I "hear" my voice when I read ot think
April 4, 2004 12:01 PM   Subscribe

When I read or think, I hear my voice, but no sound is produced. Am I really hearing, or is something else going on? Is there a scientific explanation for this phenomena?
posted by grefo to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The internal monologue.
posted by Gyan at 12:10 PM on April 4, 2004

This article: Inner Speech and Conscious Experience, explains how talking to ourselves is a very important tool for self-awareness.

(FYI: I found the article by googling this)

[on preview, what Gyan said]
posted by falconred at 12:11 PM on April 4, 2004

As an interesting side note, one of the goals of Zen Buddhism practice is to quiet this little voice as much as possible.
posted by falconred at 12:13 PM on April 4, 2004

That's true, to induce pure ontological being.
posted by Gyan at 12:14 PM on April 4, 2004

Funny-I realised I DON"T hear my voice.
posted by konolia at 12:16 PM on April 4, 2004

Turn the radio down.
posted by yerfatma at 12:42 PM on April 4, 2004

I don't hear my "voice" either, though if I concentrate on it I guess I can. Mostly I find it easier to just think without bothering to form words around my thoughts. This may explain my weak grasp of languages.

songs, though, I got an iPod in my head.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:55 PM on April 4, 2004

Well, I don't literally have auditory imagery, but I do think linguistically. There is SOME qualia isomorphic to audio, but it's not the same.
posted by Gyan at 1:03 PM on April 4, 2004

NASA's found that when you're vocalizing in your head, there are also nerve impulses being sent to your vocal tract, despite the lack of actual muscle movement.

There are people who truly have no voice in their heads, but they're very rare. Temple Grandin, a famous autistic gal, thinks exclusively with visual imagery. It's quite unusual.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:26 PM on April 4, 2004

And sometimes it's an internal dialogue (recently seen at MonkeyFilter - not directly relevant, but related)
posted by wendell at 2:01 PM on April 4, 2004

Yes, there different levels of conscious thought, but subvocalization is the the closest to the surface and is essentially suppressed speech. Brain activity is the same as for speech, except it's suppressed at the last stage. You can tell that this isn't the only level of conscious thought by trying to notice if you can think of something else while subvocalizing. You won't be able to subvocalize anything else, but just the exercise itself proves that you can consciously "think" without subvocalizing.

This is also what people mean when they say they "think" in one language or another. They are processing language when they subvocalize. I will not venture a guess as to the relationship between language and the levels of conscious thought below subvocalization. I doubt, though, they are wholly independent or dependent.

Temple Grandin is worth reading about—Oliver Sacks's "An Anthropologist on Mars" is a nice introduction to her and Sacks, too, if you're not familiar with him.

Since subvocalization is basically suppressed speech—that is, it's using the brain's language processing as it would to produce speech but suppressing the vocalization—then I am deeply curious about what happens with Deaf people whose language is not auditory and vocal, but spatial and manual. I have an aunt who's deaf, whose native language is Sign—but she also gained partial hearing with hearing aids before the age of ten and she does hear and speak. The question, I suppose, is if she truly natively signs (because her aquisition of Sign was delayed by the horrific speech-only paradigm that used to be prevalent). But I asked her what her "subvocalization" was, and she said that it was what we are describing, not suppressed expressed Sign. Which isn't what I expected. I need to research this more.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:04 PM on April 4, 2004

When I read or think, I hear my voice, but no sound is produced. Am I really hearing, or is something else going on?

You mean you hear your voice "in your head," or you actually experience auditory hallucinations?

In any case, you're safe till the voice tells you to start to, you know... flashing schoolgirls, or peeing on your neighbors' bushes or something.
posted by Shane at 2:39 PM on April 4, 2004

There's a difference between seeing or hearing something and imagining it. Like, if I imagine an apple, I get some kind of weird semi-conceptual image of an apple. I don't actually see it, I see it on some other level. I don't see it superimposed over my real vision, it's nothing to do with my real vision. For some people the difference is less strong, and for them especially it's hard to explain it. Anyway, when I think for example, I "hear" the words, but it's just like how you "hear" a song in your head - it's on some other level, for most people. So are you saying you (technically) hallucinate the sound, or you're hearing it "in your head" like most people do?
posted by abcde at 3:34 PM on April 4, 2004

Interesting. What do you mean by a semi-conceptual image?

If I'm working out a dialogue in my head, I "hear" english words just like I'm speaking to myself. But when I think of people, places and things, like the apple for example, I picture it floating against a black backdrop.

Also, I "space out" a lot and scenarios play out in my mind, thinking in pictures. Like, it may occur to me that I'm driving someplace in a few hours and I'll start going over the directions by playing out the drive in my head, or if I see a picture of a baseball player on the wall I'll start to see a baseball game playing in my head.
posted by tomorama at 4:06 PM on April 4, 2004

Try this: while you're thinking something (in your voice), hold your hand gently on your adams apple. You should notice that it's actually moving - your vocal chords are creating the right shapes to match what you're thinking, though of course making no sound because you're not forcing air through them.

I can't imagine thinking without hearing my voice in my head...I can't fathom how that would work - when I go through concepts and ideas in my head, I talk to myself about them. That's always made me wonder how, for instance, dogs "think", or which language bi-lingual people "think" in...it never occurred to me that some people might not think in voices at all!
posted by Jimbob at 5:34 PM on April 4, 2004

while you're thinking something (in your voice), hold your hand gently on your adams apple. You should notice that it's actually moving - your vocal chords are creating the right shapes to match what you're thinking

I don't.
posted by Gyan at 7:19 PM on April 4, 2004

... which language bi-lingual people "think" in...it never occurred to me that some people might not think in voices at all!
Along the same lines, I have always wondered how people who cannot speak "think". This group includes people who are deaf-mutes - I understand that they can be taught to communicate, but how is the connection made in the first place between objects and the words that describe them? How do you make a blind person understand what colours mean when they have nothing to compare them with? The whole science if this is baffling, yet fascinating to me.

Should my adam's apple move when I hear those other voices as well?
posted by dg at 7:51 PM on April 4, 2004

I tried the vocal chord test too while reading this page, and got no results. But then like I said, I mostly think in pictures as well. I've never heard of Temple Grandin but I read some articles I just found on Google and my style of thinking is pretty similar.

For example if I'm giving you directions, mentally I'm seeing myself driving down the road and describing the things I see on the exit signs. I don't think I'm by any means autistic though. Wouldn't this just be a different way of thinking?

Also to touch on the subject of what language bi-lingual people think in, I took advanced French classes in high school and I remember the teacher telling us that you'd know you were fluent, or close to fluent, in a language when you could think in it. So I suppose a bi-lingual person thinks in their native language (or the one they're most comfortable with).
posted by tomorama at 8:55 PM on April 4, 2004

Dg, per my previous comment, thought is not the same as language—people can fail to acquire any language yet still obviously they're sentient. Also, language acquisition (in humans, anyway) is normally an auditory/vocal process and those areas of the brain are intimately involved with it. However, research on native Signers, for example, demonstrates that the brain is plastic enough to move many language processes over to spatial/manual areas of the brain. I seriously doubt a deaf-from-birth, native signer subvocalizes at all and, instead, they likely think at that level in the Sign equivalent.

I don't think that it's necessarily the case that one's vocal chords are working when subvocalization occurs. It depends upon exactly where the actual speech is being suppressed, and perhaps this varies among individuals. But the research I've read on this indicates that the actual vocalization of sub-vocalized speech is suppressed at a very late stage of processing in the brain—not unlike the suppression of general motor control during dreaming.

Thinking is not subvocalization. Subvocalization is the form of thought that we are most readily able to dissociate ourselves from (observe) precisely because it isn't the locus of self-consciousness. In this sense it is almost extrinsic and one can experience oneself "thinking".

But there's a lot of other self-aware thought going on that isn't subvocalization.

As a sidenote, it's been mentioned here recently (I think) that reading silently is a relatively recent cultural invention. I know that when I read (and write) I am quite strongly subvocalizing what I'm reading (or writing). Especially writing, I think. I read very quickly, however, much faster than people speak—I suspect I'm subvocalizing very rapidly. Maybe not.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:07 PM on April 4, 2004

That's interesting. Personally, I read at the exact same speed at which I think, because when I read I am just reciting to myself what I see on the page word for word.
posted by tomorama at 9:25 PM on April 4, 2004

When I was young, I found that if I silently read the words to myself, which I guess we're calling subvocalization, I didn't read very quickly.

If I really got into a book, on the other hand, I would not "hear" myself reading the words off the page, and I'd read much faster and feel more immersed in the book.
posted by hashashin at 9:37 PM on April 4, 2004

Well I guess what I was getting at, from what Ethereal and Hashashin have said, is that when I read, or when I make a conscious decision to think and have a conversation with myself, then I "subvocalise". I am aware of thoughts occurring (usually brief, background thoughts) with no vocal chord movement.
posted by Jimbob at 9:47 PM on April 4, 2004

Jimbob: or which language bi-lingual people "think" in

I was immersed in 4 languages as a child. Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi and English. The language I think in, depends on the language in which I learnt what I'm thinking about.
posted by Gyan at 9:15 AM on April 5, 2004

A few weeks back while reading, i observed that i was 'saying' the words out loud in my head, but at the same time there was a separate thought process going on in my head. Essentially, i was thinking about something else while repeating out loud (in my head) what my eyes were seeing. I find this happens quite often while reading, and i often have to read the paragraph again. But often when i re-read it, i found that on some level that the information was processed (i remembered what was said) but my recall of the information wasn't as good as if i'd really been paying attention.
posted by spunkster at 10:39 AM on April 5, 2004

In Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, he talks about how we re-use (also use) some of our visual "machinery" for thought. When we remember what something looked like or do a math equation in our heads, we are actually using some of the brain that interprets what we see. Probably the same thing is done with audio.

Also, I'm reading a book by somebody Seligman now which talks about the "jingle channel" in our brain, which might be what you are referring to -- it's always going, often with repetitive noises like rhymes or jingles.
posted by callmejay at 11:02 AM on April 5, 2004

"The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the lungs. The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word." --WS Burroughs, The Ticket that Exploded
posted by Dean King at 1:13 PM on April 5, 2004

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