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This month I’ve been reading Charles Fernyhough’s fascinating book: The Voices Within: The History of How We Talk to Ourselves
The book is a really stimulating tour of ideas around the purpose and nature of our inner voices and helps us understand what inner voices, language and thinking are, as well as exploring conditions like schizophrenia where (perhaps) ‘normal’ distinctions between inner and external voices have been distorted.

Key useful learnings:
Most, but not all of us have inner voices that think using language. 
This has been established using a ‘bleep’ test where participants are trained to note down their inner thoughts. Some people just don’t have any (that explains some interviews!), some people have thoughts that clearly operate faster than the speed of normal language. Wow!
Our inner voices are probably developed in conjunction with other cognitive developmental abilities like theory of mind / understanding of our ‘social self’ – happening at the toddler stage. Over time, our inner voices develop as we start to build up a narrative about our own lives as we have different experiences.
We may have more than one inner voice. 
Check out whether you have heard yourself talking inwardly with the following ‘personas’ identified by Fernyhough:
  • Faithful friend
  • Ambivalent parent
  • Proud rival
  • Calm optimist
  • Helpless child
Fernyhough says: “a solitary mind is actually a chorus. We can go as far to say that minds are riddled with different voices because they are never really solitary. They emerge in the context of social relationships, and they are shaped by the dynamics of those relationships. Other people’s voices get in our heads.”
Perhaps our inner voices are the place where we as individuals ‘meet’ the social world and make sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’.It is why understanding what is in the individual’s mind, is as important as discovering ‘group thinking’.
Researchers mostly leave unexplored the ‘voices’ that people are using to negotiate their thoughts and feelings about their lives. We should recognise that people have inner voices, and we should understand that these voices have a style or ‘tone of voice’ that is worth understanding and connecting with…

We need to find ways of helping people identify their inner voices, and then explore what these voices are saying… (Although of course we must recognise that we are entering people’s very private lives here, and we need to be sensitive and careful with this too).
I was also interested to find out that there are also different ways of speaking to oneself. One style of self-talk is called ‘dialogic’ a back and forth conversation that we have with ourselves. It is associated with creative thinking, suggesting that if you can develop or have this style of thinking it can be a kind of ‘tool’ for creativity.

I’m really intrigued by inner voices – and think as researchers we should enable people to tune in to what’s going in on their minds…

I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you are a client you might be interested to know that the ICG (independent consultants group) now offers clients a free service – your questions answered – pose a question and you’ll get 100s of ICGers giving you their best answer.  Check it out here
Still looking… for that illusive permanent qualitative research partner (could be full or part time, any level of qual experience) to share the wonderful Qual St experience with me…
This month I tried out the journeyHQ app on a skincare project. Respondents download the app and then record their experiences every time they are having a moment. You can read more about the app here…

Do get in touch if you want to hear my views on it.