Philosophy:Internal monologue

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Short description: Form of verbal thinking

An internal monologue, also called self-talk, inner speech, inner discourse or internal discourse, is a person's inner voice which provides a running verbal monologue of thoughts while they are conscious.[1] It is usually tied to a person's sense of self. It is particularly important in planning, problem solving, self-reflection, self-image, critical thinking, emotions,[2] and subvocalization (reading in one's head). As a result, it is relevant to a number of mental disorders, such as depression, and treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy which seek to alleviate symptoms by providing strategies to regulate cognitive behaviour. It may reflect both conscious and subconscious beliefs.[1]

In some cases people may think of inner speech as coming from an external source, as with schizophrenic auditory hallucinations. Additionally, not everyone has a verbal internal monologue (see § Absence of an internal monologue). The looser flow of thoughts and experiences, verbal or not, is called a stream of consciousness, which can also refer to a related technique in literature.

In a theory of child development formulated by Lev Vygotsky, inner speech has a precursor in private speech (talking to oneself) at a young age.[3]


An inner discourse, or internal discourse, is a constructive act of the human mind and a tool for discovering new knowledge and making decisions. Along with feelings such as joy, anger, fear, etc., and sensory awareness, it is one of the few aspects of the processing of information and other mental activities of which humans can be directly aware. Inner discourse is so prominent in the human awareness of mental functioning that it may often seem to be synonymous with "mind". The view is then that "mind" means "what one experiences when thinking things out", and that "thinking things out" is believed to consist only of the words heard in internal discourse. This common sense idea of the mind must either block out the fact that the mind is constantly processing all kinds of information below the level of awareness, or else rename that activity to some putatively "non-mental" status such as "reflex reaction" or even, sometimes, "demon possession".

An inner discourse takes place much as would a discussion with a second person. One might think, "I need twenty-seven dollars for the paper boy. I have some cash in my wallet. Ten plus ten plus five... I have twenty-five dollars. Maybe I dropped coins in the sofa. Ah, here they are..." The ideal form of inner discourse would seem to be one that starts with statements about matters of fact and proceeds with logical rigor until a solution is achieved.

On this view of thinking, progress toward better thinking is made when one learns how to evaluate how well "statements of fact" are actually grounded, and when one learns how to avoid logical errors. But one must also take account of questions like why one is seeking a solution (such as asking why oneself wants to contribute money to a certain charity), and why one may keep getting results that turn out to be biased in fairly consistent patterns (such as asking why oneself never gives to charities that benefit a certain group).

Role in mental health

Negative self-talk has been implicated in contributing to psychological disorders including depression, anxiety, and bulimia nervosa.[4][5][6][7][8][9]

Cognitive therapy aims to improve functioning by helping people identify and change negative self-talk. It involves identifying the beliefs that negatively influence a person's perception of the world.[10] Reminding oneself to never say anything to oneself that one would not say to a friend is a good strategy to develop positive self-talk.[11]

Challenging unhelpful or negative thoughts can include questions that:

  1. act as a reality check
  2. seek alternative explanations
  3. put things into perspective
  4. are goal-directed[12]

Negative self-talk

Negative self-talk (also known as unhelpful self-talk) refers to inner critical dialogue. It is based on beliefs about oneself that develop during childhood based on feedback of others, particularly parents.[5][13][14] These beliefs create a lens through which the present is viewed. Examples of these core beliefs that lead to negative self-talk are: "I am worthless", "I am a failure", "I am unlovable".[10]

Positive self-talk

Positive self-talk (also known as helpful self-talk) involves noticing the reality of the situation, overriding beliefs and biases that can lead to negative self-talk.[10]

Coping self-talk is a particular form of positive self-talk that helps improve performance.[15] It is more effective than generic positive self-talk,[16] and improves engagement in a task.[17] It has three components:

  1. It acknowledges the emotion the person is feeling.
  2. It provides some reassurance.
  3. It is said in non-first person.

An example of coping self-talk is, "John, you're anxious about doing the presentation. Most of the other students are as well. You will be fine."

Coping self-talk is a healthy coping strategy.[18]

Instructional self-talk focuses attention on the components of a task and can improve performance on physical tasks that are being learnt,[19][20] however it can be detrimental for people who are already skilled in the task.[21]

Relation to the self

Inner speech is strongly associated with a sense of self, and the development of this sense in children is tied to the development of language.[22] There are, however, examples of an internal monologue or inner voice being considered external to the self, such as auditory hallucinations,[23] the conceptualisation of negative or critical thoughts as an inner critic, and as a kind of divine intervention.[24][25] As a delusion, this can be called "thought insertion".[26]

Though not necessarily external, a conscience is also often thought of as an "inner voice".

Absence of an internal monologue

According to one study, there is wide variation in how often people report experiencing internal monologue, and some people report very little or none.[27] Younger children are less likely to report using inner speech instead of visual thinking than older children and adults, though it is not known whether this is due to lack of inner speech, or due to insufficiently developed introspection.[28]

Role in trauma – the "inner critic"

The ways in which the inner voice acts have been correlated with certain mental conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety.[29] This form of internal monologue may be inherently critical of the person, and even go so far as to feature direct insults or challenges to the individual's behaviour. According to Dr. Lisa Firestone, this "inner critic"[30] is "based on implicit memories of trauma experienced in childhood", and may be the result of both significant traumas (that result in PTSD or other stress disorders) or minor ones.[31]

Other "inner experiences"

Psychologist Russell Hurlburt divides common self-reported "inner experience" phenomena into five categories. "Inner speaking" can range from a single word to an extended conversation. "Inner seeing" includes visual memories and imaginary visuals. "Feelings", "sensory awareness", and "unsymbolized thinking" also take up large portions of a typical adult's reported inner experiences. Hurlburt has published evidence tentatively suggesting that fMRI scans support the validity of adults' self-reports. People can vary greatly in their inner experiences.[32] A small minority of people experience aphantasia, a deficit in the ability to visualize, and another minority reports hyperphantasia, which involves extremely vivid imagery.[33]


One study found that inner speech use was reported most frequently for self-regulation (e.g. planning and problem solving), self‐reflection (e.g. emotions, self‐motivation, appearance, behavior/performance, and autobiography), and critical thinking (e.g., evaluating, judging, and criticizing).[34]


In the 1920s, Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget proposed the idea that private (or "egocentric") speech – speaking to oneself out loud – is the initial form of speech, from which "social speech" develops, and that it dies out as children grow up.[35] In the 1930s, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed instead that private speech develops from social speech, and later becomes internalised as an internal monologue, rather than dying out.[36] This interpretation has come to be the more widely accepted, and is supported by empirical research.[3][37]

Implicit in the idea of a social origin to inner speech is the possibility of "inner dialogue" – a form of "internal collaboration with oneself".[38][39] However, Vygotsky believed inner speech takes on its own syntactic peculiarities, with heavy use of abbreviation and omission compared with oral speech (even more so compared with written speech).[40]

Andy Clark (1998) writes that social language is "especially apt to be co-opted for more private purposes of [...] self-inspection and self-criticism", although others have defended the same conclusions on different grounds.[41]

Neurological correlates

The concept of internal monologue is not new, but the emergence of the functional MRI has led to a better understanding of the mechanisms of internal speech by allowing researchers to see localized brain activity.

Studies have revealed the differences in neural activations of inner dialogues versus those of monologues. Functional MRI imaging studies have shown that monologic internal speech involves the activation of the superior temporal gyrus and the left inferior frontal gyrus, which is the standard language system that is activated during any kind of speech. However, dialogical inner speech implicates several additional neural regions. Studies have indicated overlap with regions involved with thinking about other minds.

Regarding research on inner speech, Fernyhough stated "The new science of inner speech tells us that it is anything but a solitary process. Much of the power of self-talk comes from the way it orchestrates a dialogue between different points of view." Based on interpretation of functional medical-imaging, Fernyhough believes that language system of internal dialogue works in conjunction with a part of the social cognition system (localized in the right hemisphere close to the intersection between the temporal and parietal lobes). Neural imaging seems to support Vygotsky's theory that when individuals are talking to themselves, they are having an actual conversation. Intriguingly, individuals did not exhibit this same arrangement of neural activation with silent monologues. In past studies, it has been supported that these two brain hemispheres have different functions. Based on Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies, inner speech has been shown to more significant activations farther back in the temporal lobe, in Heschl's gyrus.

However, the results of neural imaging have to be taken with caution because the regions of the brain activated during spontaneous, natural internal speech diverge from those that are activated on demand. In research studies, individuals are asked to talk to themselves on demand, which is different from the natural development of inner speech within one's mind. The concept of internal monologue is an elusive study and is subjective to many implications with future studies.

In literature

In literary criticism there is a similar term, interior monologue. This, sometimes, is used as a synonym for stream of consciousness: a narrative mode or method that attempts to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind.[42] However, the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms suggests that "they can also be distinguished psychologically and literarily. In a psychological sense, stream of consciousness is the subject‐matter, while interior monologue is the technique for presenting it". And for literature, "while an interior monologue always presents a character's thoughts 'directly', without the apparent intervention of a summarizing and selecting narrator, it does not necessarily mingle them with impressions and perceptions, nor does it necessarily violate the norms of grammar, or logic – but the stream of consciousness technique also does one or both of these things".[43]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Self-Talk | Psychology Today". 
  2. Beck, AT (2008). "The Evolution of the Cognitive Model of Depression and Its Neurobiological Correlates". Am J Psychiatry 165 (8): 969–977. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2008.08050721. PMID 18628348. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 David David Reed Shaffer; Katherine Kipp (2010). Developmental Psychology: Childhood & Adolescence: Childhood and Adolescence. Cengage Learning. p. 290. ISBN 978-0-495-60171-5. 
  4. Beck, A.T., Rush, A.J., Shaw, B.F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York, NY: Guilford Press. ISBN:0-89862-000-7
  5. 5.0 5.1 Beck, A.T. (1999). Prisoners of hate: The cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN:0-06-019377-8
  6. Beck, A.T., Freeman, A., & Davis, D.D. (2003). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders. New York, NY: Guilford Press. ISBN:1-57230-856-7
  7. Winterowd, C., Beck, A.T., & Gruener, D. (2003). Cognitive therapy with chronic pain patients. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company. ISBN:0-8261-4595-7
  8. Beck, A.T., Emery, G., & Greenberg, R.L. (2005). Anxiety disorders and phobias: A cognitive perspective. New York, NY: Basic Books. ISBN:0-465-00587-X
  9. Beck, A.T., Rector, N.A., Stolar, N., & Grant, P. (2008). Schizophrenia: Cognitive theory, research, and therapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press. ISBN:978-1-60623-018-3
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 "The Power of Positive Self-Talk | Psychology Today". 
  11. "How to stop negative self-talk". 
  12. "How to challenge negative thoughts". 
  13. Clark, D.A., & Beck, A.T. (1999). Scientific foundations of cognitive theory and therapy of depression. New York, NY: Wiley. ISBN:0-471-18970-7
  14. Beck, A.T. (1972). Depression: Causes and treatment. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN:978-0-8122-7652-7
  15. Stallman, H. M. (2017). Care · Collaborate · Connect: Suicide Prevention Training Program. Adelaide: University of South Australia.
  16. Dolcos, S. & Albarracin, D. (2014). The inner speech of behavioral regulation: Intentions and task performance strengthen when you talk to yourself as a You. European Journal of Social Psychology
  17. Wang, C.; Shim, S. S.; Wolters, C. A. (2017). "Achievement goals, motivational self-talk, and academic engagement among Chinese students". Asia Pacific Education Review 18 (3): 295–307. doi:10.1007/s12564-017-9495-4. 
  18. Stallman, H. M. (2018). "Coping Planning: A patient- and strengths-focused approach to suicide prevention training". Australasian Psychiatry 26 (2): 141–144. doi:10.1177/1039856217732471. PMID 28967263. 
  19. Tod, D.; Hardy, J.; Oliver, E. (2011). "Effects of self-talk: A systematic review". Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology 33 (5): 666–687. doi:10.1123/jsep.33.5.666. PMID 21984641. 
  20. Hatzigeorgiadis, A.; Zourbanos, N.; Galanis, E.; Theordorakis, Y. (2011). "Self-talk and sports performance: A meta-analysis". Perspectives on Psychological Science 6 (4): 348–356. doi:10.1177/1745691611413136. PMID 26167788. 
  21. Beilock, S. L.; Carr, T.H.; McMahon, C.; Starkes, J. L (2002). "When paying attention becomes counterproductive: Impact of divided versus skill focused attention on novice and experienced performance of sensorimotor skills". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 8 (1): 6–16. doi:10.1037/1076-898X.8.1.6. PMID 12009178. 
  22. Cameron, Claire (19 November 2015). "What Happens When You Can't Talk to Yourself?". Nautilus. 
  23. Moseley, Peter (21 August 2014). "Talking to ourselves: the science of the little voice in your head". The Guardian. 
  24. Michal Beth Dinkler (14 October 2013). Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke. De Gruyter. p. 124. ISBN 978-3-11-033114-1. 
  25. Nicky Hallett (3 March 2016). The Senses in Religious Communities, 1600–1800: Early Modern 'Convents of Pleasure'. Routledge. p. 50. ISBN 978-1-317-01633-5. 
  26. Martin, J.R. (2013). "Out of Nowhere: Thought Insertion, Ownership and Context-Integration". Conscious and Cognition 22 (1): 111–122. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2012.11.012. PMID 23262256. 
  27. "Not Everyone Conducts Inner Speech | Psychology Today". 
  28. Charles Fernyhough (14 April 2016). The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves. Profile Books. ISBN 978-1-78283-078-8. "The child was asked questions like, ‘Is she just thinking, up in her head, or is she also saying things to herself, up in her head?’ The 6-and 7-year-olds acknowledged that inner speech was probably going on, but the 4-year-olds were much less likely to do so. In a second experiment, children were given a task designed specifically to elicit inner speech, such as thinking silently about how their own name sounded. Forty per cent of 4-year-olds and 55 per cent of 5-year-olds admitted to having used inner speech rather than a visual method for getting the answer, figures that were significantly lower than the equivalent scores for adults."  (chapter 4 "Two Cars")
  29. Tartakovsky, Margarita (20 May 2016). "Home » Blog » What to Do with a Cruel Inner Critic What to Do with a Cruel Inner Critic". 
  30. "The Critical Inner Voice Explained". 18 June 2009. 
  31. "Inner Voices: A Common Symptom of PTSD". 26 April 2018. 
  32. Oakes, Kelly (2019). "What the voice inside your head says about you" (in en). 
  33. "People with aphantasia are more likely to work in a STEM field" (in en). BBC Science Focus Magazine. 2020. 
  34. Morin, Alain; Duhnych, Christina; Racy, Famira (May 2018). "Self-reported inner speech use in university students". Applied Cognitive Psychology 32 (3): 376–382. doi:10.1002/acp.3404. 
  35. Dorrit Cohn (1978). Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton University Press. pp. 95–. ISBN 978-0-691-10156-9. 
  36. David Punter (19 September 2014). Writing the Passions. Routledge. p. 183. ISBN 978-1-317-88447-7. 
  37. Jones, Simon R.; Fernyhough, Charles (June 2007). "Thought as action: Inner speech, self-monitoring, and auditory verbal hallucinations". Consciousness and Cognition 16 (2): 391–9. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2005.12.003. PMID 16464616. 
  38. Peter Lloyd; Charles Fernyhough (1999). Lev Vygotsky: Critical Assessments. Taylor & Francis. p. 375. ISBN 978-0-415-11152-2. 
  39. Maria C.M. de Guerrero (30 March 2006). Inner Speech - L2: Thinking Words in a Second Language. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-387-24578-2. 
  40. Vygotsky, L. S. (1934) (in en). Thinking and Speech. p. 203. 
  41. Peter Langland-Hassan; Agustin Vicente (18 October 2018). Inner Speech: New Voices. Oxford University Press. pp. 21–22. ISBN 978-0-19-879664-0. 
  42. J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books,1984, pp. 660-1.
  43. ed. Chris Baldick, Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2009, p. 212.


Further reading

  • Fromm, Suzuki, and de Martino, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (1960). New York: Harper & Row.