What’s Happening When We Talk to Ourselves?

What’s Happening When We Talk to Ourselves?


What’s going on in our brains with that running monologue?

My nephew is a super chatty little guy, and my brother jokes that his son’s inner monologue is entirely external—no filter there! But when you stop to think about it, it’s true, most of us have a running, silent dialog, all day long, as we go through life. Controlling it can even be a tool for coping with stress (See “Stressed Out: Talk in the 3rd Person”).

New research sheds light into how our brain processes whether we say the words out loud or merely think about them.

Previous research has shown that when we prepare to speak out loud, the region of the brain that processes sound knows to expect it. The researchers compare it to being tickled—you can’t tickle yourself because you know it’s coming. Your own speech doesn’t register with your brain the same way as other people's does, because you already know what to expect.

In a new study conducted at the University of New South Wales, 42 healthy people were examined using EEGs of their brains, to measure the mental actions of inner speech. When study subjects simply imagined making a sound, it reduced other parts of brain activity, in the same way as when they actually heard a sound. The researchers concluded that thought alone was enough to alert the way the brain was behaving.

Where this research will be applied, says study first author Thomas Whitford, an associate professor in the UNSW School of Psychology, is better understanding when this inner speech system goes haywire, such as with people who have illnesses such as schizophrenia, and people start to hear inner voices and perceive them incorrectly. He notes, “We all hear voices in our heads. Perhaps the problem arises when our brain is unable to tell that we are the ones producing them.”

Want more? See “9 Surprising Benefits of Talking to Yourself.”

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