Do you have an "internal monologue" that never ends?

Let’s take a break from politics for a moment and look at a recent story dealing with human consciousness and the way our brains tend to operate. CBS New York published a report last week about a blogger named Ryan Langdon who stumbled upon a question that blew his mind, figuratively speaking. He mentioned to one of his friends that he constantly has an “inner monologue” going on in his head, but his friend was completely confounded by the idea. She said that she never had words, sentences or stories playing out in her head and really only “saw” things internally as pictures or images. This apparently freaked out Langdon, who went on social media to seek other opinions and even took a poll among his friends. The results were surprising.

“Some people’s thoughts are like sentences they ‘hear,’ and some people just have abstract non-verbal thoughts, and have to consciously verbalize them… And most people aren’t aware of the other type of person,” Ryan Langdon tweeted Monday.

He later wrote a blog post, saying “All my life I could hear my voice in my head and speak in full sentences,” but not everyone thinks that way.

Langdon found one friend described her thoughts as “concept maps” she sees in her brain.

You can read Langon’s blog post on the subject here. He seems to have been so shocked to realize that not everyone’s brain worked the same as his that it “ruined his day.”

This is a subject that I’ve dwelled on for most of my life. Like Mr. Langdon, I’ve always had a running monologue in my head all through the day. I also frequently have a variety of fanciful stories playing out in my mind, either about other people that I’ve seen in the news or movies, or fantasies where I wind up inserting myself into one of those roles. But until last year I’d never spoken about it. I viewed it as a real-life version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and wondered if that was something weird that didn’t happen to anyone else.

That changed last summer when I made an appointment to go see a hypnotherapist. (I’d read some positive reports about such therapy and people getting help with developing more healthy lifestyle habits.) My great fear was that it wouldn’t work because I didn’t particularly believe in hypnosis and suspected that I couldn’t be hypnotized. My wife assured me that it was real, however, and described how she herself had been hypnotized in college so I decided to give it a go.

As it turns out, I was right. Despite ninety straight minutes of effort on the therapist’s part and my best, honest efforts to follow instructions and cooperate, at no point did I feel anything close being under her spell. When I finally gave up, opened my eyes and told her it wasn’t working, she tried to argue with me. But I described to her my inner monologue. Every time she gave me a suggestion or instruction, rather than being able to simply accept it, I was asking myself “why is she saying that? What’s she trying to get me to do?” That went on the entire time.

I went home and described the experience to my wife and when I got to the part about the inner monologue, she said that was the hardest part of hypnosis for her. She couldn’t shut her inner voice off either. I was incredibly relieved to hear someone else say they had the same thing and we had a long, fascinating discussion about it.

But after doing some research, I learned it turns out that the majority of people have that inner voice and process their thoughts that way. But not everyone. A smaller percentage of people primarily process things visually, like Langdon’s friend who mostly just sees pictures in her head. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky did a lot of work on internal conversations back in the 1930s. Other studies, however, like a more recent one at Harvard, suggest that visual and verbal thinking are highly linked in some people.

I’m not sure what that says about the verbal thinkers among us as compared to the visual thinkers. Is one better than the other? Is one found more in pragmatic people while the other is more prevalent in artistic types? Good questions all, and it’s just one more example of how we are still far from understanding the underlying mechanisms of human consciousness.

We’ll close with this short video of Langdon interviewing one of his visual thinker friends. It really is fascinating to learn that not everyone’s brains work the same way.

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