No two people think exactly alike, but it seems that some people go through life without an inner monologue altogether. A viral Tweet pointed out that “some people’s thoughts are like sentences they ‘hear,’ and some people just have abstract non-verbal thoughts, and have to consciously verbalize them.” And I was like “lol ok,” until some noodling around revealed that, yes, research suggest that inner speech isn’t as common or as necessary as, well, you might think.
So how is this possible? While there’s still a lot more work to be done in line of how an inner monologue works (or doesn’t work), we do know that the brain is capable of thinking in many different ways.
“We know that the brain is far more ‘plastic,’ or moldable, than what scientists believed 30 years ago, and that whole areas can be wired or rewired differently,” says Helene Brenner, PhD, licensed psychologist and creator of the My Inner Voice app.
Dr. Brenner points out that a blind person who learns Braille actually uses the areas of the brain normally devoted to sight when they runs their fingers over the raised dots, so they’re ‘seeing’ through their fingertips. Or with a condition like synesthesia, two or more senses “bleed” into each other, so the individual may hear specific colors as having distinct tones, and letters or numbers are experienced as “being” a certain color.
“It makes sense then that there would be people where the wires that connect ‘thinking’ with the language areas of the brain would instead be connected to regions that store visual images,” says Dr. Brenner.
That means if you live without an inner voice, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just a different way of thinking.
So how does inner speech come to be, and is it always running in our minds?
“Inner speech is the product of the default mode network or DMN of the brain,” says Dr. Brenner. “It’s a network of different areas of the brain that become very active, all together, when we’re not engaged in doing anything task-oriented—when we’re just thinking or daydreaming. It turns out that it never fully stops either—it just gets suppressed the busier and more actively engaged we get.”
Whether you have a mental narrator or not, none of us really think in words when we’re completely engaged, skiing fast down a mountain, or scaling a cliff. Likewise, our thoughts lose words when we’re fully listening to music, the incessant drilling of construction at work (just me?), or someone else’s words.
“The default mode network is what produces that whole running narrative in your head—all the things you think about, connecting your past to your present and thinking about the future, all of your opinions and self-comparisons,” Dr. Brenner says. “It’s the seat of creativity and imagination, but it’s also the seat of neurosis, depression and anxiety.”
The bottom line is, if you don’t have an inner monologue, must be nice and you might not magically manifest one. If an inner monologue is your reality, though, how do we train and tame our inner voice? How do we make it our friend and guide instead of your enemy and tormentor?
Notice what your thoughts are saying
Pay attention to the tone that your inner voice is talking in, and if it’s delivering you mountains of self-attacking thoughts.
“There’s a connection between what your thoughts are saying and what you are feeling, but it’s a very imprecise one,” says Dr. Brenner. “For example, you can be feeling very hurt and disappointed that a friend promised to come over but didn’t, or insecure at a new job you’re just learning.”
That’s when the self-attacking thoughts kick in and tell you that you may have done something terrible to make your friends avoid you and how you’re probably going to get fired. Inner voice, I don’t like your tone.
Turn your attention away from self-attacking thoughts
My therapist, bless her, recently told me to pay attention to my inner talk and try to see if I’m being a gigantic b*tch to myself (not her exact words). So keep an eye to that internal insecurity, and focus instead on the sensations and emotions happening in your throat, chest and abdomen.
“If you notice there’s fear there, or hurt, just notice them,” says Dr. Brenner. “Relax and let them be, without trying to change them. Take a few long slow breaths and simply hang out and observe those emotions going on inside you, without trying either to change them or to explain them too much. Practice self-compassion, telling yourself that it’s okay to feel hurt or upset or afraid, and see if you can give yourself a calming presence.”
Detach from the ‘story’ behind negative feelings
Your inner voice might be having a legitimately bad day, like when you’ve lost someone you’ve loved or someone’s stabbed you in the GD back. Those are completely appropriate and natural situations for your inner voice to be all “woe is me,” however. Many cases it’s because a feeling has become attached to a very strong set of thoughts – a huge “story” about why you feel the way you do, why you should always feel the way you do, and why you can never stop feeling this awful way that you do.
“One way out of this hole is to acknowledge the painful feelings, and even let yourself feel them in their purest form, without thinking much about the reasons why you have the feelings (the ‘story’),” Dr. Brenner says. “Then see if you can let go of, or at least question, the thoughts that are making you feel most critical of yourself or others, or most threatened and under attack.”
If your inner voice is way too loud and destructive though, feel free to get externally proactive; connect with family, friends, and/or someone who can give professional help. And keep trying!
“It takes practice to learn how to become more aware of your body’s feelings, which are messengers from your inner voice, and not get caught up in the endless running monologue of your thoughts,” says Dr. Brenner. “But if you do, you’ll find that your daily thoughts and emotions become better guides and helpers to leading you where you want to go.”
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