Many of us are used to inner dialogues when learning, deciding or thinking in general.
While our inner voice is useful in some cases, its persistent presence also brings many disadvantages, mainly related to the performance of our thinking, to misleading and ineffective abstraction, to the reinforcement of negative thoughts. But muting that voice is not easy.
Let’s see why and when we should mute verbal thinking and how to do it.
Why do we use inner speech?
Without entering into the scientific reviewing of inner speaking, we can say that we mainly inherit the habit of internal dialogue from childhood. At that time, our learning of the relatively complex behaviors came primarily from interpersonal communications. We were told what to do, and we repeated it while making our own experiences.
Gradually, we interiorized and “softened” these speeches, but we still tend to use them for many reasons: language is our main communication channel so we are used to collectively manipulate ideas through it, we feel reassured by words, we want to be prepared to explain our reasoning to others, it seems a more objective line of thinking, etc.
Many of us may mostly notice vocalization when reading.
Is inner speech useful?
Science is still debating about the importance of inner words at a cognitive and behavioral level. While inner speech is not always necessary, we certainly cannot state its futility in general.
Primarily, words seem to be a reinforcement for memorization. Combining concepts, images, sensations, and words, a support net for our memories is built, improving the ability to recall and communicate them. At the early stages of learning, it seems that inner speaking is a significant reinforcement.
Also, inner speech has a role in our working memory and may help to keep the thread in our reasoning and strengthen our intentions, especially in the case of complex tasks.
Of course, using inner words also helps when our reasoning has to be explained to others.
So, the inner speech seems to be important when learning or facing complex — maybe new — tasks.
But when you feel that your inner monologue is slowing you, introduces useless negativity, creates tensions, or invents unreliable abstractions, inner speech becomes an obstacle.
Verbal thinking slows us down
One of the main drawbacks of verbal thinking is that it’s slow.
Vocalization happens in a serialized way. That is to say, we put words one after the other, at a specific speed. Images and concepts can, instead, be parallel. One image can contain a lot of information at the same moment, can be paired with another image or idea, and we can let them all flow at a higher speed.
Vocalization, once we already interiorized a reliable knowledge, adds a burden. A distracting load.
Verbal thinking may be misleading
While the language is needed for communication and has a role in structuring our thoughts, it is not always necessary for thinking. Language is an invention, not a discovery.
Language adds an extra layer to meaning. Sometimes it’s a helpful layer, but it shouldn’t replace our perception, our feelings, and our awareness of concepts. Words represent ideas and not vice versa. If you mistake words for ideas, you are taking limited symbols as the building bricks of a complex reality. Words have, at the same time, a limited meaning and, often, more than one meaning.
Following words, instead of ideas, can quickly lead us far from reality with false logic, cognitive distortions, negative self-talk, and an excess of abstraction in general. Your thoughts can easily lose concreteness, foundation, effectiveness. Rhetoric is meant for persuasion, not for understanding and acting.
Your presence and your awareness need an open and direct connection with reality, as many practices teach well. Mindfulness is a popular example, nowadays, but we have plenty of other examples, like Yoga and Zen.
Is it possible to avoid vocal thinking?
When you go back to your last time at the beach, you can think about the sand, the wind, the waves, and so on. You can imagine them even without words. Words are added to them.
It may seem strange, but the same easily occurs with abstract concepts, once you learned them. Try to think about how the instinct speaks to you, for example. On many occasions, you see conceptual aspects of what’s going to happen (“they’re trying to convince me,” “this is dangerous,” “that’s going to be complicated,”, etc.) before words can label them.
Take the example of many sports — or activities — where speed is a crucial factor. You don’t have time to verbalize your thoughts, and you still take complex decisions, sometimes even strategic.
Another example of the possibility of muting vocal thinking is speed reading, where you also focus on overcoming vocalization because it puts a very low limit on reading speed. You may or may not want to speed reading in all the contexts, but it’s possible to do it, and many persons can do it.
Considering that the language has been — and continues to be — a relevant channel for leaning and communicating for all our life, it remains usually strictly connected with our memory and our mental processes. But when you are not in an explicit “learning mode” and you don’t need words for specific reasons you are aware of, you can try to minimize — or avoid — verbalization and switch to more efficient and clear thinking.
How can I avoid vocal thinking?
As for many behaviors that we prefer to give up, the first step is to be aware of the drawbacks of the continuous inner speech.
The vocal layer is not the base of your knowledge. It’s a plus, useful in certain occasions. Else, it’s limiting.
If you see things this way you will quickly start to imagine what they usually suggest to do, that is to see your inner voice not as you but as an annoying person who repeats continuously what you are reading or thinking. Or, worse, who suggests words that stand between you and your experience or knowledge.
Stop the inner voice. At first, it will seem limiting, but if you let you try, you will at least perceive that it’s possible.
For those who practice meditation, it won’t be a surprise, especially if their meditation is supported by the knowledge about how we interpose our false beliefs between our conscience and reality. They know that vivid clarity and awareness may arise when the inner voice is silent.
So, if you can’t stop your inner thinking, starting to practice meditation would surely be of help.
If you feel the urge to use words, maybe because you have afterward to explain your reasoning, try to distinguish two phases of your thinking and postpone verbalization. First, try to make your reflections without words. When done, articulate them with language.
Relax. Vocalization of our thoughts may involve muscles, and the burden of the inner dialog may generate tensions, which in turn influence our attitude. Relaxing your muscles will allow you to be more open to perceptions and a free sequence of thoughts. You should not lose control of your thinking but just free it from the useless burden.
Focus on ideas instead of words. If you are focusing on words, it’s like focusing on the word “person” instead of the person you have in front of you. Words are symbols intended for expressing ideas when you have ideas. If you use words to build ideas, it may be like hoping to grow wheat by seeding books on wheat.
This is not a scientific report, and science is still exploring many secrets of our thinking.
We have examples that words help us to learn, but we also have examples of complex thinking without verbalization. We can personally experience both of the cases and are free to use both of them.
But, as in life, useless burden slows us down, distracts us and, sometimes, prevent us from making a step forward.
Keeping your mind clean helps your memory, your health, your presence, your awareness, and your effectiveness. Not worth it to try?
Disclaimer: the content of this article has the sole purpose of disclosing the author’s opinion alone. Nothing in this article is intended to be a substitute for professional psychological, psychiatric or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.