Subvocalization, Inner Speech and Intrusive Thinking

If you listen carefully as you read this post, you will notice a faintly audible  whisper of the the words you are reading. It may be the same whisper you use to think in the symbols and code of language. It maybe an on going monologue or diaogue one has with his or herself, or narrative of scenes played out inside ones head. This overall process is dubbed “inner speech“, “inner monologue“,   “inner dialogue” or Subvocalization, depending on what you read.   Subvocalization is term usually used in the context of reading. However, because of the active verb subvocalizing, or to subvocalize, I prefer to use it here.
To subvocalize is more specific than to think, as one can “visualize” ,  “Be mindful“, feel, or even speed read while thinking without that low audible whisper of language. Subvocalization is thinking in Language, the way one would hear or speak it.

The following are a few difficulties with subvocal thinking.  This is my speculation based upon my experience.   I am not a doctor.   If your thinking is causing you serious health or life problems consult a doctor or health care professional.

Subvocalizing and  “Thinking Errors”.

One suggestion in neuroscience is that one side of ones brain creates emotional responses while the other side of ones brain uses the inner dialogue to rationalize the emotion.
Perhaps Affects (mood and emotion) influence on the process of  subvocalizing  is what produces  “cognitive distortions” or “Thinking Errors” aka “Thought Errors“).
These “errors” maybe   life- intrusive and/or self defeating, and are particular problem for people with Mental disorders (like me), and require a person to cope, and pay special attention to their inner dialogue.  People who suffer from long term Depression , for example will usually “hear” a excessive  negative or self defeating  subvocal thinking.

“Loud” or “Fast” Subvocalizing.

For some people, especially diagnosed with mental disorders, subvocalizing can seem “louder” than sensory intake .   For me in the past, my attention span was consumed  by inner thoughts, as if my thinking was so loud, that I had trouble keeping my attention span  on the  outside world. I have described this as being unable to focus, feeling lost in thought. very frustrating.

For Some with mood disorders, when their mood is elevated their subvocalization seems faster than normal. Faster than normal subvocalization is usually called as “racing thoughts”. For  those people experiencing  “racing thoughts” , they may have a sense of higher creativity or productivity, real or false. Consequentially  the speedy subvocalizing leads to fatigue and unstable moods, irrational thinking, or worse: the  delusional thinking of psychosis .

Intrusive thinking

Sometimes subvocalization can seem hostile to the person experiencing them:  such as the case with  “intrusive thinking”.
Some people can be overwhelmed with the very  intrusive  Thoughts   of self harm, or harming others, that are repeatedly    subvocalized …  “round and round in ones head”.   Ironically  the subject matter of this inner monologue or narrative is  NOT the intent of the person — instead it is very scary experience!
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted.  Intrusive thoughts are not  delusions. Instead they are pressing,  unwanted unreasonable  thoughts and fears that are repetitious. After time they can develop into obsessions. Intrusive thoughts are consciously rejected and uncomfortable, but extremely hard to get rid of for some people.

An example: A women suffering from  “intrusive thinking”  (perhaps symtoms associated with postpardom OCD, in this example), could have the constant thought (subvocalization) of harming her child. But it is not the true intension of the mother, usually its  the opposite: the scariness thing her  mind could conjure. Instead the repeating thought terrifies the young mother. Doctors and professionals associated Intrusive thinking   with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder and  ADHD, but they can be a symptom with other  diagnosis.

Its a possibility that,  in the case of someone  experiencing intrusive thinking, that this particular inner thought pattern   is  a behavior that is doing something else for the body:  perhaps  drumming up  Alert/anxiety centers  for the body to be in a state of readiness.  Being in a state of readiness and alertness may have helped early humans survive in their evolution. who knows… this notion is hard to prove. In any case, the problem is that in  today’s world  this thought pattern is scary and unwanted.
Often people suffering with intrusive thinking  willh believe they are evil or bad.. not realizing that,this is a process of the mind, somehow drumming up their most fearful thoughts…possibly to protect themselves. Ironic.

Noting the problems with an  unhealthy subvocalizing  process ,  I  think it is important to disambiguate  subvocalizing from the generic  term “thinking” for the purpose of this  conversation.
here is why:

  •  Subvocalization uses language while other cognitive process do not.
  •  I am able to cognate (interpret, process and feel emotion) without relying on subvocalization all the time.
  • I am able to be mindful ( filling ones attention span) of mental formations other than subvocalizing with language, by just observing, visualizing  or meditating.
  • I am able to “quiet” subvocalization especially with meditation or medication.
  •  subvocalizing appears to be, in my phenomenological experience, to be an activity such as walking or talking.

These are important points because it helping me understand the following:
subvocalizing is not the whole of my thinking, and it does not have to control the whole me or my thinking.
When Someone says I am not my thoughts… this is what they are talking about:  the chattering and for some consuming “subvocalization” process or inner speech.  Subvocalization is part of me,  part of my cognation or thinking processes, but not the whole of me. The process is very useful in  daily life, but comes with consequences.

— As with “Loud Subvocalization” ” Racing thoughts”, “Thinking Errors”, and “Intrusive thinking” The inner dialogue and subvocalizing can as destructive as they are anything else . Learning to understand and control the inner dialogue may be important in managing Mental Wellness.

Ways to reduce intrusiveness of  Subvocalization:

  • If one is experiencing  what he or she thinks  are Intrusive thoughts, Thinking errors, Depression Mania, or any uncomfortable problems with your thinking — Its more than a good idea to Talk to your doctor or health-care provider. Doctors are able to prescribe treatment or medication that can help one manage health problems quickly — Yes these are real health problems.– Doctors and professionals  are the only ones who  diagnose a person with a disorder if needed.
  • Breathing Exercises and Meditation are excellent ways to learn to let go of subvocalization and be more mindful of other things.
  • A breathing  and/or counting exercise  can be a good plan to slow down or control an episode of negative, intrusive, or obsessive thoughts  when an episode arises.
  • Positive Self Talk.  When becoming aware of of a negative, intrusive or racing train of thought: verbalize   “STOP!” or “I AM SAFE”, followed by verbalizing positive  affirmations. learning to replace negative thoughts with positive ones take time, but is helpful.
  • Journaling – writing has been a way for to let go of thoughts that seem to go round in my head. I am not sure why it is helpful. perhaps the physical act of writing what is on my mind expels the energy of it all. Or perhaps it gives me a way to clarify my thoughts.

As far I can tell, our inner speech or subvocalization is not such a bad thing, much of the time, nor should it be.
Our use of language, thinking in language and speech helps us read, clarify our ideas, explore ideas more deeply, use rational problem solving, and communicate with other people.  But it is important to realize that it is not the whole of my thinking, or the whole of me.  And for those of us who suffer with excessive, negative, or intrusive subvocalizing, better understanding these process can make us happier and allow are thinking to be more useful tool and component for the whole of ourselves.