Have you ever “heard” yourself talk in your head? If you have, then you’ve experienced a common phenomenon called an internal monologue.
Also referred to as “internal dialogue,” “the voice inside your head,” or an “inner voice,” your internal monologue is the result of certain brain mechanisms that cause you to “hear” yourself talk in your head without actually speaking and forming sounds.
While an internal monologue is a common occurrence, not everyone experiences it. There’s a lot that researchers have yet to uncover about why some people frequently “hear” an inner voice, and what it means.
Read on to learn what’s been discovered about this psychological phenomenon thus far.
The ability to have an internal monologue is thought to develop during childhood in what’s called “private speech.”
As children acquire language skills, they learn to engage in internal commentary as they work independently or take turns during an activity. Childhood inner voices can also come in the form of imaginary friends.
In adulthood, this same type of inner speech continues to support working memory along with other types of cognitive processes. It’s thought that internal monologue helps you complete everyday tasks, such as your job.
Still, not everyone experiences an inner voice. You might have inner thoughts, but this doesn’t pose the same type of inner speech where you can “hear” your voice expressing them.
It’s also possible to have both an inner voice and inner thoughts, where you experience them at intervals.
Researchers don’t fully understand why some people don’t have an inner voice. One 2019 review of research suggests an association between dorsal pathway maturation and the emergence of inner speech in children.
The dorsal and ventral streams are language tracts in the brain. They’re also involved in auditory and visual processing. In childhood, the dorsal stream develops slower than the ventral stream. The emergence of inner speech is influenced by dorsal stream development.
It’s unclear why some people don’t have an internal monologue, but researchers speculate it has to do with the way the dorsal stream matures, among other things.
Not “hearing” your inner voice doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have an internal monologue, though, because some people access it visually instead of auditorily. For example, you might “see” do-to lists in your head but not be able to “hear” yourself think.
People with a hearing impairment may experience their inner monologue through signs or images.
Based on survey responses from self-reported aphantasics, a lack of internal monologue may co-occur with aphantasia. The researchers highlight the need for larger studies to untangle the overlap between the two.
Internal monologue is thought to be partially controlled by corollary discharge, a type of brain signal. It helps you distinguish between different sensory experiences, such as those created internally or externally.
Corollary discharge helps explain why your own voice sounds one way when you speak out loud and why it may sound different on a recording or to other people.
Even if you don’t necessarily hear an inner voice, everyone experiences corollary discharge to some degree. It’s particularly relevant to your auditory system in the way you process hearing speech.
An inner monologue can help you hear your own voice while canceling other external stimuli. It may also help you organize your thoughts during times you can’t speak out loud.
You might ask yourself questions and work through the answers as a form of problem-solving.
Hearing your own inner voice isn’t itself harmful. But some forms of internal monologue can be related to auditory hallucinations, when you may believe you’re hearing voices that aren’t actually there.
Your inner voice may also have negative effects if you primarily experience self-criticism regularly. Such negative “self-talk” can influence your overall mood and self-esteem.
- The most common form of internal monologue is verbal — when you essentially “talk” to yourself. For example, you may talk to yourself about issues that are on your mind, or perhaps make internal lists of things you’d like to accomplish.
- Inner speech can help support working memory. You may also talk to yourself when you’re preparing a speech or a presentation, where you “play” what you’re going to say in your mind ahead of time. Another example is replaying instructions in your mind.
- An internal monologue may also come in the form of a conversation with yourself. For example, you might play out a conversation in your mind when you’re trying to solve a problem.
- Internal voices can also come in the form of having songs stuck in your head. Or perhaps you may replay a favorite movie or podcast in your mind. When you read a book, you might “hear” your own voice going over the words.
If you’ve been told that you’re too hard on yourself, you may consider focusing on what your inner voice tells you. While occasional self-criticism is to be expected from time to time, a consistently critical inner voice isn’t considered healthy.
A critical inner voice may develop during times of extreme stress. It’s also sometimes seen in mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
In such cases, your mind may engage in negative self-talk by criticizing the way you work, socialize, participate in family circles, and more.
While stopping negative self-talk isn’t as simple as turning off a switch, mindfully engaging in more positive self-talk can help override critical thoughts.
For example, you may tell yourself short phrases throughout the day, such as, “I am worthy, I matter,” or, “I can do this.” Try one of these mantras (or one of your own) every time you start to hear negative self-talk.
Regular meditation may also help manage a critical internal monologue. A meditation practitioner can teach you how to dismiss negative thoughts that don’t serve you well, while also creating more balance in your thought patterns.
Writing out your feelings in a journal can help, too.
In most cases, an internal monologue isn’t a cause for worry. However, if you continually experience critical self-thoughts, you may consider talking with a mental health professional.
A mental health professional may use techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you transform negative thoughts into positive ones.
But if you experience an internal monologue connected with harming yourself, seek help from a mental health professional right away.
Another cause for concern may be auditory hallucinations. If you suspect you or a loved one is experiencing these types of hallucinations, reach out to a physician for a health evaluation.
While a doctor may likely prescribe medications, the exact treatment will vary depending on the underlying condition causing auditory hallucinations.
Internal monologue means more than just pondering over your own thoughts. It consists of inner speech, where you can “hear” your own voice play out phrases and conversations in your mind.
This is a completely natural phenomenon. Some people might experience it more than others. It’s also possible not to experience internal monologue at all.
While considered a natural process, some forms of inner speech could be cause for concern.
This is especially true if your self-talk is regularly overcritical or you experience inner voices talking about harming yourself. It’s best to reach out to a mental health professional in such instances.