The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves

Charles Fernyhough

"This is part of what makes us distinctively human: the fact that, without any external stimulation, a man in an empty room can make himself laugh or cry."

This is also what makes The Voices Within so universally intriguing: we almost all have some form of voice(s) in our head. Whether it’s the one that asks if you really want that second slice of cake, the one that helps to navigate moral and social dilemmas, the kind that sounds as if there is another person in the room whispering insults over your shoulder, or even the one that encourages you to eat the second slice of cake; internal speech is virtually inescapable, and talking to oneself is paradoxically both the first sign of madness and the most ordinary thing in the world.

In this book, Fernyhough presents his reader with a topic which is instantly accessible yet enduringly fascinating, most of all because the science of what goes on inside our heads, in terms of the ways and forms in which we think, is still comparatively new and relatively unexplored. What he proposes to investigate is the degree to which language is a factor in the process of thought; why our thoughts often take on the form of 'conversations' with ourselves, and why hallucinations and spiritual experiences so often manifest themselves as externally 'heard' voices.

In order to do this, Fernyhough draws on examples from every level of fiction and history, from ancient Greek poetry to the early noughties romantic comedy What Women Want, and on the anecdotal evidence of a whole spectrum of people including medieval mystics, professional sports-people, and literary greats; not to mention the participants who have agreed to be part of the Hearing the Voice research project, some of whom talk to themselves, and some of whom find themselves talked to. In bringing together these diverse strands of evidence, each example, no matter how seemingly trivial or singular, is shown to be valuable in examining how we think and have thought about thinking.

Perhaps because he is not only a psychologist but a novelist, Fernyhough’s prose style is both entertaining and easy to follow; whilst being informative, it is neither dryly academic nor superficially patronizing, which came as something of a relief to a non-scientist venturing into the unfamiliar world of MRI scanners and diagrams of the human brain. His approach is also encouragingly open-minded; from the smallest of details, such as varying the s/he pronouns in his hypothetical examples, to acknowledging his own personal bias and the limitations of current methods and theories. Perhaps because of the subjective and sensitive nature of his topic (we are often most defensive of what goes on inside our heads), Fernyhough recognises and identifies the dangers of being overly presumptive or dogmatic in his conjectures, and the result is a study which is incredibly informative, but acknowledges that there is still much more to learn.

Above all, for a scientific study, this is a surprisingly humanitarian approach to a necessarily human topic. The Voices Within made me more aware of the voices in my own head (distracting or unhinged as that may sound), even whilst I was reading it. It is a vital, illuminating, engaging exploration of the things that make us who we are.

Ruth Hobley