Do You Have an Internal Dialogue? Not Everyone Does

By: Nathan Chandler & Desiree Bowie  | 
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People who constantly engage in self talk may think everyone does the same, but that's not true. Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Have you ever thought about how you think? Ever tell yourself, "Don't forget the milk," before you leave home? And at the end of the day, when you get home without it, you say to yourself, "How could I have forgotten that?" Then you likely have an internal dialogue going on in your head throughout the day.

Turns out, it's not uncommon to use language-based chatter to organize and focus your thoughts. However, some people don't have this kind of inner convo at all. Instead, they may rely more on visualization (for instance, "seeing themselves" buying the milk at the store). Others employ a combination of these techniques.


Let's take a closer look at the science behind inner speech and some of its potential causes.

What Is the Inner Voice?

Inner voice — also known as an internal dialogue, internal monologue or inner speech — refers to the ongoing, often subconscious, stream of thoughts, feelings and inner conversations that occur within a person's mind. Unlike external speech where you use your voice to communicate with yourself or others, the inner voice is how people think and communicate with themselves internally — in other words, the little voice in your head.

The inner voice can encompass a wide range of thoughts and emotions, including self-reflection, problem-solving, self-criticism, planning, decision-making and even daydreaming.


The Role of the Inner Voice

The inner voice is a fundamental aspect of human cognition and consciousness. It plays a significant role in shaping our perceptions, attitudes and behavior. It can influence how we interpret events, make choices and respond to various situations.

It is also a key component of self-awareness and introspection, allowing individuals to reflect on their experiences, beliefs and emotions.

For example, when faced with a challenging decision, a person may engage in internal dialogue by weighing the pros and cons, considering their values and priorities and ultimately arriving at a choice. Alternatively, when experiencing stress or anxiety, internal dialogue may involve self-calming techniques or negative self-talk that can either exacerbate or alleviate the emotional state.

Understanding and managing one's internal speech is a common goal in various psychological and therapeutic approaches, as it can have a huge impact on mental well-being and behavior.

In fact, techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), often involve identifying and modifying unhelpful or distorted thought patterns within one's internal dialogue to promote healthier thinking and coping strategies.


Studying Inner Speech

People on both sides of this "inner monologue" divide have a hard time imagining another way of being — to the point that it sort of freaked everyone out during an online debate that went viral in February 2020.

Russell Hurlburt is a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For decades, he's been doing experiments on people's inner experiences, their thoughts, feelings and sensations. Regarding the viral kerfuffle over the inner speech haves and have nots, he chuckles a bit and says he frequently hears people claim that they have an ever-present inner monologue — but his experiments show that this is not always true.


But rather than argue with them, he says, "Well, let's find out."

The Beeper Study

His quest to understand internal experiences kicked off decades ago. As a graduate student in the early '70s, he began wondering how scientists could investigate subjects' pristine inner experiences — or experiences that are in your present consciousness, before your brain has tried to make sense of them or assigned them some sort of interpretation.

"The object of my research is not to explore inner speech or inner monologue or whatever you want to call it, but to explore your experience as it actually is," says Hurlburt.

For the test, Hurlburt, who has an engineering background, designed and patented a device that beeped at irregular intervals. Each time the beeper went off, he asked subjects (students, in this case) to make notes about their experiences in that moment.

The students were instructed to try and clarify what was happening in their minds whenever the device emitted a beep — but the beeper only went off a few times. This cadence was intentional so that the research subjects would forget that they had them (and thus, not contaminate their thinking processes with thoughts about the experiment).

Descriptive Experience Sampling

Later, researchers asked the students questions to better understand how they were thinking when the beepers sounded. Were they visualizing something? Experiencing a tactile sensation? Feeling an emotion? This line of inquiry is called Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES).

He says one key takeaway was that, "You can't expect a good answer on the first day." Essentially, it takes a day or two of DES training before people find ways to focus on and express what they're experiencing in a given moment.

In his research, he found that most subjects struggled to articulate the way they were talking to themselves. When he asked them for the specific words or sentences, many came up blank. "And in the course of doing that, you and I together, I guess you would say, we decide, 'Well, I thought I had inner speech, but I really don't.'"

Hurlburt's study found that subjects talked to themselves inwardly about 26 percent of the time they were sampled. Many never experienced inner speech while others had it 75 percent of the time (the median percentage was 20 percent.)

Hurlburt has worked with other researchers, like Charles Fernyhough, to use DES questioning while subjects were inside MRI scanners. In a 2018 study of just five subjects, the scanner showed that the area of the brain associated with certain topics lit up when subjects said they were thinking about those things, providing a physical link to the abstractions of thoughts themselves.

Still, scientists are grappling with a lot of uncertainty.


What Causes an Internal Monologue?

Some research shows that people often use more inner verbalization when they're under pressure or for self-motivation. Perhaps, they're using their inner voices to rehearse answers to job interview questions, or they're athletes trying to focus and execute.

Among people who do report having inner monologues, they tend to perceive those voices as their own. That self-talk generally has a familiar pace and tone, although the exact voice might change depending on whether the current scenario is happy, scary or relaxed. They may use whole sentences or rely on condensed wordplay that would be meaningless to anyone else.


But what causes inner speech? A researcher at the University of British Columbia, Mark Scott, found that there is a brain signal called "corollary discharge" that helps us distinguish between sensory experiences we create internally versus those from outside stimuli — and this signal plays a big role in internal speech.

Corollary discharge also plays a role in how our auditory systems process speech. When we speak, there is an internal copy of the sound of our voice generated at the same time as our speaking voice. In other terms, we hear our own voice one way while we speak words out loud.


Managing Your Internal Dialogue

Learning how to manage your internal dialogue effectively can have a profound impact on your mental well-being, self-esteem, decision-making and overall life satisfaction. Here are some strategies that may help:

  1. Mindfulness meditation: Practicing mindfulness meditation can help you become more aware of your inner thoughts without judgment. This awareness can help you identify unhelpful or negative thought patterns and replace them with more positive and constructive ones.
  2. Challenge negative thoughts: When you notice negative or self-critical thoughts, challenge them by asking yourself if they are based on evidence, whether they are rational and if there are alternative, more balanced perspectives. Cognitive-behavioral techniques are often used for this purpose.
  3. Positive affirmations: Incorporate positive affirmations into your inner speech that can counteract negative self-talk. For example, if you're feeling anxious about a presentation, you can say to yourself, "I am capable, and I can handle this."
  4. Practice self-compassion: Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend. Be aware of your inner critic and counter it with self-compassion and self-encouragement.
  5. Visualization: Use visualization techniques to imagine successful outcomes and positive scenarios. This can help shift your internal dialogue from focusing on potential failures to visualizing your desired achievements.
  6. Journaling: Write down your thoughts and feelings, especially when you're facing challenges or making important decisions to externalize your internal dialogue. This can provide clarity and allow you to analyze your thought patterns.
  7. Seek support: Talk to a trusted friend, family member or therapist about your internal dialogue. Sometimes, discussing your thoughts and feelings with others can provide valuable insights and emotional support.
  8. Practice gratitude: Regularly reflect on the things you're grateful for in your life. This can help shift your inner voice toward a more positive place.
  9. Limit exposure to negative influences: Be mindful of the media you consume, the people you surround yourself with and the environments you expose yourself to. Limit exposure to negative influences that can fuel pessimistic internal dialogue.
  10. Set realistic expectations: Sometimes, unrealistic expectations can lead to negative self-talk, so try to set achievable goals — and remember that no one is perfect. Embrace your imperfections and learn from your mistakes.
  11. Focus on the present: Instead of dwelling on past mistakes or worrying excessively about the future, try to stay focused on the present moment. Mindfulness practices can help with this, as they encourage you to be fully present.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Inner Voice FAQ

Does everyone have an inner voice?
Some people use an internal language-based monologue to organize and focus their thoughts, but not everyone. Those who do not experience inner speech may rely more on visualization to process their thoughts.
What is an inner voice?
The inner voice refers to language-based internal chatter. It is a result of brain mechanisms that allow you to “hear" yourself talk in your head.
Is having an inner monologue a sign of intelligence?
The inner monologue is associated more with personality than intelligence. If someone has more developed verbal skills, they are more likely to have a wordier inner voice than someone with less language development. Level of confidence is not a good indication of whether a person has an active inner voice or not.
What's another word for inner voice?
Inner voice is also known as inner monologue, internal dialogue, inner speech or the voice inside your head.