the author’s voice (as you imagine it)? In the voice of the characters?

And think about when you write. Do you speak the words to yourselves? If you’re writing fiction, do your characters tell you what to say or do you tell them?

Do you ever hear voices? (Don’t be afraid to admit it — a lot of people without diagnosable mental illnesses do.) Are they kind? Cruel? How do the voices you hear differ from the voices someone with schizophrenia hears?

Has your brain cramped thinking about all this yet?

These are some of the questions Fernyhough, who directs the Hearing the Voice project at Durham University in the U.K., asks in what is essentially a book-length literature review seasoned with anecdotes and interviews.

“By the end of this book,” Fernyhough writes, “I hope to have persuaded you of several things. Talking to ourselves is a part of human experience that, although by no means universal, seems to play many different roles in our mental lives.”

And, he continues, “Recognizing our inner speech as a kind of dialogue accounts for how our minds can be shot through with many different voices, just as a work of fiction contains the voices of characters with different perspectives. I’ll argue that this view helps us to understand some important features of human consciousness, including an openness to alternative perspectives that might be one of the hallmarks of creativity.”

And, “I want to persuade you that this view of inner speech helps us to understand the more unusual voices that feature in human experience. …. If we start with a more accurate picture of the ordinary voices in our heads, we might end up with a better account of why some people hear voices when no one is around.”

So…with these goals in mind, Fernyhough wades into an exhaustive discussion of the different types of voices we hear, from the prattle of children as they think through their actions, and research on this in the 1920s by Moscow psychologist Lev Vygotsky; to the religious revelations of Margery Kempe in the 1400s; to the voices of the artist’s muse; and the disembodied voices heard by people with various conditions.

“…hearing voices is by no means restricted to schizophrenia,” he writes. “Voice hearing is associate with a whole host of other psychiatric diagnoses, including epilepsy, substance abuse, posttrauamatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s disease, and eating disorders. … The idea of hearing voices as ‘the sacred symbol of the sacred symbol’ — the archetypal symptom of schizophrenia — seems problematic….

“…In fact, voice-hearing does not even equate to madness. There is a certain history to the idea that hearing voices in the absence of any speaker can be part of normal experience.”

Both normal and, in some ways, useful — Fernyhough speculates that the dialogues we have with ourselves can be a way of keeping an open mind. “We can give voice to a point of view on what we are doing, and we can respond to that point of view in the give-and-take of dialog.”

Which is not to say all inner speech takes the form of a dialogue. Some inner speech is a monologue. Some is a monologue, some is condensed and telegraphic, some is not words but more like images or something else altogether.

Studying the way people hear the voices in their heads is tricky because it relies on self-reporting, a notoriously unreliable source of information. And, as William James pointed out, introspection is often a memory of an experience. “Trying to reflect on one’s own thoughts was, in James’s memorable phrase, like ‘trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks’,” Fernyhough writes.

Much of the current research Fernyhough cites is based on Descriptive Experience Sampling, or DES, developed by Russ Hurlburt, an engineer turned psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For DES, participants wear a small beeper that activates at random intervals through an earpiece, a signal for the participant to pay attention to whatever occurred in the moment just before the beep and jot down impressions about that experience. After several incidents, the participant is interviewed by the researcher about the documented moments of experience.

DES participation requires a great deal of training and its effectiveness is still questioned. At issue are its cumbersome nature; the likelihood that the person interviewing participants will inject presuppositions into the questions they ask; and the difficulty generalizing the experiences of individuals into any sort of meaningful contribution to psychological theory.

And, in fact, this last reflects one of the challenges for the reader of this book. While The Voices Within is full of compelling questions and interesting concepts, it also leaves the reader at every turn thinking, “…and so…?”  This is the nature, of course, of research in its early stages — scientists must first examine before they can extrapolate or apply. So while undoubtedly of interest to other researchers in the field, the book’s broad sweep and sometimes overwhelming pileup of information and theories can leave the lay reader grappling for a toehold, an application to everyday life.

By the end of the book, the dizziness brought on by those initial forays into thinking about thinking may only have increased for the reader, who now knows the many different ways we talk to ourselves and the many possible reasons for this, but might be left with only the fuzziest notion of why it matters. What do we know now that we know all this? Discuss amongst yourself.

The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk To Ourselves
Basic Books, October 2016
Hardcover, 320 pages

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