The Last Great Mystery of the Spirit: Meeting People With Unusual – or Non-existent Inner Voices | Neurosciences

VSlaudia *, a Lichfield sailor in her 30s, is not Italian. She has never been to Italy. She has no Italian family or friends. And she has no idea why a bellicose Italian couple have resumed their inner voice, shaking it in Claudia’s brain as she sits down and listens.

“I have no idea where this came from,” said Claudia apologetically. “It’s probably offensive to the Italians.” The couple are like family in the Dolmio pasta sauce commercials: flamboyant, portly, prone to waving their hands and screaming. If Claudia has a big decision to make in her life, the Italians are taking over.

“They argue passionately on either side,” says Claudia. “It’s really helpful because I let them do the work, so I’m not stressed out about it. These disagreements always take place in a kitchen, surrounded by food. Claudia has not yet given the names of the Italians. But they did help Claudia make a major decision in her life, encouraging her to quit her job as a scientist two years ago and fulfill the lifelong dream of escaping to sea.

“They were chatting all the time before I gave my opinion,” sighs Claudia. “I would wake up and they were arguing. I was driving to work and they were arguing. It was exhausting, to be honest. The wife was in favor of Claudia leaving, but her husband was suspicious. “He would say, ‘This is stable work!’ And she would say, ‘Let her enjoy life!’ The woman won and Claudia left to work on a flotilla in Greece (although she is now temporarily back in the UK, due to Covid). She is much happier, even though she must have had neurolinguistic programming to calm the screams. “They’re calmer now,” Claudia said with relief. “Less screaming. They are just bickering.

Most of us have an inner voice: that constant presence that tells you to “Watch out” or “Buy shampoo” or “Urgh, this guy is an idiot”. For many of us, that voice sounds a lot like ours, or at least the way we think we sound. But for some people, their inner voice is not a simple monologue that reproaches, advises and reminds. Their inner voice is that of a bickering Italian couple, say, or a calm-faced interviewer with hands clasped in knees. Or it is a taste, a sensation, a sensation or a color. In some cases there is no voice at all, just silence.

“Like a small island, surrounded by an endless ocean” is how Justin Hopkins describes his brain. “The little island is where all conscious things seem to happen, but it is surrounded by these endless and inaccessible things.” Hopkins, who is 59 years old and works for a social enterprise in London, has no inner voice. There is no one in his brain to blame, blame, or criticize. In his head, there is emptiness: just the still warm air before a rustling breeze.

“There’s nothing there,” says Hopkins. “And I don’t think there ever was.” Of course, Hopkins has thoughts: we all do. But the inner monologue that fills our brains while the engine is idling is not there. It was clicked, definitely. “When I’m alone and relaxed, there are no words at all,” he says. “There is great pleasure in that. He can easily go an hour without having a single thought. Unsurprisingly, Hopkins sleeps like a baby.

What is it that someone like Hopkins so completely lacks an inner voice? “That’s a very good question,” says neuroscientist Dr Hélène Loevenbruck from the psychology and neurocognition laboratory at the University of Grenoble Alpes. “I do not know.” Loevenbruck is one of a handful of neuroscientists around the world who have studied the inner voice. She explains that it’s created in a network of different areas of our brain, including the inferior parietal lobe, inferior frontal gyrus, and superior temporal cortex.

In order to understand how the inner voice works, you need to understand how human thought translates into action. “Every time we do an action, our brain makes a prediction of the sensory consequences of that action,” explains Loevenbruck. Let’s say you want to go get a glass of water. “Your brain sends the appropriate motor signals to your hand, but it also generates a sensory prediction of the command,” she says. “Before you’ve even picked up the glass, your brain has made a prediction of what the motor control will do, which means you can correct mistakes before you make a mistake. This system is very efficient, and that is why humans can do so many actions without making mistakes.

The same principle applies to human speech. Every time our mouths move to form a word, our brain simultaneously generates a predictive simulation of that speech in our brain, to correct errors. “The current understanding of inner speech is that we do the same as in open speech – make predictions in our minds of what we’re going to say – but we are not actually sending motor commands to our speech muscles. “, concludes Loevenbruck. “This simulated auditory signal is the little voice we hear in our brain.”

Loevenbruck explains that most of us hear what she calls “inner language”. But not always. “You can have broader and more condensed forms of self-talk,” she says. “People can experience them as abstract representations of language, without sound… some people say their inner voice is like a radio on all day. Other people have no voice at all, or they speak with abstract symbols that do not involve language. Loevenbruck cannot explain why some people feel the inner voice differently: we are at the limits of neuroscience, already the most slippery of all branches of human knowledge.

She explains that deaf people tend to visually sense the inner voice. “They don’t hear the inner voice, but can produce inner language by visualizing hand signs or seeing lip movements,” says Loevenbruck. “It really looks like a hand signing,” agrees Dr. Giordon Stark, a 31-year-old researcher from Santa Cruz. Stark is deaf and communicates in sign language.

Her inner voice is a pair of hands signing words in her brain. “The hands are usually not connected to anything,” Stark says. “Every now and then I see a face.” If Stark needs to remember to buy milk, he signs the word “milk” in his brain. Stark hasn’t always seen his inner voice: he only learned sign language seven years ago (previously he used oral communication methods). “I have heard my inner voice before this,” he says. “It sounded like a voice that wasn’t mine, or particularly clear to me.”

Presenter Jenni Murray lives in the brain of author Hannah Begbie. Well, not exactly Murray, but a facsimile of Murray, with the same amiable but questioning voice, and a scarf floating over his shoulder. “My inner voice is a duologue, like I’m in a constant state of interviewing myself,” says Begbie, who is 44 years old and lives in London. “The interview always takes place in a plush radio studio,” she says. “There are beautiful walls rich in crushed velvet. There is a warmth and a color in it. The duologue can be about anything, trivial or serious.

“Jenni might say, ‘When did you finally decide to take these shoes? ”, Says Begbie. “And I say, ‘Well, Jenni, that’s an interesting question.'” Murray’s soft, firm questions pushed her to make some big decisions in life: before Begbie quit her job as an agent. literary, Murray helped her repeat her reasons for doing so, in her head. “It’s a way of organizing the chaos of my mind,” says Begbie. She is aware that it is strange. “I’ve never met Murray,” says Begbie. “I know this is ridiculous.”

Former librarian Mary Worrall’s inner voice has always been a television screen, or sometimes a slide projector, constantly playing in an attic, in her head. The attic is accessed by a spiral staircase behind his left ear, says Worrall, who is 71 and lives in Birmingham. “There isn’t a lot of sound,” she said. “They’re really just pictures, like a movie is playing.” When Worrall’s inner voice reminds her to take laundry, she doesn’t hear the words “buy laundry”. Instead, she sees herself looking for a box of laundry on a TV screen in the attic.

“It’s an emotion,” says Mona *, a 53-year-old CEO of Telford, of her inner voice. “The closest way I could describe it would be in terms of color.” Her inner voice obviously does not manifest itself: she never talks. Rather, Mona has to focus on it in order to perceive it. “When I go through my day, the inner voice doesn’t speak to me in English,” Mona says. “It’s something that lies below and behind what I do. “

The voice becomes more insistent when it is in a situation that requires it to be emotionally skillful. Mona often works with troubled children and recently found herself in a situation where a teenager was angry and outspoken. At first, Mona’s instinct was to scold her. But then Mona’s inner voice came to her in a gray wash. “I had this deep feeling that this youngster had real problems… I felt a sense of sadness and discouragement and I saw a hazy cloud.” Her inner voice was right: Mona later confirmed that the young person was going through a difficult time in her personal life.

Many people I talk to have learned late in life that their inner voice is not the norm. For years, Worrall thought other people had granaries in their brains as well. “I thought everyone was like that! ” she laughs. Mona only described the outlines of her inner voice to her 30-year-old husband before our phone interview. “You never really realize that your inner voice is different,” Mona explains. “It’s not something you’re talking about.”

Unknowable, impenetrable, unique to us: inner voices are our lifelong confidants and our secret friends. It’s just a shame that no one can meet them except us. “I wish I could invite someone inside,” Worrall says. “It would be so nice if I could download the attic to some kind of hard drive, so other people can watch it.”

Additional reporting by Rachel Obordo. *Some names have been changed


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