Eavesdropping on inner voices
THE VOICES WITHIN: THE HISTORY OF HOW WE TALK TO OURSELVES
Basic Books, $27.50, 307 pages
Let’s face it. One way or another, at one time or another, we’ve all heard voices in our heads. The persistent song lyric or commercial jingle, the echo of a conversation with someone we cared about that sticks in the memory, mulling over prospects or alternatives with ourselves, or rehearsing lines in our mind before using them on others all qualify as “inner voice” experiences. There is nothing crazy, or even unusual, about any of this. But there are some people who hear other, stranger inner voices: voices that come unbidden and hold the listener captive, voices that tempt, taunt or torment, sometimes even voices that tell their listeners to kill.
One of the weaknesses of British psychologist Charles Fernyhough’s often interesting if episodic short book on inner voices is that he tends to lump together clearly off-the-wall, delusional cases with the routine musings of healthy imaginations into a single, inchoate mass. While this may help to justify the existence of his “project on inner voices” at Durham University, it does not necessarily make for good science. Appetizing apples and oranges abound in Mr. Fernyhough’s narrative, strung together by his undeniable gift as a storyteller, but not emerging as a coherent whole.
“I want to begin with a simple fact of the matter: when we think about our own experience, or when we ask other people to report on what goes on for them, we find that our heads are full of words,” the author tells us, stating the rather obvious. “That doesn’t mean that everyone reports such verbal streams of thought: the fact that some of us do not will need explaining. Asking that question in the right way may prove to be very informative about the relationship between language and thinking.” Perhaps, or maybe it just tells us that some people think without analyzing how or why they do it, while other people think about how they think, i.e., they go beyond an autopilot mode of receiving and acting on their mental impulses, consciously listening to their “inner voice” thinking process.
Certain professions and personality types are more prone to this process of consciously tuning in and listening than others. Anyone who has ever done a good job producing dialogue in a play or novel, or drafting a speech, has been writing with an inner ear — “hearing” what they compose while they compose it. To cite an example from personal experience, as a speechwriter to three very different presidents, I listened as I wrote for each of them, “hearing” what I wrote in the voice of the individual who would be giving the speech. The result was a very different style and “voice” for Richard Nixon than for Jerry Ford or for Ronald Reagan. But the voices were a result of my own conscious, reasoned actions and experience. They didn’t come to me uninvited, overstay their welcome or launch into independent tirades. My mind was using experience and creative imagination rather then feeling occupied by an outside entity or unleashing dark, unhinged fantasies. The process was conscious and functional rather than subconscious and dysfunctional.
Contrast this with one of the cases cited by Mr. Fernyhough, a woman who “described how her voices became so aggressive that she hatched a plan to drill a hole in her head to let them out.” She still hears these voices, he tells us, but her “relationship with her voices ... has changed radically. Although they are occasionally still very troublesome, she now sees them as remnants of a ‘psychic civil war’ resulting from repeated childhood trauma.” Something is still wrong upstairs but she has developed a coping mechanism to live with it.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, whom the author quotes without fully appreciating, understood the distinctions involved: “All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity,” he wrote, “but while the power is such as we can control and repress, it is not visible to others, nor considered as any depravation of the mental faculties: it is not pronounced madness but when it becomes ungovernable ... . ”
Johnson, great man of letters that he was, drew on “fancy” in writing his novels and poems and even in framing his witty conversational sallies. There was a world of difference between this positive, controlled use of his inner voices and the uncontrolled, dark impulses he may have wrestled with despairingly and alone. While Mr. Fernyhough shares a lot of scholarly tidbits and recounts some compelling case histories, he seems to have trouble distinguishing between the one condition and the other — better at eavesdropping on inner voices than at understanding them.