• Negative self-talk is in many ways the defining feature of eating disorders, anxiety and depression. (iStockphoto)Source: iStockphoto
"When you hear people speak out loud to themselves, think of it as adult play - the more relaxed people are, the more they will use this as a tool to solve problems, plan or remember things."
By
Caroline Zielinski

7 Apr 2021 - 8:35 AM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2021 - 10:24 AM

Every time he’s about to talk to himself, my boyfriend gets a very intense look on his face. His eyebrows draw together and two little wrinkles appear in the middle, his eyes darting to one side, up to the heavens. 

Then the lips start moving.

“What are you doing now?” I like to ask. 

“Nothing - go away!” he replies, embarrassed. But after a while the muttering inevitably starts again. I can never quite understand what he’s saying, but when I ask he says he’s practicing his interviewing techniques (he’s also a journalist), running through problems or a checklist for that week’s groceries.  

I, too, have a steady stream of both sense and nonsense flowing through my mind, a never-ending dialogue that veers, often spasmodically, from questions to self-berating to working through article ideas to worrying about whether my cat, Stanley, will try to escape through the crook of the window. 

The difference is, I don’t verbalise all this. Inner speech - defined as the experience of silent, verbal thinking - has been implicated in a range of cognitive functions such as creativity, problem solving and self-regulation. It has also been linked to mental health issues such as hallucinations and depression; examined in fiction; and, in terms of religion, linked to divine inspiration or being possessed.  

Inner speech - defined as the experience of silent, verbal thinking - has been implicated in a range of cognitive functions such as creativity, problem solving and self-regulation.

As US psychologist and author of new book Chatter, Ethan Kross argues that self-talk has long been part of humanity’s biological architecture. He writes that we are perpetually slipping away from the “present into the parallel, nonlinear world of our minds”, and that our default state is a mixture of memory, musings and projections. 

Yet, despite the fact we constantly chat to ourselves and on social media, expressing what we think (or want others to believe) are our inner thoughts; when confronted with it in real life we tend to revert to the most enduring association of all - the pathological one. 

Dr Bradley Jack, whose research at the Australian National University focuses on finding an objective measure of inner speech to help people who suffer from schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations, reminds us of the importance of understanding, rather than stigmatising it. 

“One theory is that these patients might not have a sense of agency over their inner speech,” he says. “Because of this lack of agency, they perceive their inner speech as being produced by an external source”.

“One theory is that these patients might not have a sense of agency over their inner speech,” he says. “Because of this lack of agency, they perceive their inner speech as being produced by an external source”.

“But for the rest of us who have agency over our inner speech [remarkably, about 20 per cent of people don’t experience inner dialogue], it’s important to understand its psychological function”. 

For Dr Nicole Saintilan, an education evaluation specialist at the University of New South Wales says inner speech can be a positive tool we use to “help us think, plan and solve problems”. 

Dr Saintilan, who is also a musician, first came across the concept of inner speech when she asked the other members of her quartet if they, like her, sang the music notes they saw in front of them in their heads. 

“One of the violinists was relieved when I asked, because he too would sing the notes in his head instead of just reading them,” she recalls, laughing. “But the other violinist couldn't relate and said he just got a visual image of where he needed to place his hand on the violin”. 

However, as both researchers point out, dysfunctional inner speech can also be linked to mental ill health. I know from personal experience that the inner voice can be both friend and foe. Mine is often anxious, tending to linger over negative content and gobbling up valuable mental bandwidth, resulting in short-term performance problems and spiking my stress response. 

Negative self-talk is in many ways the defining feature of eating disorders, anxiety and depression, says Dr Saintilan, with cognitive behavioural theory (CBT) and mindfulness being two of the best ways to combat it. 

Negative self-talk is in many ways the defining feature of eating disorders, anxiety and depression, says Dr Saintilan, with cognitive behavioural theory (CBT) and mindfulness being two of the best ways to combat it. 

“Meditation too is helpful in trying to calm the inner voice, to help us consciously direct it away from negative thoughts,” she says.

“Always try to be mindful of what you are thinking, as our body doesn’t actually know if you’re rehearsing or whether what you’re thinking is real, and it responds by producing negative chemicals in your system.” 

That said, she maintains that talking to ourselves - whether that’s outside or inside our head - is perfectly normal, and a common feature among children. 

“When you hear people speak out loud to themselves, think of it as adult play -- the more relaxed people are, the more they will use this as a tool to solve problems, plan or remember things,” she says.

“We should continue to talk about this because inner speech is completely normal -- and we need to see it as such.” 

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