Hearing voices in your head comes with an unfortunate stereotype that you must be mentally ill. However, experts tell us the “voices in your head” can be used to talk to, and about, yourself in a healthy, productive way. In fact, most people hear voices in their head and already use inner speech on a daily basis. We discuss tips and techniques to use “self-talk” as a way to get yourself through tough decisions and lower stress.
- Dr. Charles Fernyhough, author of The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
- Dr. Ethan Kross, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan
16-51 Using the “Voices in Your Head”
Marty Peterson: When you hear talk of “the voices in someone’s head,” you probably think of Ray Kinsella building his field of dreams or some other movie-character-schizophrenic blaming a murder on the voices in their head.
Dr. Charles Fernyhough: There’s an unfortunate stereotype of the person with schizophrenia hearing commanding voices telling them to do things and sometimes nasty, unpleasant dangerous things. Those occasions are the minority. The reality does not match up at all with the stereotype.
Peterson: That’s Dr. Charles Fernyhough, a professor of psychology at Durham University and author of the book The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves.”
Fernyhough: A recent study of mentions of voice hearing in U.S. media outlets shows that roughly half the time hearing voices was mentioned, it was mentioned in connection with violence. The reality doesn’t fit that. People who hear voices sometimes hear commanding voices, most of the time they’re able to resist the commanding voices. They are able to say actually, no, I’m not going to do that thing. So there’s a terrible problem — the stigma and what we’re trying to do in our research as well as find out more about how these experiences happen. And to try and reduce that stigma, to try and change peoples’ understanding of hearing voices, to see it as part of human experience, which has been around for centuries, which crosses continents and cultures, which has all sorts of different meanings both positive and negative and that just needs to be understood better in its amazing variety.
Peterson: Fernyhough says that these cultural fears of the voices in our head are largely misguided. In fact, an internal voice can be quite helpful. It is these more positive, productive voices that he hopes people can focus on more in the future. And those voices are something many of us are already familiar with.
Fernyhough: When I was growing up people used to say talking to you is the first sign of madness. I don’t think they say that nearly as much now and I’m very glad to hear it because whenever I give talks I ask people do you ever talk to yourself out loud, and most people, adults in the audience put their hands up. It’s a very common thing for us to do as adults.
Peterson: Fernyhough says it’s important for us to differentiate between talking to yourself—even silently—and what we consider thoughts. Though they seem like the same thing, there are some small, but important differences.
Fernyhough: Thinking is quite a vague term. Thinking encompasses pretty much everything the conscious mind does. And I think what’s useful about focusing on inner speech is it allows us to be more specific about a kind of thinking, and that is the thinking that we do in words. So inner speech is a kind of thinking, but it’s specific one that seems to make use of language in different ways.
Peterson: Fernyhough says it’s important to establish that there’s no real “right” way to talk to yourself.
Fernyhough: I’ve worked with a variety of different people using very detailed methods of describing inner experience. And you do come across people who use inner speech very very little. It’s no problem. People have all sorts of different ways of getting to where they need to be, of doing the thinking that they need to do. And some people think much more visually, some people can do the whole thing using visual images for example.
Peterson: No matter how we communicate with ourselves, what’s important is that most of us do it. So for those who are doing it, what is its value?
Dr. Ethan Kross: It involves becoming aware of the stream of thoughts that are flowing through your mind as they relate to whatever’s going on in any given situation. One of the things that we find is that when people are in situations that require some kind of intervention, so they are experiencing certain kinds of negative emotions, it can often be helpful to talk oneself through those situations. Doing that can have some value. One of the things that we try to look at is how can you talk to yourself most productively?
Peterson: That’s Dr. Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.
Kross: When we started talking about this amongst ourselves, my students and I, lots of anecdotes kept coming up about people literally trying to talk themselves through their problems, almost like they were talking to someone else. Doing this silently, not necessarily out loud, but in their head. It got us thinking about what function might self-talk play in helping people think, feel and behave better when under stress.
Peterson: To figure out the answer to this question, Kross thought about the big difference of how we can talk to ourselves. As it turns out, it really comes down to a matter of perspective.
Kross: The way we typically talk to ourselves is in the first person. When we reflect on our lives we think, what am I feeing right now? But what we also know is that it is relatively easy for people to also think about themselves using their own name or other non first person pronoun. So how am I feeling right now? Or what are you feeling? What we find is that whether people engage in the first person version of that, what we call first person self talk or non-first person, or distant self talk, can have important implications for how people respond to stress.
Peterson: To examine his idea that a simple shift in point of view can yield a big difference, Kross brought test subjects into a lab and split them into two groups. The first group was told they would be giving a speech about what makes them qualified for their dream job… and that they should prepare for this speech by thinking of themselves only in the first person. The second group was told to prepare for the same speech exclusively in the third person.
Kross: So in one case people asked why am I feeling this way? And in the other case they’re asking why is…plug in the name there, feeling this way. We had them do that for a few minutes. Then we take them down the hall to another room where seated in front of them are a panel of confederates. These are people who are essentially in on the experiment, they are part of the research team, and they are sitting there and they are designed to provide stoic borderline disapproving facial feedback. The participant is then instructed to give their speech. They give the speech that they have prepared to this panel of confederates. We videotape their behavior. When the experiment is over we had judges evaluate each participant’s performance, rate them on how persuasive they were. What we find is that the participants who use their name actually delivered more persuasive speeches. They also reported after delivering in the speech that they were less shamed and embarrassed, they spend less time ruminating about how they did.
Peterson: Kross says that ultimately the big take-away from his studies is pretty simple for him to lay out.
Kross: These simple linguistic shifts from “I” to your name have implications for how people think, feel and
behave under stress. Colleagues of ours have since taken some of those findings and paradigms and extended
them in a variety of interesting ways showing compatible effects in other performance contexts.
Peterson: There’s just one problem and Kross says there’s no point in beating around the bush. Even if it’s helpful, who wants to talk about themselves in the third person?
Kross: The caveat to all of this is, it’s of course, a little strange when you talk out loud about yourself in the third person. In our work, we ask people to reflect on their lives silently in the first person or the third person. And I think this is a really important distinction because although it’s possible that talking out loud about yourself in third person may have some benefits in the sense of helping you deal more effectively with stress and emotion, there’s also a social cost that’s linked with engaging in that behavior. We don’t typically go around talking about ourselves to others using our name. When you do that it violates all sorts of social conventions that can be problematic in lots of ways. Drawing the distinction between silent distant self-talk and self-talk that happens out loud is an important thing to do.
Peterson: But when done correctly, talking about you in the third person can be used in a socially acceptable manner to create a space of objectivity. Take a listen to this clip of LeBron James responding on ESPN to the backlash over his decision to leave his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for the Miami Heat in 2010.
LeBron James: One thing I didn’t want to do is make an emotional decision. And I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what LeBron James was going to do to make himself happy.
Peterson: Kross says he and his team listened to that audio several times to see how he employs this third person self-talk.
Kross: What was interesting to us was this example of someone transitioning from the first person to the third person exactly when we thought they should. So he starts by saying, the one thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision. And the moment he says that he switches to saying, LeBron James is going to do what is best for LeBron James, as though he’s now switching to this objective mode, “Here’s just the way it has to be.”
Peterson: Though LeBron James has had his decision questioned countless times, one thing is clear: self-talk helped him make the choice that he thought benefited himself the most. Kross says if someone wants to use the strategy for a difficult decision of their own, the process isn’t too difficult.
Kross: It’s a simple linguistic shift, a lot more work needs to be done for us to understand how it operates across different contexts. But if someone is curious to see how this might apply in their lives it’s as easy as trying to reflect on their life using their own name as opposed to “I” the next time you’re experiencing a mild stressor.
Peterson: To investigate self-talk further, check out Dr. Charles Fernyhough’s new book, The Voices Within. You can find more information about all of our guests by visiting our site at viewpoints online.net. You can follow us on twitter at viewpoints radio. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook and Pat Reuter. Our executive producer is Reed Pence, our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I’ll send you periodic updates about the podcast.