What it's like living without an inner monologue
A look at the inner experience and the science behind it
This story originally published on March 6, 2020.
Hi there! Are you hearing this sentence in your head right now? Is your inner critic voicing its thoughts on the sentence structure? Is it saying this is an odd start to a news story?
The concept of an inner monologue — the term now commonly used to describe the voice in your head — recently sparked a flurry of discussion on social media.
Some people freaked out, not believing that some don't think in a verbal, linear way.
Others who live without that inner voice realized they think differently than many of their friends and family members.
Olivia Rivera, 22, said she figured out she doesn't have an internal monologue when her co-workers at a Regina salon started talking about the viral debate.
She said that until then, she didn't know that some people actually have a voice in their head that sounds like their own voice.
"When I hear that other people have like a constant kind of dialogue and stream in their head and that when they're doing a task they'll just be thinking about things the entire time they're doing a task, it actually kind of feels a little overwhelming," she said. "How do you deal with that and what does that feel like?"
Inner monologues and pop culture
You may have seen inner monologue portrayed in TV shows where a detective debriefs the situation via narration. Or maybe you've seen the movie What Women Want, where Mel Gibson's character can read the minds of his female coworkers and romantic interests.
Rivera said she was first confronted with the concept of inner voice as a child, watching the show Lizzie McGuire in which a small animated version of the main character shared her thoughts and commentary on what was happening.
Rivera said she never understood the explanatory device was supposed to mimic the voice inside the character's head.
"I always thought it was something that people just manifested and made up for movies and books and characters just to kind of like explain your inner thought process," Rivera said. "I didn't realize that it was actually that constant for people, that people did actually have a little kind of voice in their head telling them different things and what to do and what to think.
"I don't have that so that's always been weird to me."
So what does Rivera's mind look like? She described her inner thoughts as jot notes.
She said that if she was running late for work, she would know she was late but wouldn't be thinking, "I'm late. I need to stop sleeping in. I need to go to bed earlier, etc."
If she is having a panic attack, her anxiety manifests in more of a physical way, rather than with compulsive, repetitive thoughts.
"I'm not telling myself to panic and I'm not like, 'Oh my gosh Olivia!'" she said. "I never think like that, that feels weird to say. I would never address myself."
Other times, Rivera said, she thinks in a more visual way.
She does have songs just pop into her head. In those cases she will hear it in the singer's voice.
The science of 'inner experience'
Russell Hurlburt, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, has been studying what he calls inner experience for more than 40 years.
"It's the most interesting topic on the planet," he said.
He has written six books on it and worked with hundreds of participants. He gives them each a beeper and when it goes off at random times throughout the day, they have to note what's going on in their minds. He said people generally think in five ways. Some people experience them all.
The 5 main ways of thinking:
- Inner speaking/ inner monologue - Ex. talking to yourself, hearing your voice or someone else or audibly recalling a phone number.
- Inner seeing/ visual imagery - Thoughts with a visual symbol. Ex. picturing a memory or a place you wish you lived.
- Feelings - A conscious experience of emotional process. Ex. feeling sad after the death of a loved one.
- Unsymbolized thinking - No word or image associated with thoughts. Ex. pouring your morning coffee without telling yourself to.
- Sensory awareness- Paying attention to a sensory aspect of the environment for an unimportant reason. Ex. hearing someone talk but seeing the light reflecting off their glasses.
According to Hulburt, not many people have an inner monologue 100 per cent of the time, but most do sometimes. He estimates that inner monologue is a frequent thing for 30 to 50 per cent of people.
"There are very big individual differences," he said, "Some people have absolutely none and some people have pretty close to 100 per cent."
The pros and cons of inner monologues
People who don't have an active inner monologue can teach themselves to, Hulburt said. But he doesn't think it's necessarily a good or bad thing.
Hulburt said having an inner monologue can make it easier for people to create a sequential plan and solve logical problems, but other ways of thinking have benefits too.
"People who see visual imagery very often see imagery that doesn't exist in the real world," Hulburt said. "People who are given credit for being imaginative probably don't have much of an inner monologue."
Rivera said not having an inner monologue has been good for her in some ways, because she can block out negative memories or thoughts relatively easily.
It also brought some challenges. She said that when she was growing up, her mother often told her to think before she spoke, but she couldn't.
"I can be blunt and I can have no filter. Sometimes I say things I shouldn't say," she said. "People often know what I'm thinking because I will say exactly what I'm thinking."
Do you really have an inner monologue all the time?
Hurlburt said the recent buzz around inner experience is a good thing if it leads people to explore what's really going on in their minds rather than believing it is one way and not questioning it.
"I think most people are mistaken about it," said Hurlburt. "People are hyper-confident. 'Yes I have inner monologue.' And other people say, 'No I don't have a monologue.' And the chances are pretty good that both sides of the debate are mistaken."
Hurlburt said what he calls "armchair introspection" likely won't teach you much about your own mind because the act of paying attention "screws up your everyday inner life."
Rivera said the online discussion prompted a real life one between her and her partner about how they both think. He has an inner monologue and was surprised to find out she doesn't, she said.
"I think it is something that we should know more about because I think that helps knowing how other people think," she said. "You can kind of react better and maybe expect less or more for a situation because you can understand how they might be actually thinking."