Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Inner Speech, Imageless Thought, and Bilinguality

In our book Describing Inner Experience?, Russ Hurlburt suggests that people often overestimate the amount of inner speech (silent speaking to oneself) in their stream of experience. People, he says, simply presuppose that that is how thinking must occur. What the basis of this presupposition might be, Hurlburt doesn't explain, but I suspect our opinions about our minds are often shaped by analogies to media and technology (e.g., computers [or in the old days, clockwork] for minds in general, movies for dreams, pictures for vision). Maybe we can think of language as a medium or technology particularly apt for analogizing to thought.

In conversation Hurlburt has also suggested that one basis for the impression many people have that they frequently or constantly talk silently to themselves is that when we stop to think about what our current stream of experience is, that self-reflective activity tends itself to produce inner speech in many people. Why exactly this should be so I'm not sure. But if it is so, someone might gain the false impression that inner speech is constant because she notices inner speech whenever she stops to think about what her experience is. (This would be a version of the "refrigerator light error".)

Hurlburt goes into considerable detail in our book (in Ch. 11) defending the idea that much conscious thinking takes place neither in speech, nor in images, nor in any other symbolic format. He calls this "unsymbolized thinking" and describes the resistance many people have to this idea. (It is in fact a matter of controversy right now among philosophers such as Charles Siewert, William Robinson, and David Pitt.)

I was then surprised a couple weeks ago, when chatting with a brother in law about his stream of experience, when he casually said -- as though it were the most obvious thing -- that he just had a thought that was quite conscious but neither spoken nor in any imagistic form. When I asked him how he knew that he thought was imageless in this way, he said that it had a specific content but nothing visual, more like words, but actually lacking words, since it was neither in English nor in Hindi.

I was then struck by the following idea: Might bilingual people -- really bilingual people who shift easily and regularly between two languages -- more easily recognize unsymbolized or imageless thought than monolingual people? A monolingual English speaker might experience a thought content and then falsely assume that the thought must have taken place in English. A bilingual person, forced to think about what language the thought transpired in, might in some cases find no basis for choice and so more readily recognize the non-lingustic nature of that thought.

Your thoughts are welcome -- but please translate them into some linguistic format (preferably English) first!


Christine said...

First of all, I'd just like to say how much I ejoy this blog! I came across it while trying to research the subjective experience of human echolocation (long story...), and now have it bookmarked.

As for the things you bring up in your post, I can absolutely relate to this kind of experience. I'm a fluent bilingual (Swedish and English) who works part-time as a translator and I have caught myself, on a couple of occasions, not quite remembering which language I was thinking in. The reason it seemed strange to me was that, as you mention, the thought itself was quite complex and of the kind you would usually assume to be expressed through some form of inner speech. These thoughts also didn't have any image content that I was aware of. I'd say you're definitely on to something.

language user said...

Let me just say that I'm a pretty poor speaker of several languages (except, I hope, English) and that I cannot recall not knowing what language I was speaking in. When I experience a thought, it always seems to me to be in some determinate language, (even if its mumbled/bad prnounciation, etc...)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Christine, for the compliment. It means a lot to me that people enjoy my blog. And thanks, too, of course, for your remarks in support of my hypothesis!

Language user: Let me equally thank you for your remarks against my hypothesis. I don't want to be too much victim to the confirmation bias (the tendency to seek and value evidence that confirms one's hypotheses). One of the great uses to me of this blog is when readers take the time to disagree with me and set me straight!

Non-Compassionate Liberal said...

And people who say they dream in "black and white" -- was that possible before the invention of motion pictures?
Before language, did we suffer from auditory schizophrenia, as in other worldly voices issuing commands when in fact, we didn't yet have verbal language?

Aj said...

Good morning Eric, A quite mind is helpful. During pray a non verbal solution to a pressing problem comes. Aj

The Financial Philosopher said...

To rephrase AJ's thought with a thought from J. Krishnamurti, "Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem."

Philosophical thought can often put up "road blocks" to thinking because it is essentially "thinking about thinking." I suspect a conscious thought about something that is normally an unconscious thought may only impede our thought process altogether. But that's the whole idea today... Your post certainly forced me to pause!

I do not believe that we can UNCONSCIOUSLY "think" in languages; however, depending on the thought, whether it be about images, words, music, or something else, language is not something that is required for ALL thoughts.

If language is required, then I would guess that heuristics will come into play. Our brains will seek out the shortest route to complete the thought. If it is "easier" to use one language over another, our brains will select it... unless we consciously select otherwise...

Thanks for provoking thought today...

Free Market Mama said...

Yes, I find your blog interesting as well. It was mentioned on today, so I imagine your traffic will increase.

I am not bilingual but I have used what I guess were "unimaged" thoughts over the years to come up with ideas (to write fiction) and in solving problems.

However, I find that as I grow older (almost 52) my memory is not quite what it used to be. As a very word-oriented person, I have always been very fond of the "voice in my head."

Just the other day I realized that I was growing suspicious of things that I didn't have words or images for because I couldn't be sure that I would remember them. The imageless thoughts were "just there," beyond my control. This idea caught me by surprise.

Guess that's a whole other kettle of fish.

Neagrigore said...

my humble experience tells me that I sometimes think into a certain language, as large chunks of the languages I speak, Italian, English, or Romanian as a matter of fact come tumbling. But you completely lost me and got me thinking on the imageless thoughts. Thank you for your blog. Greetings from Romania.

George Popham said...

I am very interested in the refridgerator light error because I spend quite a lot of time talking to myself. Often I come to self-awareness - as you describe it here - mid-sentence and point out to myself that what I am saying is a waste of time or useful or whatever. I often wonder how many conversations or monologues I have without being aware of it.

But as to language, while I am not bi-lingual I do know that after learning French I was somewhat confused as to whether or not thought was grammatical. I'm not talking about issues of style, but rather, grammar. I became convinced that grammar was non-linguistic because I began to experience thoughts as grammar without the words, but there were no images either. A somewhat spatial sense of the prepositional, but that was all. If I thought about this for any length of time, however, it disappeared the words filled in the grammar automatically. The problem is I can only experience that state in flashes except when I'm meditating when the opposite happens, the thought disappears before the words can manifest.

I have been practicing meditation for years so this experience is familiar as well.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks! Yes, I've noticed a bit of a bump in traffic from the Salon link. A delightful review.

N-C Liberal: Though I've looked pretty hard, I've found no reports of black-and-white dreaming before the advent of black-and-white film technology. But whether watching black-and-white films actually transformed people's dreams in the 1930s-1950s, well that's a different question! And mental illness seems, as you suggest, to be surprisingly culturally variable. Ian Hacking engagingly explores this in his book on multiple personality disorder, so I wouldn't be surprised if the advent of language opened up all kinds of new vistas for insanity!

AJ, Financial, & Neagrigore: Thanks for those comments. I'm inclined to agree. Greetings back to Romania! Send some philosophers our way.

That's a nice thought, f.m. mama. I do think words are helpful in making things memorable -- for example in constructing an easy tag by which something can be retrieved and in allowing for formulaic rehearsal. (This may partly explain early childhood amnesia.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, George. I'm not sure I entirely understand what you mean when you say you experience thought as grammar without words. Maybe it would help if I were a meditator, but though I've tried I can't seem to get excited about the practices I've been shown. (I like all these thoughts buzzing around in my head!)

Anonymous said...

I've been aware for many years that my thoughts were mostly nonverbal. In fact, I was quite surprised when I first learned that some people think in words.

My thoughts aren't generally in images, either. The closest I can come to a description is to say they're like tactile structures--complex, dynamic 3-D shapes that I sense by a sort of mental touch.

I do "talk" to myself in this manner constantly. As far as I can tell, the stream of thought never ceases.

It's apparent to me that the only times my thoughts are in words is when there is some potential--realistic or fantasized--for communicating them to someone else, orally or in writing.

This is all a bit odd, because I'm very highly verbal (I'm an editor by profession).

--Swift Loris

James Tadd said...

I really enjoyed the review on Salon (yes, I'm another bit of traffic that review has sent towards your blog). While I'm not "natively" bilingual, I learned to speak Spanish and German while studying abroad in college, and would often find myself in-between languages--in a situation where I knew, somehow, what I needed to say, but couldn't think of the word in either English or either of my two adopted languages. It was a very bizarre feeling.

Anonymous said...

I just started reading the Salon article and then jumped over to your blog. I have thought about these issues quite a lot. I'm a ex-philosophy professor (perhaps ex-philosopher too) who is currently staying at home with a young child-- so I tend to have a pretty rich inner dialogue, as I am on my own a lot. I was just yesterday musing over how many of my thoughts are non-verbal, however... somewhat ineffable, incoherent images that somehow translate into an idea. On the other hand, there's a pretty rich inner, verbal, dialogue as well. Too rich for my tastes, sometimes.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting reports, Swift and anonymous! It's a nifty and understudied set of issues. With the rise of "consciousness studies" the time is ripe to finally consider them in a serious, scholarly way.

Angela Hayden ART GODDESS said...

As a child, I had a severe speech impediment, (my father actually thought I was mildly retarded). He was also physically and psychologically abusive. My mom left him when I was in the second grade. That's when I started speech lessons.

I'm an artist and poet. I find it difficult to explain things in long sentences. That's why I love succinct poetry and painting.

I'm having a severe writer's block. I haven't written anything in four years since my first book was published. And, I haven't been painting either.

I've been consciously trying to capture my thoughts, lately, and what I notice is that there are no background thoughts. There's an emptiness in me now. Not in a bad way. After 10 years of therapy I think my brain is sick of examining itself.

Martin said...

I'm bilingual from childhood (although I now understand six languages), and I seldom feel like I'm thinking in any specific language. Furthermore, I don't see how that could be puzzling to anyone - haven't most people had the experience of temporarily forgetting the word for something that they are very familiar with? A situation where they have a concept in mind, but have forgotten the "label" for it in their language? So why couldn't people think using these wordless concepts instead of with words?

Reading language user's comment, it just strikes me as so... inefficient to think in language, if that is what he or she is really doing. Why wait the time it takes to pronounce something when you can near-instantly think the same thought by expressing it as relations between sets of wordless (and usually imageless) concepts?

(On the other hand, I often have clear and simple thoughts in my head that take me several minutes to translate into any language, because none of the words and expressions I can think of seem just right, so thinking in words seems like it would be useful for communicating).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Angela. May your writer's block vanish soon!

Martin, yes, the experience of blanking on a word seems relevant in this context. Surely you're right that the thought is there before the word? (However, at the same time, I wonder whether once one finds the word, that somehow alters and shapes the thought.)

A related type of case: Things for which there could be one word but there isn't -- things simple in concept but complex to describe. My favorite example came from a student at Stanford (where students mostly cycle around campus): that experience when you and another cyclist are heading straight toward each other and he starts to move to one side and you move the same way, then he moves back the other way and so do you, and you start to worry about whether you'll just hit each other head on, but of course you don't. All Stanford students can recognize this experience in far less time than it takes to put it into words. (However, if the pace of inner speech considerably exceeds that of outer speech, that adds a complication to this argument.)

Alexander said...

Eric, thanks for taking the time to start this blog. I'm a social anthropologist and so have an inquisitive mind when it comes to all things human! I've always been intrigued by self-talk but have never given it as much thought as I have tonight - it was very interesting indeed to find these comments after something drew my attention once again to inner speech.

My girlfriend and I were watching a TV program where one character could read the other's thoughts. To my surprise, she expressed disbelieve that people actually think in sentences and, hence, would be able to have their thoughts read (we'll leave the debate on the possibilities of mind-reading for another blog hey?).

I was amazed. I had thought up until this point that everyone thought in sentences or words. I'm a writer so it fits that I do, I suppose. Yet my girlfriend sees images. She isn't artistic in a visual sense though. I'm not visual at all. I don't see any images and I cannot imagine what that type of thought is like. Is it like dreams? Or just an flash impulse when your body needs something?

I asked my girlfriend what goes through her mind when she is at home and decides she wants a cup of coffee. Apparently she sees images of coffee and a kettle! I, on the other hand, sit there thinking to myself "mmm I think I might have a cup of coffee, although it will be my last as I have already had two etc etc".

It is a very interesting question that you pose about unsymbolized thought. I'm monolingual and often wonder whether language shackles my thought. Is it a conduit for some higher form of cognition or does language determine thought - or is it dialectical process even? I wonder whether the middle ground between languages might be the place to explore this question, as you suggest. Every now and again, I catch myself falling asleep - thinking of nonsense. Everything else for me is in words and sentences. I do feel compelled now to learn another language to investigate this further so I shall keep you updated!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your interesting comment, Alexander! You might be interested in some of Russ Hurlburt's work (some of it with Chris Heavey, and some of it in my book with Hurlburt) on inner speech and inner hearing.