Your Inner Narrator: How Accurate Is The Voice In Your Head?
Hello. Don’t you recognise me? I am the voice in your head. Can you hear me? I think you can as I am reading these very words to you right now. Woahhh. That’s quite weird isn’t it? Tuning in to me? Because a lot of the time you don’t really even realise that I am narrating your entire life – every thought, feeling, experience and dilemma. And obviously, you trust what I say… Right?
The voice in your head. Your narrator, advisor and all-round problem solver. This voice gives you direction (both on & off the roads), justification and attempts to communicate your emotional responses. But did you know this voice is not the most reliable source of information? To you, your inner voice can seem like the loudest and truest sound of all, and following its lead can be all too easy. However, you’ve probably experienced times when those around you tell you your inner voice is wrong – like refraining from an activity due to internal doubts of ability, but the external voices of your friends and family say otherwise. And there are conditions such as Schizophrenia where it is believed the incorrect interpretation or disrupted processing of this voice can lead to a seriously debilitating mental state; causing harm to the individual suffering as well as those around them. So how much can you actually rely on your internal narrator?<
You may picture your inner voice as a tiny version of you, pacing around in your skull, concocting ideas and directions to navigate you through your day-to-day life. However, when scientists looked in the brains over individuals using this voice in the 1990s, they focused on the activation of a specific brain region: the Broca’s area.The Broca’s area is normally situated on the left hand side of your brain in your frontal lobe, and is a region vital for the physical production of speech. Individuals can have problems with this area, with a prominent disorder being described as Broca’s Aphasia; a condition whereby an individual can understand what is being said to them but have trouble communicating back as the muscles needed to make speech cannot be properly coordinated. When a small group of individuals were asked to ’speak’ words presented to them on a screen in their head whilst in an fMRI scanner, strong activation of the Broca’s area was revealed; as well as area’s involved in motor planning and emotional context. This pattern of activation gives rise to the idea that the inner voice is almost prepping what it is physically about to say using emotional judgement. Further, another study revealed that when internal dialogue (when you imagine yourself talking to another person) is assessed in healthy individuals, both the left and right hemisphere were activated. The right hemisphere is thought to be crucial for your ‘Theory of Mind’ – which allows you to make perceptions about the mental states of others. Also activated was an area called the precuneus; a brain region involved in many complex functions such as memory recollection and mental imaging. Therefore, your inner voice recruits additional brain areas when it is ’talking to’ someone else to potentially envision their reactions.
Your inner voice presents as someone you can completely trust, however, that is not always the case. The problem is, your inner voice was not gifted to your brain as a fully-functional, accurate guide but has developed over time with you. This means that your environment and experiences have shaped the view points of your internal narrator. Plus, your inner voice spends a lot of its time trying to make sense of signals deep in your emotional brain to convey what you are feeling and why – a task which is open to interpretation and error. A unique group to study for the reliability of the inner voice are split-brain patients – who had the connection between the right and left sides of the brain surgically removed due to conditions such as epilepsy. Studies of these rare patient’s throughout the late 20th century have highlighted how the inner voice can convince the rest of your brain of a complete fabrication. For example, using the knowledge that the majority of inner voice processing requires the left side of the brain, split-brain patients have been shown instructions to their left eye which signals to the right side of the brain – meaning their internal voice can’t access the information. One man was shown an instruction saying ‘walk’ so up he got and did so, and when questioned by researchers why he was walking, he came out with ‘I am going to get a coke’. The inner voice of this individual had made up a scenario to justify his actions, showing how our own voices can very easily explain a situation to us even if it is incorrect. This means that some of what your brain tells you about your abilities or lack of could be inaccurate, and listening self-doubt from your inner voice could perpetuate a false perception of yourself. Furthermore, individuals with Schizophrenia and Anxiety can experience verbal hallucinations – where the inner voice relays inaccurate information to its owner at a sometimes disastrous cost. Realising our own inner voices can pull the wool over our eyes and understanding the science behind this could be a vital in combating self-doubt and mental health conditions.
As well as aiding those with debilitating conditions, this research argues that even if you are healthy, your inner voice is most likely not speaking the Gospel Truth 100% of the time. Your exposure and experiences have impacted the undertone and justifications of your inner voice, and sometimes our internal ‘right way’ is actually not right at all. A major need is to understand that other peoples experiences are different to our own, and therefore their inner voice will be very different to yours. So be critical of your own narrative, have an open mind, practice mindfulness, listen to others around you and continue to read and educate yourself. If done as a collective, we can strive towards a society where all voices are not only heard, but understood.
Julia (@julia.ravey.science) xoxo
For more science, see my Youtube!