Do you have an inner monologue/voice?
April 27, 2021 8:03 PM   Subscribe

I recently started playing Disco Elysium and one of the things that sticks out to me is the main characters intense (and multiple!) inner voices that influence his words and actions. For most of my life I would say I had 1-2 inner monologues that would debate thoughts and actions for minutes at a time before I would go with one and decide what to do or say. Since I've started my mental health journey in the past 5-6 years and begun medication, I've noticed that I pretty much lost those voices and just act or talk close to instinctually. Do most people have these inner monologues or was it a symptom of mental illness?
posted by gzimmer to Human Relations (36 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This is also called "inner speech." We don't understand it very well because it's hard to study such a subjective experience. Here is a recent review of research on inner speech.

It's completely normal. It's also not universal, either.

(I don't have an inner monologue and I don't remember ever having one. As I'm typing this, my subjective experience is that I'm thinking the words as I type. I obviously have some idea of what ideas I want to express, but I'm not conscious of the words I'm going to use until I actually get there.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:10 PM on April 27, 2021 [7 favorites]

Some people just don't. I do. It's more stream-of-consciousness most of the time, though it can also be a kind of thinking out loud except not aloud. If I pay close attention to it there's a weird sense of a reverse echo: that is, the outline of the inner monologue is there in the background before it actually exists, and a fainter shape of the shape precedes it too.
posted by holgate at 9:26 PM on April 27, 2021 [7 favorites]

Mine will not. Shut. Up. Especially when I am trying to fall asleep. I call it "racing brain" because my inner monologue will do something like this:

"That movie I watched earlier was good. Jake Gyllenhaal was great. He was also in Bubble Boy. That was one of Zach Galifianakis' first movies, huh? It came out around the same time as Out Cold, which also had him. Remember how the song Island in the Sun by Weezer was in that movie? That's the first time I heard that song. But Weezer has put out other good songs. Say It Ain't So is a great song. Remember how that cover band in college played that song? The lead singer's brother is now my brother-in-law, which is weird. He looks a lot like me. His family just went to Universal Studios in Florida. I'd love to go there. Kiera (my daughter) would love to go there. She loves the Harry Potter movies and books. I bought all the movies digitally for $70, so now she can stream them on her Kindle wherever she is. Man, my kids are great. Remember..."

It is exhausting. Melatonin helps a bit. Alcohol helps even more.
posted by tacodave at 9:41 PM on April 27, 2021 [18 favorites]

Apparently. For me, NO. I don't have one. This is something I didn't even know existed in other people until the last few years and I'm still not over it. I've had so many discussions-turned-arguments with people who insist I have one. I just don't. I wouldn't be able to tolerate that. It seems so odd to me. I asked a number of people if when they look at something or someone they label it/them. They all said "yes". Astonishing. I don't understand why anyone would do that. Is it a control issue? It's yet another thing that makes me feel like an alien.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 10:14 PM on April 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have a distinct inner racing monologue. It comes when I am alone. I know it's an inner monologue and I would never mistake it for real voices. It's pretty active, at least once a day if not every few hours.

There's two forms of it for me -- my inner debate, where my thoughts are kind of directed towards myself ("that was stupid" or "that was brilliant" or even a mundane thing like "Where are my keys Sarah?!"). The other is that I come up with dialogues between fictional people, like imaginary conversations. The latter I don't think is very common, while the former is.

No diagnosed mental illnesses, but I guess probably anxiety and light OCD?

I had another experience where I took some molly and the inner monologue went CRAZY.

Another curious thing is that I am hearing impaired and it's especially loud when I take them off.
posted by pando11 at 10:17 PM on April 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

It's not a voice that talks to me, more a voice that imagines conversations—what I am going to say, or what I could have said, or what I would say, etc. Plays a lot of music too. I am not really able to visualize things so that's pretty much all that's going on up there.
posted by Polycarp at 10:35 PM on April 27, 2021 [8 favorites]

For me it positively correlates with how much time I'm spending alone. But even living with a partner during COVID (i.e. not much along time), it's still pretty loud while trying to fall asleep or doing any mindless activities (like cleaning, showering, etc.)
posted by coffeecat at 10:35 PM on April 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hey! So one of the things I loved about Disco Elysium was the inner monologue and the utter cacophony of input that the main character would receive from his various skills. I could relate to it a lot and was pleased that someone out there must have had a similar experience of that inner dialogue and put it into an amazing videogame.

I nearly constantly have a voice going on in my head, which gets more active if I'm stressed or conflicted. When I'm deeply focused on an activity, I don't have it. There are occasionally days where my inner monologue is going on and I would rather it be silent, but most of the time it is mildly helpful.

I consider myself to be quite neurotypical overall. I have good relationships, am on good terms with my family, am physically healthy, and don't have much to complain about in life. Sometimes I get in a funk and am unhappy about something specific in my life but I either address it or it passes. So I think it is definitely possible to have an inner monologue but not have mental illness, since I don't consider myself to have a mental illness.
posted by Iron Carbide at 10:44 PM on April 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

You ever see one of those old cartoons where the character, like, say, Donald Duck, has a devil perched on one shoulder and an angel on the other arguing about what to do? That's pretty close to how it works for me, minus the religious overtones and not necessarily centered around a physical choice in the moment.

I have a mainstream of thought that is something like monitored by opposing considerations that debate the merits of whatever I'm thinking of, which may not have much at all to do with the actions I'm engaged in at that moment, in fact it is generally preferable when my thoughts are on something other than my immediate situation. I suppose the Freudian concept of Id, Ego, and Superego isn't too far removed from how it works for me as well as the different strains of my inner dialogue each has a fairly distinct role.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:07 PM on April 27, 2021

Mine will not. Shut. Up. Especially when I am trying to fall asleep.

I am so envious of my partner, with no inner monologue, who can fall asleep as soon as he gets into bed. Sometimes I lie there staring at him, thinking this, and trying to drown out all the thinking by singing in my head.
posted by bashing rocks together at 12:02 AM on April 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'm like polycarp. Not so much a voice, as a constant stream of thought, often replaying past interactions, or rehearsing future ones. Also a lot of music that sometimes degrades into just a rhythm loop.
I do have anxiety and depression, but I haven't always been like that and while managing my inner monolog is an important part of my mental health care, (makings sure it stays rational and useful as opposed to fear based and looping ) I don't feel like the monolog itself is a symptom of poor mental health for me.
posted by Zumbador at 1:39 AM on April 28, 2021 [11 favorites]

I'm fairly neurotypical and have what I'd describe as an inner monologue. If anything, the happier I am the more it becomes an inner conversation with two chatty "voices" kind of bantering/riffing.
A pet theory of mine is that one of the reasons I'm a bad speller is because I "hear" words not "see" them in my head as I write.
posted by hotcoroner at 2:23 AM on April 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

This is one of those "oh my, the insides of other people's heads are not like mine" threads. Like Iron Carbide I consider myself generally neurotypical, and have a near constant internal monologue. It can occasionally bifurcate into a 'debate' between opposing point of view, such that I have sometimes referred to it as a dialogue to other people's consternation.

It's the same 'voice' that controls reading, writing, planning anything, and listening to/playing music. It is calmed/silenced by concentrating on any skilled activity I am competent in, by exercise, by dancing at public music events, and by alcohol, and it's sent wild by certain recreational drugs (which I avoid for that reason).

There have been periods where it has not been 'on my side', but thankfully they have been relatively few and far between. I see it is fundamentally 'me', and largely extremely useful (except occasionally at 5am when stressed, when it will. not. shut. up.)
posted by offmessage at 3:05 AM on April 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

I joke that my native language is *written* English, and I find it harder to process spoken language (and especially to remember what's been said), but I also have a constant inner monologue like Polycarp's and Zumbador's. It never shuts up, it's definitely my own voice inside my head, if I don't consciously direct it then it picks its subject freely (and sometimes it's very very hard to redirect it, and that is how we get horrible anxiety spirals), and it's how I decide what I'm going to say, or type, before I actually output the words in whichever form. There's always music playing too. Sometimes I wonder if the reason I prefer the outer world to be quiet is because the inside of my head is already so noisy. Sometimes the inner monologue is so loud and compelling that it drowns out the competing inner voice associated with reading, or indeed any actual external voices, and I find I need to reread the last two pages or rewind the video... or apologise to the person I was talking to for having missed what they just said.

As to mental illness: nothing official, but anxiety is one of my defining characteristics, and I've recently been told by a counsellor that I'm clearly neurodivergent and should consider pursuing an autism diagnosis. (So right now my inner voice is mostly debating whether or not I'm autistic, when it doesn't have something more urgent to think about.)
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:12 AM on April 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure, sometimes, maybe.

So if I am reading short pieces of text, like these comments, I will narrate them to myself (you all have English accents by the way). For a longer text, like a novel, that kind of fades away as I get caught up in imagining the story.

My inner voice is in no way separate from me, it is more like talking to myself, and tends to happen when my mind is idling. If I am engaged in a conversation or a film or work then it is not there.

I daydream a lot, about things that are, things that were, things that might be or might have been, or just pure fantasy. Some of those start as internal narratives but then become more visual as I get deeper into them and get lost in thought.

I have no mental illness that I know of.
posted by antiwiggle at 3:59 AM on April 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have a more or less constant inner voice. Sometimes it offers commentary on what’s happening or what might happen - sometimes it’s my own voice as I figure out what I’m going to say next. It’s the (pre-)verbal or experiential aspect of being me, in a similar way in which my body is the physical aspect of being me.

When we talk about “self-consciousness” in an armchair psychology context, it’s often reckoned to be a bad thing in some way. But my experience is that my inner voice is central to my consciousness of having or being a self. I would not like to lose it. It can get out of hand and it’s not always reliable - but we can say that about various body parts too.
posted by rd45 at 4:24 AM on April 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have a whole cacophony. Mostly, it's my own voice. Weirdly, it is not all always about what I am "thinking" about. That has its own space. But I can direct my thoughts there, which helps me control the noise. Early morning and before sleeping, there will be lots of other voices, with distinct different accents, a bit like listening to the morning radio, and including music with all the instruments and voices. It's nice, not in any way scary.
Things that can help when it gets too noisy in there: meditation based on visualization, but I can't do that when I am tired. Alcohol, but not too much or I'll get nightmares, which are a whole different beast. Listening to music, but again, it doesn't work if I am too tired. Cooking, sometimes, or imagining cooking, which is why will find lengthy answers from me here on many food asks. Writing can be good, too.
I have mental health issues, but the voices have always been there, regardless of how I'm doing otherwise.
posted by mumimor at 5:20 AM on April 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Might be of interest: Why your most important relationship is with your inner voice (Guardian). Ethan Kross's new book would give you a lot to reflect on. Also, some of our inner monologues move at a pretty good clip.

An interesting comment from Kross: "The flow of words is so inextricable from our inner lives that it persists even in the face of vocal impairments. Some people who stutter, for example, report talking more fluently in their minds than they do out loud. Deaf people who use sign language talk to themselves too, though they have their own form of inner language. It involves silently signing to themselves, similar to how people who can hear use words to talk to themselves privately. The inner voice is a basic feature of the mind."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:31 AM on April 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Having read other people's comments, I feel like I want to add some additional information.

I do have the inner narrator when reading or writing but it's just pure translation from the visual. It doesn't go 'off piste'. I can have an inner dialogue between myself and an imagined person (but an "actual" imagined person e.g. Oprah) but I am in full control of that and I do it to explore ideas. I have bad memories (involving the dialogue that was used) and also random songs that come into my head - just like some of those people who say they have an inner monologue. None of these to me is an inner monologue (from what I have heard others describe). There is no narration or labelling of my feelings or experiences at all. That is where I think an inner monologue would come in handy. To know what you feel as an actual word instead of taking 40 years to figure out that when someone says 'anxiety' it's 'this feeling' that i've had for years!

I also suspect that my struggle with speaking comes from having no inner monologue. I have to translate a series of enmeshed and abstract feelings, senses and images into words. It takes a long time to arrange this for public consumption.

Personally, I am still glad I don't have it.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:48 AM on April 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

Some people also don't have a mind's eye.
posted by stray at 6:18 AM on April 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have a very active inner monologue, on and off SSRIs. It's been there for as long as I can remember. When my anxiety isn't as bad I still have an inner monologue, I just don't have several voices fretting or debating with each other.

My inner monologue is a mixture of voices, sounds, feelings, and imagery. I have a hard time translating all of my thoughts to words, and often feel like I fail at conveying them accurately. Which is pretty frustrating! On the other hand, I can sit by myself for hours and be entertained.

Thank you for asking this question! I had no idea some people had inner monologues and other people don't. I always thought an inner monologue was something that *everyone* developed with language, but I guess now I have some reading to do.
posted by Stoof at 7:02 AM on April 28, 2021

Yes, I have a very active inner monologue. Also, I have a collection music videos I can play in my head when I'm sitting around bored. It's actually quite convenient and entertaining.
posted by SPrintF at 7:06 AM on April 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've also never experienced this and didn't realize it existed until talking to people very different from me. Occasionally I replay things I've already said in my head, for no good reason; mostly the things I regret. But, I don't think that I think in words, unless I'm very specifically composing words that I'm going to say to other people or have said. I spend rather a lot of mental effort trying to remember the words for things that I know well. (I've no idea about the metal health relationship. But, it does seem that I'm an outlier, at least among my friends.)
posted by eotvos at 7:19 AM on April 28, 2021

The inner voice concept seems to come up a lot now, but to me it's always just been my thoughts. I think the Inner Voice part began once I grew out of that sing-song self-narration that some little kids do.

My voice is not a detached third person. For example, it's never, "Kim stands up to take her coffee mug to the sink, smoothing her hair down as she walks." It's, "hey, put this coffee cup in the sink before you leave it here to moulder and oooh I think you have some hair sticking up? Where's Ollie? Ah, sleeping. Wait is he breathing?" *dog snores* "Yep, all good. Ugh, you have to calm down with always thinking he's dead when he's just sleeping."

The inner voice also says and/or spells out every word I write or type, which is helpful.

I do not believe I have ever been mentally ill.
posted by kimberussell at 7:52 AM on April 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

It’s gotten more sporadic since middle age hit. I figure if I live another 20 years it might go away.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:55 AM on April 28, 2021

I have an inner voice and I also have subvocalization - which means when I read or write I say the words in my head. There are also larynx movements that happen with this.
posted by soelo at 8:20 AM on April 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

I honestly struggle to decide whether I have 'an inner voice' or 'a mind's eye.' Like, are people just talking about a stream of thoughts? I don't think I 'hear' my brain but i have trains of thought, daydreams, brain activity. It's hard for me to tell if people just mean that or if they mean an actual narrative going on. Same with visualizing things. When I think of what something looks like, I guess I *know* what the thing looks like, but I don't know that I have a quasi-visual image of it per se. It kind of weirds me out when this comes up because I don't know that I can say with assurance that I do or do not!
posted by Occula at 8:26 AM on April 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

So I sometimes do. What I always have it seems is a constantly babbling brook, probably due to my ADHD, that can and will fixate on a 1-2 second repeat of a song endlessly or some phrase or something. I distract myself away from it with white noise, activity, music, whatever.

I try to talk to myself instead sometimes to quiet it down because if I let it, it would have driven me really, really mad. And I do talk, I hear the voice of either myself or someone else in my head.

I'm not sure if part of it is that my brain is kind of like a toned down Jim Carrey. I can create entire characters with backstories and wildly different affects off the top of my head. I just have to direct my brain productively so that it isn't a bull in a china shop. One way to do that is to have a calm running monologue.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:41 AM on April 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Not a strong one. I have songs and fragments of speech or writing I've seen come up periodically (especially if it's someone telling me I'm bad) but usually it's fairly quiet.
posted by ead at 9:59 AM on April 28, 2021

I am so envious of my partner, with no inner monologue, who can fall asleep as soon as he gets into bed.

Ha, this was a big difference with my parents which my mother would talk about, like my father was always kind of in two places at once, the place he was in real life, walking and talking and doing whatever, and then the place in his head which was unspooling other dialogues that might be aligned with what he was doing or might not be. My mom was just basically where she was, and if she had an inner monologue it was just about what was immediately happening around her. I'm more like my dad and also a lot like ManyLeggedCreature is that mine is really more or less in actual words, that is I almost see it and don't "hear" it which means I am great with email (or typing into boxes like right now) and very bad on the phone.

And I manage anxiety so I sometimes have an inner dialogue which is my anxious mind coming up with horrible scenarios that could happen (intrusive thoughts, when they're bad, but usually not at a level where I'm upset with them most of the time) and then my more mindful mind being like "Why are you doing this to yourself? Let's think about something else...."

My partner, in contrast, has ADD and his inner monologues are a lot of more-disconnected ideas and flashes and images and sounds, so when we're talking I'm more of an easy-talker and he's often got to spend a little more time getting his thoughts aligned with words (and put in some sort of vaguely linear format) for us to be able to have a mutually satisfying conversation. When either of us are tired we get into sort of worst-case versions of ourselves where I really need to make the words in my head come out just the way I'm thinking them (i.e. no interruptions or I get lost) and he needs to kinda talk around ideas which can mean sometimes I have a hard time figuring out why he is interrupting to share information with me because he'll often back into an idea or topic which will only be obviously connected once he's explained it.
posted by jessamyn at 10:16 AM on April 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have an internal monologue nearly all the time. It's not like what some people seem to be imagining, though. I don't narrate every one of my actions or have an imaginary label floating over objects. I just have a stream of words that runs alongside everything I do, and sometimes my sensory impressions and the internal monologue intersect. When I'm depressed, this can be extremely bad, and I have to consciously tell myself--verbally, as another part of my internal monologue--to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. So during a jog when I'm struggling to keep going it might be something like:

What's wrong with you, you sad, fat fuck. Why can't you do this? Don't step on that grasshopper, that's gross. Hey, you'd never think that about someone else. Why would you say that to yourself? That's a bike. Come on, you can do this, let's go. You've got this.

I would not be narrating specific things like I'm carefully putting my foot down next to this grasshopper now or Now I'm hearing a bike so I'll move to the side of the path to let it pass. That stuff happens nonverbally but in tandem with the monologue.

Other examples of monologue as I go about my day: an imaginary debate with something I just read, a snippet of a song or poem on a loop, a replay of a conversation I had and am now beating myself up about, a story I want to tell a friend later.

Most of the time, I can't stop myself from doing this any more than I could stop my brain from registering the color red if you waved a red thing in front of me. Sometimes if I manage to immerse myself in a book or a movie or a mentally demanding activity, the monologue will shut up. But the voice is so synonymous with my sense of self that I usually think of these moments as being taken out of myself or losing myself (mostly in a good way). I cannot even imagine what it would feel like to be aware of having a self without a monologue.

I have a garden variety mental illness (see above re: depression) but not the kind that would make me think I'm hearing literal voices when I'm just talking to myself.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 10:47 AM on April 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I meant to add that Disco Elysium felt completely plausible to me.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 10:51 AM on April 28, 2021

Yes, mostly she's just chuntering away in the background, singing random bits of songs and commenting on what I see, reminding me of random things. We get along great as long as my anxiety is in check, but once that cranks up I need to get writing and fast. Journaling and letter writing let my inner monologue go off the leash without making things worse. I call it my brain dumping as sometimes when under stress or whatever, I just need to get it all out of my head and onto paper to get rid of the noise and I just vomit the inner monologue out onto paper until she goes oh OK all done. It helps me slow down the thoughts and pick out the ones that actually matter and ignore the noise and helps my anxiety immensely.
posted by wwax at 11:29 AM on April 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I write little essays in my head, thinking about stuff I've read or watched or analyzing interactions I've had (not a lot of the latter though, probably fortunately). I explain myself to myself and formulate plans. I wonder how I would describe something I see to someone else. Sometimes I tell myself a completely made up story about fictional people just for my own entertainment.

Mostly I think like I write - in full sentences, with subjects and predicates in the right places, and, somewhat weirdly, in English (I'm a German native speaker in a German speaking country, but I read mostly English). I also tend to stay fairly on topic. I don't generally mind my internal speech (I think I'm a good conversationalist) and rarely feel a need to shut it off. I often actually prefer it to other forms of entertainment (eg. I never listen to music on the train). When I do however, what tends to work best for me is playing piano.
posted by sohalt at 2:31 AM on April 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

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