Inner Dialogue

Charles Fernyhough, The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves (Profile Books / Wellcome Collection, 2016)

I’ve enjoyed Charles’s work for a long time: his book on memory, Pieces of Light, proved very interesting as I thought about my own most recent book (see the boasting here; the paranoia mentioned there is still rampant). I think The Voices Within is a triumph. It ranges from sharp-edged clinical issues (people who hear voices that are distracting, disturbing, or destructive) to adventurous thinking about the role of inner voices in human psychology. Furthermore, Charles is a novelist himself, and his scientific explorations are often thoughtfully informed by his reading and writing of fiction. In one of his guises he is the Principal Investigator on a project about ‘Hearing the Voice’, based at Durham. This is well-worth checking out here.
I’m not going to attempt a full review, but I’ll pick out some key things that have stayed with me.

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When we think about ‘voices in the head’, we might have a negative image and see it as a facet of mental illness, or as a mental illness in itself. However, when these voices are put on a continuum with a whole range of inward conversations (right… what shall I do next? …), then we begin to see how these things are mild or severe distortions of something familiar to most people.

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Certain historical examples (Julian or Norwich, Margery Kempe, Joan of Arc) proved very suggestive. In all these cases God’s voice is treated as a voice in the head, but that is not simply to debunk the historical claims nor to deny their interest and value. It’s not only the idea of the inner God-voice that proved suggestive. The first two at least are great writers, and Fernyhough has a lot to say about writers of fiction and their inner voices. There are many fascinating anecdotal insights into the ways in which characters, for example, are voices in the author’s head, apparently capable of their own volition at times.

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Theory of mind (the ability to construct an idea of what others are thinking) and inner speech appear to be linked. The same brain regions appear to be active in both. In some way or other, other people are voices in our heads; the voices in our heads are other people.

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It seems that inner speech may be faster than normal speech. Fernyhough includes fascinating descriptions from those whose inner voices seems compressed, hyper-efficient in saying what they have to say. Their speeches occupy small amounts of time. I found this fascinating. It corroborates things I thought when writing my book Shakespeare, Rhetoric and Cognition: that a soliloquy, for example, a kind of inner speech, can occupy any amount of time from an instant to a protracted number of hours, but that typically it might be thought of, in relation to the stage action, as compressed. Theatre and inner speech are odd and yet entirely obvious bedfellows.

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One central thing is, I’d say, the big idea of the book, ‘dialogic thinking’, which is verging on a theory of cognition as a whole (more or less). From his discussions of the pervasiveness of inner speech, Fernyhough forms a theory of ‘dialogic’ thinking. This comes from different theoretical directions. He turns often to the early 20th century work of Lev Vygotsky, who saw social interaction as the key to cognitive development. He also turns to Mikhail Bakhtin, whose work on literature and culture emphasises dialogue as a fundamental property. Fernyhough sees internal dialogue (self-testing, self-checking, orientation between perspectives) as, quite possibly, central to many of our mental operations: ‘a solitary mind is actually a chorus’.

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This book is rewarding in so many ways, but very much so for the aspirations of this blog. Literature knows things too here.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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