Many of life’s fundamental questions revolve around matters of perception. Is the sky we gaze at longingly while wasting time at work the same hue for all of us? Are the inner lives of the people we live alongside really as rich and complex as our own? These are ~deep thoughts~ with no definitive answer, since we’re all firmly locked in our own heads—especially because how we articulate those ~deep thoughts~ to ourselves varies from person to person.
Twitter user @KylePlantEmoji raised the idea of an “internal narrative” binary on Monday, stating that “some people's thoughts are like sentences they ‘hear’, and some people just have abstract non-verbal thoughts, and have to consciously verbalize them.”
For some people, inner thoughts tend to take the form of language, while for others, non-verbal cues tend to dominate. Basically, whether you find a TV or book protagonist’s inner monologuing cloying and unrealistic or merely a dramatization of the average person probably depends on how (and if) you talk to yourself.
This is an oversimplification of the existing research—although experts agree that not everyone experiences inner self-talk. Psychologist Russell T Hurlburt wrote at Psychology Today that inner speech is a “robust phenomenon,” but not a universal one. “I'm confident about the individual differences—some people talk to themselves a lot, some never, some occasionally,” Hurlburt said.
Instead, most people straddle the line between verbal and visual thinking, with the two often intermingling in a single train of thought, according to the Harvard Gazette. Researchers from Harvard’s psychology department found that visual thinking tended to prompt a certain amount of verbal thought, and vice versa. They also found that thoughts in the form of words and sentences tended to be related to the future, while thoughts in the form of imagery were generally more tied to the present moment. Research also suggests that one function of internal self-talk functions as a simulated outside perspective on one’s own actions and thoughts.
But the point about not even considering another mode of thought besides one’s own is particularly resonant. While it may seem like people who write for a living would think in words, VICE staffers were split.
Answers ranged from “words, like a rambling 3 year old saying whatever they want all the time,” to abstractions separate from a running internal monologue, to one writer’s DMed admission: “Something disgusting I would never say in a public Slack is that the only time I do not think in words is when I'm meditating, because I'm able to slightly crack open some other door and I get a stream of images… some of them memories from childhood and some of them Symbolic.”
Research seems to agree there’s no superior mode of inner thought, one way or another. But the fact that we can all live completely differently inside our own heads without any idea how other people process is pretty interesting, no matter how you think about it.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.