A fascinating talk at the Royal Institution last night, on The Voices Within. Lead by psychologist Charles Fernyhough, the talk questioned what it it means to think, what it is like to have a thought. His research leads a new field in developmental psychology around cognitive development, and how language and thought are related.
His main premise is that thinking itself is most often a verbal process – a type of speaking by, and listening to, the multiple voices of our consciousness. Thinking by its very nature is linguistic. He introduced this idea by showing us a model for how language development / thinking occurs through childhood and into adulthood.
First comes the social dialogue. Children are taught to talk in relation to other people. Their parents say hello to them, as to do other people – so develops the ability to hold an external conversation. From here, children begin to have conversations out loud with themselves – a sort of problem solving by talking to yourself as you would someone else – which the psychologists call private speech. As we get older, more of this private speech becomes internalised, and condensed, into what is known as inner speech. These are the voices which are always in your head.
The phrase ‘internal monologue’ is well known, and each of us have experienced such a stream of thinking – perhaps when reading the paper going over a scenario, practising a speech and so on. However, research has shown that if people are asked to pinpoint the nature of their spontaneous thoughts at a random time of day, most of our thinking is in fact a dialogue: a dialogic interaction as Professor Fernyhough put it. This is us talking to ourselves, where ‘me’ is the speaker and ‘me’ is the interlocutor. The second me could in fact be a representation of anyone – we might imagine ourselves talking to a loved one, or the boss etc – but critically we are still having a conversation, talking, listening and hearing all inside our heads: this is the stuff that thoughts themselves are made of.
In a great article online here, there is info on the importance of this inner speech to our sense of self itself: “inner speech plays an important role in self-awareness and self-understanding. People who lose their capacity for use inner speech due to brain impairments have reported memory problems as well as a reduced sense of identity.”
Overall, it was the best talk at the RI I have been to, and Prof F was an eloquent and captivating speaker. I have been thinking about how this idea of language and self like together in relation to making a final decision about how to display my poetry for the final show work. I like the idea of bringing out the aspects of self as a conversation – a more refined, developed form of the steam of consciousness poems perhaps – although not so far that it reads as a screenplay.
Show: T-9 weeks