The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough

Reviewed by Anne Goodwin

voices within‘Yeah, I put that in, surely!’ I laughed when I heard myself saying this the other morning as I stowed my bags in the boot of the car. Not because the utterance itself was funny, but that, until I heard the words, I hadn’t realised I’d been having an internal dialogue about whether I’d packed everything I needed. I laughed because, apart from a neighbour in his garden some distance away, and a couple of ducks snoozing by the pond, there was no-one around to hear me. I laughed because how we talk to ourselves, both silently and aloud, is the subject of the book I’d been reading the night before.

Early in his career as an academic psychologist, Charles Fernyhough was discouraged from pursuing his interest in how we humans talk to ourselves, partly because of the challenge of collecting reliable data on our private thought processes, partly because of the difficulty of coming up with an adequate definition of an inner voice, a concept often used vaguely and metaphorically. But he wasn’t inclined to let that put him off studying something so fundamental. His curiosity took him to consult philosophers, neuroscientists and other psychologists, to explore the inner worlds of young children, writers and voice hearers. In this, his third non-fiction book, he reveals something of his process and what he’s learnt.

One has to marvel at the ingenuity and creativity of scientists in their development and refinement of techniques for examining inner experience. Fernyhough’s research owes much to Descriptive Experience Sampling, developed by Russ Hurlburt at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This entails fitting volunteers with an earpiece emitting a beep at regular intervals, at which point they are to write down what they had been thinking immediately before. This happens as the volunteers go about their daily lives, after which they come into the lab to be interviewed in minute detail about their reported thoughts: an extremely labour intensive process for both researcher and research participant. Fernyhough has also used questionnaire data and, intriguingly, intensive observations of his two-year-old daughter’s verbalisations in the course of creative play, which he sees as the precursor of the inner speech used by most (but not all) older children and adults.

Although inner speech seems to vary both between and within individuals, Fernyhough has been particularly interested in how inner speech can be differentiated from both thoughts and external speech in terms of its dialogic nature and in being much more compressed or abbreviated. Other variables include whether or not it appears to involve the voices of other people and whether it is evaluative or neutral. The dialogic aspect, first put forward by the Russian psychologist Vygotsky in the 1920s, and contrary to Piaget’s position on the child’s mind, appears to have some support from brain imaging studies.

Along with his colleagues at Durham University, Fernyhough has explored the relevance and limitations of his model to understanding the experiences of people who hear voices, both with and without a psychiatric diagnosis. While many psychologists working clinically with people distressed by their voices might attempt to frame their clients’ experiences as a misattribution of their thoughts to an external source, Fernyhough points out that much of the research from which such an assumption stems has used an over-simplistic model of inner speech that neglects its dialogic nature. Another interpretation that psychologically-minded clinicians, as well as the user-led Hearing Voices Network, readily accept, that voices result from past trauma, Fernyhough sees as inconsistent with his (preferred) inner speech model, as well as current understandings of the nature of memory. He is currently involved in research investigating whether these apparent contradictions can be reconciled.

The Voices Within does read in parts as if, in his drive to be scientifically rigorous in not over-interpreting the data, the book is addressed more to the expert than the lay reader. Perhaps it’s to redress the balance that Fernyhough includes chapters on the less intensively researched areas of voice hearing among mediaeval mystics, and the experiences of readers and writers of fiction. I was personally most interested in the latter, so was disappointed to find the evidence discussed rather thin. For example, there’s no mention of the (relatively new) discipline of cognitive poetics which explores how we relate to fictional characters exactly as we relate to people in real life. He draws heavily on a survey finding a whopping seventy percent of (ninety-one) professional writers at the 2014 Edinburgh Book Festival responded in the affirmative when asked ‘Do you ever hear your characters’ voices?’ which does not appear to have been subject to peer review. In addition, and in stark contrast to the careful referencing of other sections, no sources at all were cited for the statements ‘studies have shown a particularly high prevalence of psychiatric disorder (particularly mood disorders) in those of proven creativity’ and ‘psychotic experiences have a hereditary component’.

Overall, the style is authoritative but friendly, with the author’s enthusiasm for his subject shining through (although I found the journalistic tendency to describe a fellow researcher’s appearance rather strange). I also appreciated that the sixty pages of notes and references were easily accessed without interrupting the flow of the text. As I’ve mentioned before, I’d love to see psychologists drawing on contemporary psychoanalytic theory in speculating about their data (in this case, highly relevant in relation to the development of thinking and the boundary between inside and outside), but any academic elucidating the extraordinariness of ordinary minds, and building bridges between them and psychotic experiences, is to be applauded.

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Anne Goodwin used to work as a clinical psychologist serving people with severe and enduring mental health problems and psychosis. She now writes fiction and blogs at Anecdotal. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was reviewed last year on Shiny New Books.

Charles Fernyhough, The Voices Within (Profile Books, 2016). 978-1781252796,  352 pp., hardback.

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2 Comments

  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. After reading the review, Anne, I don’t think your talking to yourself in the way you described is quite what Fernyhough was talking about, is it? Or am I wrong? You may prefer fiction over non-fiction, but you sure do pick interesting non-fiction to read. I was quite interested in the proposal that the inner speech differs from thoughts and external speech (hence not your opening statement or my talking to myself.) I’m not sure that the distinction is quite clear to me, though. I think had I’d been asked if I heard the voices of characters I read, I may have answered in the affirmative. I don’t like the sound of a prevalence of psychiatric disorders in creative people. I’m pleased he wasn’t able to cite research supporting that!
    A great review, Anne, and you’ve certainly piqued my interest. I hope it’s available on audio.

    1. Thanks for this comment and you’ve got me thinking – it’s quite possible that I didn’t fully follow his argument but I think my example was consistent with his position on inner speech, as I was definitely having a dialogue with myself, although I only reported part of it – and in fact was only conscious of part of it. I was responding to a question about whether I’d put whatever it was in the car. A comparable thought might have been some kind of list of what I was putting in, but even that feels like a conversation.
      I’m not up with the evidence, but I’m sceptical about the assumption that creative people are more prone to psychiatric disorders (and both of these terms are as open to interpretation/confusion as inner speech). Many years ago I supervised project attempting to address the correlation between depressed mood and creativity – unfortunately I can’t remember the outcome!!!
      All of this is perhaps why it’s been a relief to swap being a psychologist for making things up!

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