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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 1

Getting to Know the Voices in Your Head

We talk to ourselves to stay motivated, tame unruly emotions, plan for the future and even maintain a sense of self
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Jim Frazier

A few months back, while riding the subway, some words fell out of my mouth: “No, no, don't worry about it.” Addressing no one but myself, I blurted this phrase while mentally replaying an earlier, embarrassing conversation. Although I have occasionally muttered out loud when alone, this was the first instance in such a public space. No one seemed to care or even notice. Still, I could not help wondering whether my mind was drifting too far from the familiar realm of the functionally neurotic. Was I spending too much time in my own head, obsessed with soliloquy?

To my relief, it turns out that just about everyone talks to themselves, both out loud and silently, much of the time. The habit begins in childhood with what psychologists call private speech: speaking to oneself aloud while playing with a favorite action figure, for example, or making bunny ears out of shoelaces. As we age, most of us converse with ourselves out loud much less often, but at least a couple of studies suggest that most adults and adolescents sometimes speak to themselves audibly. In a 2006 study by psychologist Adam Winsler of George Mason University and his colleagues, 46 of 48 women admitted that they murmured to themselves now and then. And we all talk to ourselves silently throughout life. Psychologists call this type of thought inner speech or self-talk, and it occupies about one quarter of conscious experience.

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