media The Voices Within

Inner Speech: an episode of The Forum

Last week I was at Broadcasting House in London to record an episode of The Forum, the ideas and discussion show that goes out on BBC World Service. The show is chaired by Bridget Kendall, and the other studio guests were the broadcaster and social psychologist Aleks Krotoski and novelist and short-story writer Aamer Hussein. The programme is broadcast this weekend, first at 23:06 GMT on Saturday, and then again at 10:06 on Sunday and 02:06 on Monday.

The theme of the programme is inner speech: the internal dialogue that makes up much of many people’s conscious experience. The conversation began with me setting out some ideas about why we should be interested in inner speech as a phenomenon, and how this kind of mental experience can work both to our benefit and detriment psychologically. As readers of this blog will know, this has been a focus of research for me for a long time: it was the topic of my recent cover feature for New Scientist, and it will form the basis of my next non-fiction book for Profile.

Aleks then talked about her research (documented in her excellent new book, Untangling the Web) into how the internet is allowing us to experiment with new social identities, and what effect that might have on the inner voice. We talked about how social media such as Twitter can function as a kind of online private speech, a means for self-regulation and emotional expression, which is a topic I have written about previously in relation to Vygotsky’s theory.

Aamer Hussein’s fictions are often preoccupied with the tension between internal and external speech. He writes in both Urdu and English, and has some fascinating things to say about how these different languages afford different kinds of inner and outer speech. His haunting short novel Another Gulmohar Tree tells of an Urdu speaker who struggles to translate his innermost thoughts into a form that his English wife can understand.

Finally, we had a lot of fun with Aleks’ suggestion for a Sixty Second Idea to Change the World—a regular feature on the show. While recognising that it lay in the realms of science fiction, Aleks suggested inventing a device that would monitor a speaker’s inner dialogue and tell you—by the emission of a certain scent or odour—whether they were telling the truth. We were far too polite to mention it on air, but I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s famous line:

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.

It would be nice to be able to detect other people’s bullshit, but it’s handy (especially for a writer) to be able to detect one’s own as well.

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