Eaves­drop­ping on in­ner voices

THE VOICES WITHIN: THE HIS­TORY OF HOW WE TALK TO OUR­SELVES

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, writes widely on pol­i­tics, his­tory, gas­tron­omy and the arts.

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.

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