Internal monologue

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An internal monologue, also called self-talk or inner speech, 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 your 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. 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]

Role in mental health[edit]

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 colour our perception of the world.[10] Reminding yourself to never say anything to yourself that you wouldn't 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[edit]

Negative self-talk (also known as unhelpful self-talk) refers to inner critical dialogue. It is based on beliefs about ourselves that develop during childhood based on feedback of others, particularly parents.[13][14][15] 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".[16]

Positive self-talk[edit]

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.[17]

Coping self-talk is a particular form of positive self-talk that helps improve performance.[18] It is more effective than generic positive self-talk.[19] and improves engagement in a task.[20] 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.[21]

Instructional self-talk focusses attention on the components of a task and can improve performance on physical tasks that are being learnt,[22][23] however it can be detrimental for people who are already skilled in the task.[24]

Relation to the self[edit]

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.[25] There are, however, examples of an internal monologue or inner voice being considered external to the self, such as auditory hallucinations,[26] the conceptualisation of negative or critical thoughts as an inner critic, and as a kind of divine intervention.[27][28] As a delusion, this can be called "thought insertion".[29]

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

Absence of an internal monologue[edit]

Not everyone reports experiencing an internal monologue, and most people report experiences that do not involve an internal monologue at least some of the time.[30] This is particularly prevalent among children, and has been cited as evidence for the "language of thought" hypothesis, which posits an underlying language of the brain, or "mentalese", distinct from a thinker's native tongue.[31]


One study found inner speech was most usual for tasks involving 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).[32]


In the 1920s, Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget proposed the idea that private (or "egocentric") speech—speaking to yourself out loud—is the initial form of speech, from which "social speech" develops, and that it dies out as children grow up.[33] 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.[34] This interpretation has come to be the more widely accepted, and is supported by empirical research.[3][35]

Implicit in the idea of a social origin to inner speech is the possibility of "inner dialogue" – a form of "internal collaboration with oneself."[36][37] 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).[38]

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.[39]

Neurological correlates[edit]

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.

In regard to 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 to 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 than 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[edit]

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.[40] 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".[41]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Beck, AT (2008) "The Evolution of the Cognitive Model of Depression and Its Neurobiological Correlates". Am J Psychiatry 165:969–977. PMID 18628348
  3. ^ a b 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. ^ 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
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  13. ^ 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
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  15. ^ Beck, A.T. (1972). Depression: Causes and treatment. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-7652-7
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  24. ^ 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, 6–16. doi:10.1037/1076-898X.8.1.6
  25. ^ Cameron, Claire (19 November 2015). "What Happens When You Can't Talk to Yourself?". Nautilus. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
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  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ 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.
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  31. ^ 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.
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