Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Echoes of Inner Speech

It seems to me that I sometimes have thoughts that linger after the inner speech that expresses them is done. I might say silently to myself, "Shoot, writing three posts a week is a lot of work!" and then that thought may briefly stay with me, in some sense that's hard to articulate, before I move on to new thoughts.

Can I say more about what that experience is like? Only through metaphor, it seems: It's like a resonance or an echo. But I don't think the inner speech literally resonates or echoes in the sense of, say, the last word or the last few words quietly buzzing or repeating themselves, slowly dying away.

I found it interesting, then, to contrast this sense I have of my inner speech with a report by Melanie, the subject Russ Hurlburt and I interviewed in our just-published book, Describing Inner Experience?, regarding a randomly-sampled (with a beeper) moment of her inner experience:

Russ: So you had said in inner speech, “they lasted for a nice long time,” just prior to the beep?

Melanie: Um hm, not at the beep but just prior to it.

Russ: But in some way the “nice long time” portion is still there. Is that right?

Melanie: Yeah, it was. The best I can liken it to is an echo.


Russ: Okay. And “echo.” I want to understand what you mean by “echo.” An echo gets softer and softer; did you mean to imply that? And echo sometimes is repeated and sometimes once but…

Melanie: No, it didn’t get softer and softer, it’s almost like [quizzically] it got blurrier and blurrier. Not in terms of visual blurry, but a sound blurry [again quizzically], where it just started overlapping itself until it just came to this jumble in which you can’t make any noise out. It sounds really weird but…

Russ: So are you saying that you said in inner speech something that was quite clear…

Melanie: Um hm.

Russ: … “It lasted for a nice long time,” and then there’s “nice long time,” “nice long time,” overlapped with “nice long time”…

Melanie: Yeah.

Russ: … then “nice long time” overlapped with “nice long time” overlapped with “nice long time”…

Melanie: And it keeps going.

Russ: … until there’s sort of several of these things going?

Melanie: Yeah (Sixth Sampling Day, p. 207-208).
In the book, I express skepticism about this report. I wonder if Melanie is being taken in by her own metaphor (as, I think, people are often taken in by metaphors in describing their experience, e.g., in calling dreams black and white or visual experience flat). Russ, however, accepts the report.

What do you think? Any other ideas about the phenomenology, if any, of lingering thoughts?


Anonymous said...

whose to say our thoughts are in words anyways? i think sometimes my mind thinks in terms of words, but most of the time it's a nebulous jumble of hints, suggestions, feelings, and so on that goes on in my head.

or maybe i'm just insane.

Anonymous said...

but actually, it's like there are two distinct voices or personas in my mind: the immediate thought, at the forefront of my mind, as i spell out words in my mind or think immediate thoughts... and there is another voice, seemingly the origin of most thoughts, which is harder to listen to and "stays back" (if you will) from most immediate thoughts, and i can almost listen to this particular voice. this is what i meant by the nebulous jumble...

the way i picture it in my mind is like a basketball gym which is almost completely dark: you're standing right in the middle of the court, and you are the "first voice" but there is another, almost hidden, voice upstairs in the seating area that you cannot see but you can definitely hear; that is the second, deeper, calmer voice

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Nick! I agree that not all thinking has to be in words, though I see how the post might have misleadingly suggested otherwise.

The "two voices" comment doesn't match my experience as much -- at least if you mean two simultaneous strands of inner speech. If, on the other hand, you mean merely that we can sometimes have a different kind of (non-speechy) perspective on, or evaluation of, the thoughts that seem to be transpiring in inner speech, that does seem a familiar phenomenon to me (perhaps especially in drug-induced states?).

Anonymous said...

I think we have thoughts, sometimes we make an inner speech event out of them, and then we still have the initial thought. We have the inner speech event because we want to somehow emphasize the thought or clarify it or focus on it more. Or maybe because it's something we'd like to share with someone else. But part of the purpose of the internal speech event is to focus on the thought so we can have it "resonate" after the internal speech event is over. The after-resonance is part of the reason for having the internal speech. But it doesn't resonate as speech, it resonates just as wordless thought, usually.

nathan said...

This may not address your question regarding the phenomenology directly, but my approach to questions like yours is to ask, “Ok, what might be going on in the brain?” or “What guidance might our cognitive theories give us?” There may be some leads in this case, I think. Both your and Melanie’s characterizations of your respective phenomenologies seem to me to fit rather nicely with descriptions of both echoic memory (auditory sensory memory) and the phonological loop. On way of conceiving sensory memory is to think of it as just lingering activation of the perceptual system. If a verbal/auditory representation were also conscious, it might well feel echo-like; and it might seem to “blur” as the activation dissipated or faded away. Of course you were talking about inner speech, not auditory perception of out-loud speech. Still, the explanation I am proposing might work. There are studies of visual imagery/imagination that show that imagery and perception involve the same neuronal machinery. The same might well be true of the auditory “imagery” involved in inner speech.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, neat comments!

Ken: Those seem like very plausible suggestions.

Nathan: The connection to echoic memory and lingering activation in perception seems just right. Thanks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Pete Mandik has an interesting comment on this post :

Genius said...

I think in this context you construct thoughts into words when you retrieve them. SO what happens is it becomes more and more difficult to reconstruct the words as the thought becomes less like an "immediate thought" that you are used to interpreting from short term memory (it sort of fades). Regardless of whether your future attempts to retrieve are the detached words or the "imagery" that you will convert into words.

Like nick I get two voices - the second much quieter - i think i described this some time ago on this blog (infact I think I could train myself to have a very clear second voice - and possibly a third considering comments from a genius I saw interviewed on TV). The second can form a coherent voice simultaneously to the first but usually its quieter and less "verbal" in fact often I don't think it speaks in coherent English (or any other normal language) but it's harder to be clearly aware of that fact.
But to me it is the second voice that is more "me". The observer of the first louder voice - like how you might watch your legs moving while feeling a little detached after a hard workout on a cycling machine.

I think kenf has the evolutionary/learning reason. It makes sense we would construct thoughts that way.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting theory, Genius! I'm not quite sure what it is to retrieve a thought, though. It seems to me that there's often inner speech running rather idly through my mind. In each case am I "retrieving" the thought? How is that different (if at all) from simply having the thought, or from the thought's being incidentally expressed in inner speech?

Your and Nick's two voices are striking -- not something that I recall having heard about in the literature before. (Not that there's really all that much literature!)

Anonymous said...

Warning - I think that intensive self reflection may well make my thoughts slightly less coherent from an external point of view.

I suppose there is a difference one could draw between the initial thought that has, lets say, some sensory inputs that drive the creation of a memory structure and the retreval of the information from that structure.

But I presume that your brain doesn't want to recreate an entire thought on the fly - so it probably does a retreval for data similar to your current experience in order to give it a structure on which it can write that experience. So I supose creatin and retrieval merge together with retrieval taking over as the brain structures match reality better.

I presume if I was going to try to explain that strutue to an external person I would need to retrieve it to a part of my brain that records in words, translate it, and record the translation (so the recording didn't have to happen at exactly the same speed as the statement). So to think about reporting it might well require me to experience
fading of a certain type.

I note that ones brain must actually be running ahead of the words in ones head because some earlier words could be used to predict later ones. (I.e. somwhere inside of you you did know the general gist of what you would say). I see this as being a bit like the foggy nature of forgeting things - it is a vague thought that isn't recorded in multiple places etc.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, GNZ! I agree that creation and retrieval do tend get mixed together in reconstructing one's thoughts -- but I'm also inclined to think that there is a kind of real-time expression of one's thoughts that is not reconstructive and may take place in either outer or inner speech. But also (is this in tension with the last remark?) I agree that one has at least a general sense of the gist of one's thoughts before they are verbally expressed, fitting with your last remark.

Tricky issues!

Liz said...

this subject is of great interest to me, and i'll certainly seek out and read your book.
my thoughts occur in a variety of ways, least common of which are physical sensations.
i often have long imagined conversations that last for minutes on end, interrupted by "intermissions" without an image in which i go over a point or idea, modifying my idea in the "conversation." during these long asides, i'm much less attendant to real-world stimuli such as real people asking questions.
the most difficult type of inner speech for me, however, are the way my brain recieves a real-world sound or part of an image, and often how my brain replays previously viewed or heard image-bits or sound.
for example, i can hear a sound in music, and it says something to me that i haven't got words to express. i at times find the sound hilarious, but fail to find a way to explain my interpretation of the sound in words to another person. frequently i hear a significance in the sound and my mind works to decode into words this idea, but so many of the ideas i have so clearly and fully in my inner speech with myself will not translate at all into words. this is particularly problematic bc. words and making meaning of texts is my stock in trade.
i recall cinematic sequences often, but recall them repeatedly because i recall them quite incorrectly. my own attention to detail will change everything about the film that i'll recall in my mind, and if i play the actual film clip, it's not much like the one i have been thinking about all day, and i can see many places i've inserted my own emphases and interpretations into it.
i've also always had inner speech that consists of playback of sections of popular songs, this playback also occurring repeatedly as the song becomes increasingly devoid of its original intent and becomes malleable to the currents of my mind, shifting and recombining again and again until what i have is a remix.

Anonymous said...

I have an inner dialogue with myself, especially when I want to write something. I think about it and think about (through this inner speech) and play with the words and then, boom, I have something interesting to write....or say. Some times I have to work things out.

Some times there is no inner just happens. The inner speech happens usually when things are quiet.

It isn't like an echo, which repeats itself. It is like an internal narrative that blips and bleeps. Stops and continues. Repeats and loops. It depends on what it is about.

Unknown said...

I have no clue how I came across this blog. I was sitting here wit my mind rambling and wanting to know if the only time to get it COMPLETELY quiet is when I'm asleep and even then I'm dreaming. I can switch thoughts rapidly but there is always a constant conversation (I feel really crazy now that I'm actually writing this) but who cares. I try to silence it by reading this blog to see if reading or being distracted can quiet it but then I'm reading focused on each word written in these replies n still that second voice is having a conversation with me. Lol. I somehow felt like when I'm trying to hush da second voice becuz I have a cloud image of it,I say within myself I want to understand what I'm reading I want to understand that person as though I was writing,immediately when I truly mean it there is no voice at all but me knowing or feeling (understanding) what I'm reading. Tell me I'm crazy or maybe u all just don't understand or truly wants to.

Anonymous said...

This post perfectly describes what happens in my head. Interrupting and sometimes stutter like echos of thoughts or things I hear or read. Over and over again until the word or phrase is replaced by a different word or phrase. Like in a movie where someone has done drugs and everything gets kinda fuzzy and echoey and overlaps and makes no sense.

Anonymous said...

If I say something out loud whatever I said will repeat in a loop while I'm waiting for the other person's response. If it's a verbal thought it will do the same thing while I'm waiting for the voice in the back of my head to interrupt it with a comment. If there's no comment then the repetition continues until I interrupt it with my own new thought or some external interruption. Almost all of my thoughts echo and reverberate bounce and repeat over and over and over unless it was lengthy and then just the middle to last bit of it repeats. The voice in the back of my head does not repeat in the same manner. what it states is boldly stated and then my memory of that statement is what echoes and repeats. I think the voice in the back of my head...and it literally feels like it physically exists in the back of my head... doesn't sound like my voice, but I know that we are both me. That voice is who I am talking to when I talk to myself. We argue. We agree. It's the part of me that gets mad at me and it's also the part of me that tries to make me feel better. And it's not always speech sometimes it's just a feeling. It's what keeps me out of danger and often tells me what is the right thing to do. It's like I am two souls but we together are I. Twice I have heard statements from the middle of my head and slightly above it, that are not my voice nor do they come from me and they never repeat. But I've never felt splintered nor dissociated, occasionally startled but never scared of it. I know that it is what makes up the entirety of myself. I wonder if schizophrenics are simply not recognizing that the voices in their head are their own. Like somehow while their person was created all the parts of them were not introduced to each other.