The Voices Within
Popular psychology seems to be in thrall, just now, to mindfulness, as a kind of psychic Aerogard against the mosquito swarm of our thoughts. Before that, the premier cure for bad thinking was cognitive behaviour therapy, which aims to modify our self-talk, substituting constructive habits of thought for unhelpful ones. Thoughts can be noisy, insistent, intrusive, it’s true; but are they voices?
Charles Fernyhough is sure they are. As a psychologist, his expertise is in the relationship between language and thought (he heads the Hearing the Voice project at Britain’s Durham University). That he is also a novelist gives him another vivid perspective on the subject.
“Inner speech” is the name that Fernyhough gives to what it is that he studies. Remarkably, research suggests that not everyone thinks in words. Children aged four or under, for instance, seem to lack an inner voice; but, says Fernyhough, that’s not to say that they don’t think. Those of us – most of us – who do make use of an inner voice spend about a quarter of our waking lives talking to ourselves.
“If we really do talk to ourselves,” writes Fernyhough, “then the language that ensues must have some of the properties of a conversation between different parts of who we are.” The idea of thinking as a conversation is central to his “dialogic thinking” model, which proposes that, as we develop, the combination of social interactions and language enables us to articulate different perspectives on reality through dialogue with ourselves.
But if experience and patterning give rise to our inner dialogue, whose voice – or voices – are we hearing? A study of inner voices necessarily touches on the auditory hallucinations that are a common feature of schizophrenia. Fernyhough presents research suggesting that the brains of those who hear “other” voices are configured in a way that inclines them to misattribute their own inner voices. But he acknowledges that his inner-voice theory is rejected by many voice-hearers “because it seems not to do enough justice to the meaning of [their] experience” – a meaning whose roots lie in memories of trauma.
Fernyhough presents his work as a wide-ranging investigation, spanning psychological research – including the brain-plundering marvels of fMRI – as well as philosophy, spirituality, literature and the arts. If there’s a drawback to The Voices Within, it’s that it may make you spend even more of your waking hours listening to yourself think. FL
Profile, 352pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Charles Fernyhough, The Voices Within ".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.