From Joan of Arc to Brian Wilson, throughout history, people have reported hearing voices in their heads. But where do they come from?
Fernyhough (Psychology/Durham Univ.; Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts, 2013, etc.) examines the phenomenon of “inner voices,” which manifests in two broad components: the more or less ordinary business of talking to oneself and the more fraught existence of voices inside one’s head. “For many reasons,” he writes, “inner speech is the predominant mode in which we communicate with ourselves, just as external speech is our default channel for interacting with others.” The fact that we verbally direct ourselves to act, and that we do so in language rather than some other form of symbol, is of interest in and of itself, the more so because inner speech can interact with the brain in what would seem to be contradictory modes—the brain at rest, in other words, and the brain at work on executive tasks, modes that are more or less binary. “The words in our head can control and direct,” writes the author, “but they can also fashion fantasies and dream of other realities.” These fantasies can be the province of the potentially less healthy voices in our heads, which are another matter entirely. Fernyhough examines the latest science on inner voice/inner speech, some of which has come from his own lab, and he looks at the history of efforts to understand it in psychological and epistemological contexts. The narrative is straightforward and accumulative, though sometimes his best observations are those made almost in passing, as when he notes that private speech “happens more when there is the illusion of the audience”—i.e., when the person talking is sure to find a receptive listener inside the head.
Of rarefied interest, to be sure, but with much to say about how the brain works at the interface of thought and language.