What Films and Literature Reveal About the Voice in Your Head

Illustration by Sadia Tariq circa 2022

Shayla Love at Psyche: In a scene from the movie Adaptation (2002),Nicolas Cage, playing the writer Charlie Kaufman, sits in front of his typewriter paralysed with writer’s block. Cage’s mouth doesn’t move but, as the viewer, you hear his voice speak:

To begin. To begin. How to start. I’m hungry, I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think but I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. OK, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe banana nut, that’s a good muffin.

You’re hearing Charlie’s inner speech, or the running dialogue in his mind. Many films have this kind of voiceover: it isn’t narrating to the audience in an omniscient way, but opening a window into the character’s mind. It’s sharing what they are saying to themselves, which can include their feelings, plans or desires, like for a specific muffin variety. When we hear these disembodied voices in films, most of us get it. That’s because the voiceover is similar to what takes place in our own minds each day. The US sociologist Norbert Wiley noted the parallels. In Inner Speech and the Dialogical Self (2016), he wrote: ‘Life is something of a silent movie, and inner speech makes it hang together.’

For psychologists and other researchers, inner speech presents a puzzle – it’s a huge part of our lives, yet so difficult to study. After all, in real life, when it comes to other people’s inner speech, there is no audio with closed captions. Nevertheless, there have been attempts to make the internal external. In 2016, the anthropologist Andrew Irving walked up to people on the streets of New York and asked them to say out loud what they were saying to themselves in their minds. ‘One person might be debating what to have for lunch or silently singing the lyrics of a pop song, while others are reminiscing about their childhood, fretting about money or fantasising about a work colleague,’ he wrote.

Irving acknowledged that there was a gap between what he could record in the field and what was going on in someone’s mind. ‘We are obviously not hearing people’s thoughts in themselves but their verbal articulation in a public context,’ he wrote. That’s why some experts are turning to the way that inner speech is depicted in films and literature to help unlock the mystery of why we talk to ourselves in our heads and what this talk is for.

In films, inner speech gives the viewer a privileged insight into a character’s mind. In Terrence Malick’s movie Badlands (1973), we hear what Sissy Spacek’s character is thinking when her lover kills another man. In the TV show Magnum PI (1980-88), we often hear what Tom Selleck’s character is thinking about while he does it, such as giving himself directions or motivating himself. Taxi Driver (1976), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Memento (2000), Fight Club (1999) – all these movies make inner speech into outer speech for the audience’s sake.

When a movie voiceover communicates something to the viewer in this way, it’s mimicking social speech, as if the movie’s creators are talking to you. This is in line with the leading theory about where our own inner speech comes from. In the 1930s, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed that inner speech was an internalised version of how children heard their parents talk, and how their parents spoke to them. According to Vygotsky, even though inner speech happens privately in your head, it remains social because it’s copying this social speech experienced early in life. When children hear their parents talking to them and to each other, those conversations become internalised over time, first into private speech, or children talking out loud to themselves, and then into inner speech.

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