The Voices Within

The title of this post is the title of a book by British psychologist Charles Fernyhough. The subtitle is “The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves. Research suggests that inner speech is a significant part of our mental lives. A quarter to a fifth of our waking moments is a lot of waking moments, a lot of self-talk. It is important to realize that the amount of self talk varies across individuals. However, the question remains, “What is all this language doing in our heads?” By asking when and how people dip into this internal stream of chatter, we might be able to start to clarity what we gain from getting wordy with our thoughts.

Self-talk typically involves two speakers. So the self makes a separation between myself as speaker and myself as listener. When we really to talk within ourselves, the language that ensues has some of the properties of a conversation between different parts of who we are.

Plato wrote in “Theaetetus,” I mean the conversation which the soul holds with herself in consider of anything. I speak of what I scarcely understand, but the soul when thinking appears to me to be just talking—asking questions of herself and answering them, affirming and denying.”

For the father of American psychology William James, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, listening to a verbal thought as it unwinds was a critical part of our being able to “feel its meaning as it passes.” The self speaks, and the self listens, and in doing so comprehends was is being thought.

The American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, writing around the same time as James, conceived of thinking as a dialogue between different aspects of the self, including a “critical self” or “Me” that questions the “present self” or “I” about what it is doing.

For the philosopher and psychologist George Herbert Mead, thinking involved a conversation between a socially constructed self and an internalized “other,” an abstract internal interlocutor who can adopt different attitudes on what the self is doing.

Self-talk is an important feature of sporting performances. Tennis coaching writer W. Timothy Gallwey in his classic study of tennis in 1974 wrote the following:

“Most players are talking to themselves on the court all the time. “Get up to the ball.” “Keep it to his backhand.” “Keep your eyes on the ball.” “Bend your knees.” The commands are endless. For some, it’s like hearing a tape recording of the last lesson playing inside their head. Then, after the shot is made, another thought flashes through the mind and might be expressed as follows. “You clumsy ox, your grandmother could play better.”

Gallwey analyzed these common kinds of self-talk in terms of a relationship between two selves, the “teller and the “doer.” You speak and the body listens.

Two main kinds of self-talk are in evidence in Gallwey’s reports from the tennis court. One seems to have a cognitive function: exhortation to the self to watch the ball and keep it to the opponent’s backhand—utterances that seem to be about using words to regulate one’s own actions. The second function is motivational, typically with players ticking themselves off after a lousy shot. “That was rubbish,” we might hear them tell themselves. “Pull yourself together.”

Dr. Fernyhough relates the following story about Wimbledon champion Andy Murray. He claimed that he never talked to himself out loud, on the court or off. “That all changed, though, after he let slip a two-sets lead in a final at Flushing Meadows against Novak Djokovic, the then world Number One. Murray took himself off for a toilet break and gave himself a pep talk in front of the mirror. ‘I knew I had to change what was going on inside,’ he told the London Times. So I started talking. Out loud. ‘You are not losing this match,’ I said to myself. ‘You are NOT losing this match.’ I started out a little tentative but my voice got louder. ‘You are not going to let this one slip…Give it everything you’ve got. Leave nothing out there.’ At first it felt a bit weird, but I felt something change inside, I was surprised by my response. I knew I could win.’ Murray carried on talking to himself when he got back on the court, broke Djokovic’s serve, and moved into a three-game lead in the fifth set. He went on to win the US Open, becoming Britain’s first male Grand Slam singles champion in seventy-six years.”

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