What percentage of people have inner voice?
The last great mystery of the mind: meet the people who have unusual – or non-existent – inner voices
Does your internal monologue play out on a television, in an attic, as a bickering Italian couple – or is it entirely, blissfully silent?
Mon 25 Oct 2021 11.00 BST
C laudia*, a sailor from Lichfield in her late 30s, is not Italian. She has never been to Italy. She has no Italian family or friends. And she has no idea why a belligerent Italian couple have taken over her inner voice, duking it out in Claudia’s brain while she sits back and listens.
“I have no idea where this has come from,” says Claudia, apologetically. “It’s probably offensive to Italians.” The couple are like the family in the Dolmio pasta sauce adverts: flamboyant, portly, prone to waving their hands and shouting. If Claudia has a big decision to make in her life, the Italians take over.
“They passionately argue either side,” Claudia says. “It’s really useful because I let them do the work, so I don’t get stressed out by it.” These disagreements always take place in a kitchen, surrounded by food. Claudia hasn’t given the Italians names – yet. But they did help Claudia make a major life decision, encouraging her to quit her job as a scientist two years ago and fulfil a lifelong dream of running away to sea.
“They were chatting non-stop before I handed in my notice,” Claudia sighs. “I’d wake up and they’d be arguing. I’d be driving to work and they’d be arguing. It was exhausting, to be honest.” The woman was in favour of Claudia going, but her husband was wary. “He’d be saying: ‘It’s a stable job!’ And she’d go: ‘Let her enjoy life!’” The woman prevailed, and Claudia left to work on a flotilla in Greece (although she’s now back in the UK temporarily, due to Covid). She’s much happier, even if she did have to have neurolinguistic programming to get the shouting to calm down. “They’re quieter now,” Claudia says with relief. “Less shouting. They just bicker.”
Most of us have an inner voice: that constant presence that tells you to “Watch out” or “Buy shampoo” or “Urgh, this guy’s a creep”. For many of us, this voice sounds much like our own, or at least how we think we sound. But for some people, their inner voice isn’t a straightforward monologue that reproaches, counsels and reminds. Their inner voice is a squabbling Italian couple, say, or a calm-faced interviewer with their hands folded on their lap. Or it’s a taste, feeling, sensation or colour. In some cases, there isn’t a voice at all, just silence.
“Like a tiny island, surrounded by an infinite ocean,” is how Justin Hopkins describes his brain. “The tiny island is where all the conscious things seem to happen, but it’s surrounded by this infinite, inaccessible stuff.” Hopkins, who is 59 and works for a social enterprise in London, doesn’t have an inner voice. There is no one in his brain to blame, shame or criticise. In his head, there is emptiness: just the still warm air before a rustling breeze.
“There’s nothing there,” says Hopkins. “And I don’t think there ever has been.” Of course, Hopkins has thoughts: we all do. But the inner monologue that fills our brain while the engine stands idling isn’t there. It’s been clicked off, permanently. “When I am alone and relaxed, there are no words at all,” he says. “There’s great pleasure in that.” He can easily while away an hour without having a single thought. Unsurprisingly, Hopkins sleeps like a baby.
What makes someone like Hopkins lack an inner voice so completely? “That’s a really good question,” says the neuroscientist Dr Helene Loevenbruck of Grenoble Alpes University’s laboratory of psychology and neurocognition. “I don’t know.” Loevenbruck is one of a handful of neuroscientists in the world who has studied the inner voice. She explains that it is created in a network of different areas in our brain, including the inferior parietal lobe, the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal cortex.
In order to understand how the inner voice works, you need to understand how human thought translates into action. “Whenever we do any action, our brain makes a prediction of the sensory consequences of that action,” says Loevenbruck. Say you want to fetch a glass of water. “Your brain sends the appropriate motor signals to your hand, but it also generates a sensory prediction of the command,” she says. “Before you’ve even picked up the glass, your brain has made a prediction of what the motor command will do, which means you can correct for mistakes before you make an error. This system is very efficient, and it’s why humans can do so many actions without making errors.”
The same principle applies with human speech. Every time our mouths move to form a word, our brain is simultaneously generating a predictive simulation of that speech in our brain, to correct for error. “The current understanding of inner speech is that we do the same as in overt speech – make predictions in our mind of what we will say – but we don’t actually send the motor commands to our speech muscles,” Loevenbruck concludes. “This simulated auditory signal is the little voice we hear in our brain.”
Loevenbruck explains that, for the most part, we hear what she terms “inner language”. But not always. “You can have expanded and more condensed forms of inner speech,” she says. “People may experience them as abstract representations of language, without sound … some people say their inner voice is like a radio that’s on all day long. Other people don’t have a voice at all, or they speak in abstract symbols that don’t involve language.” Loevenbruck can’t explain why some people experience the inner voice differently: we are at the limits of neuroscience, already the most slippery of all the branches of human knowledge.
She explains that deaf people tend to experience the inner voice visually. “They don’t hear the inner voice, but can produce inner language by visualising hand signs, or seeing lip movements,” Loevenbruck says. “It just looks like hand signing really,” agrees Dr Giordon Stark, a 31-year-old researcher from Santa Cruz. Stark is deaf, and communicates using sign language.
His inner voice is a pair of hands signing words, in his brain. “The hands aren’t usually connected to anything,” Stark says. “Once in a while, I see a face.” If Stark needs to remind himself to buy milk, he signs the word “milk” in his brain. Stark didn’t always see his inner voice: he only learned sign language seven years ago (before then, he used oral methods of communication). “I heard my inner voice before then,” he says. “It sounded like a voice that wasn’t mine, or particularly clear to me.”
The broadcaster Jenni Murray lives in author Hannah Begbie’s brain. Well, not Murray exactly, but a facsimile of Murray, with the same kind but quizzical voice, and a scarf flung loosely over her shoulder. “My inner voice is a duologue, like I am in a constant state of interviewing myself,” says Begbie, who is 44 and lives in London. “The interviewing always happens in a plush radio studio,” she says. “There’s nice rich crushed-velvet walls. There’s a warmth and a colour to it.” The duologue can be about anything, trivial or serious.
“Jenni might say: ‘When did you eventually decide to take the plunge on those shoes?’” Begbie says. “And I go: ‘Well Jenni, that’s an interesting question.’” Murray’s gentle, firm questioning has nudged her into making big life decisions: before Begbie quit her job as a literary agent, Murray helped her rehearse her reasons for doing so, in her head. “It’s a way of organising the chaos of my mind,” Begbie says. She is aware it is odd. “I’ve never met Murray,” Begbie says. “I know it’s ludicrous.”
Former librarian Mary Worrall’s inner voice has always been a TV screen, or sometimes a slide projector, that is continuously playing inside an attic, inside her head. The attic is accessed by a spiral staircase behind her left ear, explains Worrall, who is 71 and lives in Birmingham. “There’s not a great deal of sound,” she says. “It’s just images really, like a film is playing.” When Worrall’s inner voice reminds her to pick up some washing powder, she doesn’t hear the words, “buy washing powder.” Instead, she sees herself reaching for a box of washing powder on a TV screen in the attic.
“It’s an emotion,” says Mona*, a 53-year-old CEO from Telford, of her inner voice. “The closest way I could describe it would be in terms of colour.” Her inner voice doesn’t manifest itself obviously: it never chatters away. Rather, Mona has to turn her attention to it in order to perceive it. “When I’m going about my day, the inner voice isn’t talking to me in the English language,” Mona says. “It’s something that sits underneath and behind what I do.”
The voice becomes more insistent when she is in a situation that requires her to be emotionally deft. Mona often works with troubled children, and was recently in a situation where a teenager was being angry and outspoken. At first, Mona’s instinct was to remonstrate with her. But then Mona’s inner voice made itself felt to her in a wash of the colour grey. “I had this profound sense that this young person was in real trouble … I felt a sense of sadness and despondency, and saw a foggy cloud.” Her inner voice was right: Mona later confirmed that the young person was going through a difficult time in her personal life.
Many of the people I speak to learned late in life that their inner voices were not the norm. For years, Worrall thought that other people also had attics in their brains. “I thought everyone else was like this!” she laughs. Mona only outlined the contours of her inner voice to her husband of 30 years in advance of our phone interview. “You don’t ever really realise your inner voice is different,” says Mona. “It’s not something you talk about.”
Unknowable, inscrutable, uniquely our own: inner voices are our lifelong confidantes and secret friends. It’s only a shame no one gets to meet them, but us. “I wish I could invite someone in,” says Worrall. “It would be so nice if I could download the attic on to some sort of hard drive, so other people could look at it.”
Additional reporting by Rachel Obordo. *Some names have been changed
Is your internal monologue a cause for concern?
Last weekend, I was chatting with family, when my nephew mentioned a post he’d seen on Twitter that had sparked a lot of debate.
This was the post.
The gist was that not everyone has an internal monologue running inside their head. Some people have never ever experienced a little internal voice telling them what to do next or verbalising their thoughts. They just think in abstract non-verbal thoughts. They see pictures and don’t sound out words.
So Kyle presented two simple categories for you to place yourself into. Either you were a person who lived with an internal monologue running in your brain or you didn’t. And whichever camp you found yourself in, you were unaware of the other.
It reminded me of this image that went viral back in 2015. Remember this dress?
The dress image sparked so much discussion because you automatically assume everyone sees the same colours you do. When you find out they don’t, you want to why.
Back to the Kyle and the internal monologue. My sister said she thought she knew which category I was in. But it had been a genuine revelation that her daughter and her daughter-in-law were in the other category.
She asked me whether I had a voice in my head all the time and I said I used to, but I don’t anymore. Sometimes, but not all the time. But this isn’t what interested me.
As someone who did used to have that voice in my head, but has learned to quieten it down, I was interested in two ideas:
- That some people never have the voice at all. This was the purpose of the tweet.
- How having that inner voice related to your mental health.
Regarding the first point that some people never had an internal monologue, I just didn’t buy it.
Regarding the second, and the voice’s relationship to mental health, in my experience the voice hadn’t been a positive influence, hence why I learned to quieten it.
Let’s look at the two ideas in more detail.
Are there some people who never have an internal monologue?
My assumption is that as an adult living in a literate or verbal culture, I presume everyone who can speak or read would have to think in words at least some time? I mean, how would we think about expressing ourselves verbally and communicating in words with others if we didn’t?
Sure, we all visualise some things to some extent. A sunny afternoon on the beach with an ice cream, the house you grew up in, or a pyramid. But if you have to prepare for an important job interview, or I ask you to pronounce a word you’ve never seen or heard before, you will need to verbalise this internally wouldn’t you?
Here is one such word.
But the point of the Twitter post was that I wouldn’t be able to see it from the other (non internal monologue) point of view. So I had a look for any scientific evidence to back up Kyle’s claim.
IFLScience, Bad Science and Psychology Today
I came to some original research via an article from IFLScience. It referenced an article from Psychology Today in which the author, Russell T. Hurlburt, reported on a research study he had undertaken in 2011.
His research evidence was flimsy. A small sample of 30 students were provided with beepers and paged at certain times of the day to ask them whether they were experiencing an inner monologue at that moment in time.
Because some of the cohort reported an absence of inner monologue when beeped, Hurlburt concluded that some people never experience an interior monologue.
I would need to have a look at Hurlburt’s book to see if he’s done any more in-depth studies:
Hurlburt, R. T. (2011). Investigating pristine inner experience: Moments of truth. New York: Cambridge.
But in the meantime I looked in some standard psychology textbooks to see what they had to say about the existence of inner monologues.
Thoughts and your internal monologue
Are internal monologues and our thoughts the same thing? The answer is sometimes.
We definitely think in words some of the time. It’s what psychologists call symbolic thought. They generally agree on two other types of thinking:
- In words (symbolic)
- In pictures (iconic)
- In actions (enactive)
So thinking in words might be your internal monologue, but it’s probably not what most people are thinking of when they think of the internal monologue.
Steve Taylor, a psychologist at Leeds Beckett, distinguishes between active thinking and what he calls ‘thought chatter’. Thought chatter is his term for your internal monologue running in the background. In CBT terms they call this ticker tape.
This background chatter of your internal monologue is completely normal. But it doesn’t mean that too much of an internal monologue, or the wrong kind at the wrong time can’t be problematical.
So let’s look at the relationship between your internal monologue and your mental health.
Internal monologues and your mental health
You may have experienced thoughts in your head that won’t stop and keep you awake at night. It used to happen to me a lot. My ex-wife used to say ‘you think too much.’ Thinking wasn’t really the problem, it was that my thoughts were often of an anxious nature. They spiralled out of control at night when left with my own thoughts without something to quieten them down. Typically that something was alcohol.
I’ll talk about some better ways to quieten the inner voice at the end of the article. But for now, bear with me.
As well as the timing and the frequency, there’s also the type of words that your inner voice expresses. Supportive, confidence-boosting words are typically not a problem. But when your inner voice becomes your inner critic, then you can become depressed and even come to loathe yourself.
Also, a voice that talks in absolutes such as ‘must’, ‘have to’, ‘always’, etc. is a harsh inner that can set you up for failure.
You are not your thoughts, but it’s hard to divorce yourself from them.
Mindfulness and meditation
I wonder if the people that say they don’t have an inner monologue, are just not aware of it. Why would you be if the voice wasn’t troublesome?
One way you can become aware of all the thoughts passing through your mind is by practising mindfulness or meditation. It can afford you a greater awareness of your inner monologue (which may or may not be beneficial) and allow you to separate yourself from your thoughts.
The app headspace has become a popular way of practising mindfulness and observing your thoughts without judgement. You don’t need an app or a book though. You can be mindful and meditative when carrying out everyday activities like washing up, doing the ironing or going for a walk. Concentrate your thoughts on the activity in question and activate all your senses so you are truly in the moment. Observe your mind wandering when a thought occurs that is outside of the moment. Don’t judge, just acknowledge the thought and then return your concentration back to what you are doing.
So give mindfulness or meditation a go if you want to tune in to your internal monologue. But if it makes you more stressed rather than relaxed, or you’d rather not hear what those voices are saying, remember mindfulness is not compulsory.
Mindfulness and meditation can sometimes suggest that we are the problem, and this not always the case. Your mental health is made up your brain and your mind, but it is also massively influenced by environmental factors. The biopsychosocial model is a useful way of thinking about the many factors involved in your mental health and how they work together. We can use it to think of ways in which factors might combine to make your inner monologue louder, more frequent or more troublesome. It’s also a very useful tool for thinking of ways in which we can quieten it down.
A word of warning
Be warned though, for some people meditation and tuning in to the voices in your head could make things worse. In their book The Buddha Pill, Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, take a more balanced look at the mindfulness industry. A Guardian article from 2016 told the story of Claire, who went on a mindfulness retreat and returned a nervous wreck.
If you need help with your inner voice
Anxiety is often accompanied by an inner monologue that is a stream of worries about the future. Seek medical support from a GP or other qualified professional if you need help with anxious or troubling thoughts.
People With No Internal Monologue Explain What It’s Like In Their Head
James is a published author with four pop-history and science books to his name. He specializes in history, strange science, and anything out of the ordinary.
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Earlier this year, a lot of people were surprised to discover that some people don’t have an internal monologue, while those people who don’t were surprised to learn other people do. Having only ever lived in your own head, it’s pretty weird to discover that other people think differently than you do.
For instance, I assumed that everyone else had an internal monologue, and like mine, that monologue is voiced by Patrick Stewart. To think that some people don’t have a monologue portrayed by Captain Pickard was weird enough, without discovering that they hear nothing at all.
Shortly after everyone discovered the other group of thinkers exist, people started to explain to each other what their method of thinking is like, and how the other one is plain weird. In one Reddit thread, user Vadermaulkylo posted, «Today, I told my mom that I have no internal monologue and she stared at me like I have three heads. Is having one common?» They confessed they had thought it was a fictional concept made up as a narrative device in the TV show Dexter (about a surprisingly teary psychopath).
What it’s like not to have a monologue
After people had called the poor Redditor a non-playable character enough times to get it out of their systems, several people (including the OP) described what it’s actually like to not have an internal monologue.
“So if your boss asks you to do something right at the point you were planning to leave work you don’t think ‘oh f***ing s**t b*lls what a pain? in your head, while saying ‘No problem at all boss,’ out loud?” one user asked.
“No. Never had that,» Vadermaulkylo responded. «If I’m asked to do something I don’t wanna do, I just get kinda frustrated but that’s about it. I don’t really think to myself.”
Others confirmed their experience was similar.
«I’m the same way,» said user GohanShmohan. «I don’t have any conscious thought about what I’m feeling, or any stream of dialogue describing it to myself. I just feel it. It’s like the inner dialogue is the middle man in my head, who just isn’t there.»
For others, it was a bit more complicated.
«I don’t have a inner monologue either. Any time I have to communicate outside my head with words, I have to «translate» what I’m thinking. That takes time and effort. It’s why I vastly prefer written communication over verbal, since you can take more time than the instant response a verbal conversation requires,» Redditor BobbitWormJoe wrote.
«When I know I will need to verbally communicate (such as if I need to make a phone call or bring up a topic at a meeting), I prepare mentally as much as possible so I know what words I actually need to say. On the other hand, if I’m in a conversation where I haven’t had time to organize and translate my thoughts ahead of time, I constantly have long pauses where I’m doing it in real time, which comes off as weird to people who notice it. This annoyed my wife for a long time until we both realized why it was happening.»
Asked if they ever got songs stuck in their head, Vadermaulkylo replied: «Actually that’s probably the closest thing I have to one. Currently got a couple songs from that new Lil Wayne album in my head. I read stuff in my head too of course.»
What it’s like to have a monologue
«Thoughts are words,» user merewautt wrote. «I can’t imagine a thought not as a verbal construction. All my thoughts are colored by the physical parts of different emotions, but they’re all words. I can imagine being physically angry for a moment without verbally thinking it (my heart would be racing, maybe my shoulders shake, muscles tense up, etc) but I can’t imagine being aware of any of my physical emotions without thoughts as language. My internal monologue while my body was having the physical anger response would be (inner monologue in parenthesis):
(Oh f this b***h, she’s being such a hypocrite) -out loud- YOU’RE BEING A F***ING HYPOCRITE, (she’s gonna say it’s not the same because—-) IT’S NOT THE SAME AND YOU KNOW IT.»
Many people agreed feeling the emotion of being angry went hand in hand with an internal monologue of ranting and quite a lot of swearing, and couldn’t imagine just feeling a physical response to an emotion without a constant stream of thoughts as words to articulate it to themselves. Merewautt pointed out this is how Freudian slips happen, when you aren’t planning to say something out loud, but you’re thinking it and «lose the filter» on your inner monologue.
Others asked whether people with monologues walk around narrating their lives like Bridgette Jones, which, to be honest, kind of.
What does the science say?
In scientific studies, it seems people experience more of a mix than the self-selected responders to a viral post that implied it was either/or.
A small study in 2011 tried to get a better picture of how people think. They gave beepers to a random sample of students. When the beeper went off, they had to note down what was going on inside their heads moments before it went off. This went on for several weeks, to get them used to it and then to get an accurate picture of what was happening inside their minds.
«Subjects experienced themselves as inwardly talking to themselves in 26 percent of all samples,» the team wrote in Psychology Today. «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.
«Some people talk to themselves a lot, some never, some occasionally.»