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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 1

A Documentary Explores How We Talk to Ourselves

A researcher documents people's internal monologues

On any given day, millions of conversations reverberate through New York City. All these conversations are matched in number and complexity by much more elusive discourses. Even when speaking with others—and especially when alone—we continually talk to ourselves in our heads.

Psychologists have attempted to capture what they call self-talk or inner speech in the moment, asking people to stop what they are doing and write down their thoughts at random times. Others have relied on surveys or diaries. Andrew Irving, an anthropologist at the University of Manchester in England, recently recorded the inner dialogues of people walking in New York City. He approached strangers, asked them to wear a microphone headset attached to a digital recorder and speak their thoughts aloud as he followed closely behind with a camera.

“I was surprised by how many said ‘yes,’” Irving says—about 100 in all. By overlaying the recorded audio onto the videos, he has created portraits of individual consciousnesses on a particular day in New York.

Of course, people sometimes speak into the microphone as though trying to entertain someone else. And getting people's inner speech on tape captures only linguistic forms of thought, neglecting the kind of thinking that happens in images and scenes. Still, Irving's videos are permanent records of fleeting thoughts, of dynamic mental processes unfurling in real time.

In one video, a young woman named Meredith walks along Prince Street in downtown Manhattan. She briefly wonders if there is a Staples store nearby before reminiscing about a recent visit to her friend Joan, whom, we learn, has cancer. Meredith contemplates her friend's situation for the next two minutes, tearing up at the thought of “New York without Joan.” Abruptly, she notices a café where she used to sit and people watch, laments how it has changed and resumes her search for a Staples.

Meredith's meandering thoughts recall Clarissa Dalloway's roaming mind in Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway. Woolf would likely have adored Irving's videos. She wanted to write about “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.”

Adapted from Brainwaves at blogs.ScientificAmerican.com/brainwaves

This article was originally published with the title "Streams of Consciousness."

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