“A man speaking sense to himself is no madder than a man speaking nonsense not to himself."
― Tom Stoppard (1937-)
"Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?"
― Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899–1981)
Go on, admit it. You talk to yourself. Lots.
It starts with thinking. Thinking itself is all-too-often a kind of talking-to-yourself process. Perhaps you experience a moving storyline like this: your life, unfolding during a busy day, while you process the unfurling narrative inside your head. You tell yourself about what’s going on as it happens—that’s your inner voice, self-directed, and private.
Then there’s everyone else. You might occasionally catch a glimpse of people talking to themselves when they don’t know you are watching them. Sometimes, you can see their lips move, or they are quietly animated. Sometimes you might even over hear a word or two.
When you catch yourself doing it, are you actually mouthing the words, lip-synching to your own internal monologue—while you are alone, say, in the car or in the office, or on the train, or in a shopping mall? It’s worse if you’ve been talking to yourself and, embarrassingly, you suddenly realize someone’s noticed you doing it.
You don’t have to be crazy or even a research psychologist to have ideas and thoughts pop into your head, some directly attributable to sensory stimuli (hey, that’s a nice red car driving past) or a specific memory (that old lady reminds me of Grandma—same hair). Other times thoughts just manifest, sometimes darting into your mind, referred from your unconscious. Not quite intruding, but what brain experts call emergent.
In short: all sorts of things come to mind as you react to life’s exigencies as you go along. And some research shows that your inner voice is speaking around a quarter of your day.
Here’s an example from me of this in practice. It’s first thing in the café I frequent to do my early morning work, and I’m typing these words. I now actively embrace my surroundings. There are hints, I now notice, of a heady mix of complex aromas amongst the coffee and tea fragrances, along with an eggy-fishy smoked salmon odor mingled with a buttery smell. And fresh bread smells waft past. Lovely, I think responsively.
Suddenly, I almost imperceptibly smell cigarette smoke on someone passing my table which reminds me of when I had this habit in my youth, but I’ve not indulged for decades. That’s good, I think. Hope I am out of danger and don’t die of lung cancer or some nicotine-related disease. Ridiculous thought, I tell myself. Get on with your work.
Now I’m the one thinking this. But notice I just told myself to get on with my work.
As I am only one person, who am I actually conversing with?
Now that I have become conscious of my setting, I note someone else walks past me to the counter, this time in a trail of nice aftershave. Some aspect of that smell evokes a distant vague memory; is it maybe roses? Or cornflowers? But I can’t think from where. I reflect vaguely that this is somehow erotic, but I don’t know where that came from, and I have no particular image. I actively think to myself that I should suppress those thoughts. Now I’m giving myself a talking-to-taking myself to task.
When you reflect on that for a moment, it’s weird that I’m admonishing myself.
A group of middle aged men over in one corner is interacting animatedly over sport, peppered with talk of their own prowess at football in their younger days. It sounds like classic male bravado and bonding behavior. There’s much merriment. I want to laugh along but I suppress it as I am not a member of this crowd. It’s funny how empathy works. I’m tuned into these others’ laughter; even though they’re strangers, I have an urge to join them. Instead, I make studious efforts to pretend to ignore them.
Taking a sip of my de-caffeinated, skim-milk cappuccino now, induces new thoughts. My beverage is a “gutless wonder” as someone once unkindly called it when they heard me make my order. “Nice blend” flits defensively through my mind by way of response.
Now that I consciously accommodate to it, I can hear a mélange of noises of human activity—close and distant sounds, people talking, a Frank Sinatra song on the TV in another corner, it’s My way. This changes to the next thought; I attend to a featured story on the morning news show about the dire state of the financial markets. I think of the line in the Anne Murray song A little good news, “Some senator was squawking about the bad economy.” Now I can’t get the melody out of my head. I realize I’m soundlessly wording the lyrics in a form of mentalese. And humming the tune internally. That’s another form of self-conversing, I guess, as there’s no external “other” that I’m entertaining.
The pace is changing now: my thoughts are coming at a faster rate—and I’m enjoying it. An external sound gets my brain buzzing—it’s a little like being on speed without the drugs, I imagine. Or at least, with no artificial or illicit substances. Natural brain hormones, a chemical soupy mix such as dopamine, serotonin, catecholamines, GABA, and endorphins, are responsible, my mind tells me. Some of those psychology classes at University didn’t go to waste, then, I say to myself. I’ve impressed myself that I know that.
The cause of the buzz, the external sound I heard, is an ambulance siren in the background (as I used to work in health care, this latter generates lots of tumbling memories of nurses, doctors, corridor conversations, meetings, and high tech equipment in intensive care). This in turn stimulates me somehow to think about the meetings I have today. I shudder: meetings can be so boring—I’d rather be doing research. My inner voice is streaming in still, then, flooding my mind.
I’m deep in a flow at the intersection of thinking-to-myself/talking-to-myself now. The idea of “flow” was brought to prominence by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist with the problem that, although famous, always has undergraduates (even colleagues who should know better) misspelling and mispronouncing his name.
Being entrenched in the thinking zone now, I reflect, this is getting my pleasure polypeptides going, probably. And it reflects my autotelic personality. I say to myself, this is yet more me-talking-to-me, again. I jump-start out of the “flow zone” and look back across the room. Someone is coming down from the steps from where the toilets are. I see it’s one of the staff, “Jim.” I think wordlessly: I hope he washed his hands.
Then I notice “Candice” just walked in with her things, sat down and is audibly talking to herself much more than everyone else. She’s well known in this part of town and has schizophrenia but is fine when she is on medication. She comes here intermittently, sometimes every day for weeks on end, then she goes missing. Everyone amongst the café crowd knows her and believes she is harmless. She often says amusing or discordant things out loud, when interacting with staff. Her particular behavior is she often goes up to the barista and wait staff and asks “Whereabouts?” with no other contextual information than a quizzical look. The behind-the-counter staff do well, trying not to laugh at her, and mostly succeeding.
Candice patiently, and with great diligence, watches everyone coming and going, mouthing words all the time that are a bit hard to catch, but when I can overhear, it’s an ongoing conversation with real or imagined people. She talks to people who come in and walk past her. She repeatedly, perhaps 20 times over an hour or so, inquires of them “Are you working today?” I feel sad, empathetically, about Candice, but also fascinated by her condition. Just then, my mind conjures a question: am I glad some people have schizophrenia, as it tells so much about the edges of human behavior?
Then I instantly suppress that idea: that is so wrong of me. Who would wish schizophrenia on someone else, even in the name of scientific inquiry?
My thoughts move on to the technicalities of schizophrenia. The incidence is some half a percent of the world’s population; that’s 24 million people, or around 1 in 285 of us, is schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is heritable; and it has 108 regions of DNA association with it, and genes involved with the immune system are particularly important in this disorder.
Candice leaves, carrying bags full of what seems like junk but may be to her, are precious possessions. She certainly seems to act as if they are jealous, watchfully, guarding them. Who am I to analyze her, even from a distance, I admonish myself? A little blush of shame kicks in, then spreads. I’m conversing with me yet again—this time, about my emotional responses to Candice. And I’m judging here. I don’t like doing that, I reflect.
Suddenly, it hits me. Talking to yourself is completely normal, for normal people. But it’s normal for people with mental disorders, too. So both me and Candice, we each talk to ourselves. It’s a useful point for those who hold the belief—perhaps it’s pervasive—that psychiatric patients are different from the rest of us. They, too, think, and talk to themselves. In fact, I’d argue, self-conversation is a fundamental, ubiquitous, human characteristic.
Let’s remember that next time we encounter someone with a mental health problem, or just someone in the adjacent car or on the train who we notice is obviously talking to themselves. They aren’t strange at all. If the measure of being a little or a lot peculiar is talking to yourself, we’re not that far away from each other, normal people and the most demonstrably mentally ill amongst us, that is. Now there’s a sobering message for people who think they’re sane.
Talking to yourself? By that standard we’re all a bit crazy, every single one of us.
Perrone-Bertolotti, Marcela, Rapin, Lucile, Lachaux, Jean-Phillipe, Baciu, Monica, Lœvenbruck, Henri (2014). What is that little voice inside my head? Inner speech phenomenology, its role in cognitive performance, and its relation to self-monitoring. Behavioural Brain Research 261: 220-239.
Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (2014). Biological Insights from 108 Schizophrenia-Associated Genetic Loci. Nature 511, 421-427.