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Inner Voice Plays Role in Self Control
by Malcolm Williamson
(First published in STATNews, January 2011)

Scientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough have found that talking to yourself might not be a bad thing, especially when it comes to exercising self-control. We give ourselves messages all the time with the intent of controlling ourselves -whether that is telling ourselves to keep running when we're tired, to stop eating even though we want one more slice of cake, or to control our temper. Alexa Tullett and colleagues have shown that your inner voice plays an important role in controlling impulsive behaviour.

The research team performed a series of self-control tests on participants. In one test, participants were asked to press a button if they saw a particular symbol appear on the screen. If they saw a different symbol, they were told to refrain from pushing the button. The test measured self-control because there were more 'press' than 'don't press' cues, making pressing the button an impulsive response.

They then included measures to block participants from using their inner voice while performing the test to see if it had an impact on their ability to perform. Participants were told to repeat one word over and over as they performed the test. This prevented them from talking to themselves while doing the test.

The team found that through a series of tests, participants acted more impulsively when they could not use their inner voice or talk themselves through the tasks. Michael Inzlicht explained, "Without being able to verbalise messages to themselves, they were not able to exercise the same amount of self-control as when they could talk themselves through the process."

Tullett said that it had always been known that people have internal dialogues with themselves, but until now we had not known what an important function they serve. Talking to ourselves in this inner voice actually helps us exercise self-control and prevents us from making impulsive decisions.

Now, I wonder whether the Canadian team's findings have any relevance to our understanding of the mental activity of 'giving orders' -inhibiting and directing to control our own "too quick and unthinking reaction" -known as the Alexander Technique?

I'm sure that using the inner voice -sub-vocalising -is one of the ways people learn to inhibit and direct. Nowadays, it's common to 'speak' silently to ourselves, but not so long ago it was unusual. People thought that voices in the head were those of God or our soul speaking to us -and these voices of conscience were most likely telling us what we shouldn't be doing, not what to do.

Reading silently to ourselves is an ability discovered only in the Middle Ages. The Romans only read aloud. St. Augustine in A.D. 384 gives the first account of someone reading silently to himself when he watched Ambrose of Milan (later also made a saint):

"When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still."

It was not until the tenth century that this manner of reading became usual in the West. It needed the skills of Irish monks to add punctuation marks to written texts so that their meaning could be understood without speaking them aloud. From the earliest days of the first Sumerian tablets, written words were meant to be pronounced out loud. The ancient languages of the Bible -Aramaic and Hebrew -do not differentiate between the act of reading and the act of speaking. Gradually, written symbols representing vocal sounds evolved into symbols representing ideas which could remain in one's head and never be broadcast to a wider world. More and more our culture has developed the mind's ability to chatter privately to itself, as Iain McGilchrist writes in his book (2009) subtitled The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (reviewed in the September 2010 issue of Statnews). Left hemisphere over-dominance leads to less communication, social engagement, presence and connectedness. The difference between self-generated mind chatter and 'sense-informed thinking' was brought home to me some years ago by Temple Grandin in an interview for the BBC's Horizon programme. Animals are continually monitoring the here-and-now whereas we humans easily become separated from where we are -less sensorily aware -and 'live' in a virtual world of our thoughts.

The mind is a useful tool for solving a problem or learning how to do something: you talk instructions though to yourself silently or out loud. Think of how you first learned to drive a car and rehearsed the sequence, "Mirror, signal, handbrake". But with practice, it becomes routine (habitual) and then you only have to decide to set off and the sequence is played out automatically. It's similar when learning the Alexander Technique. As a way of working on yourself it is useful to vocalise or to sub-vocalise the directions -ideally both ways, as speaking directions out loud adds qualities to merely running through them in your head. Giving time to speak out the words allows you to relish the resonance and rhythm of the sounds. Try reading aloud from one of Alexander's books and discover how his sentences rise and cadence with the breath, and readily reveal their meaning.

Eventually, though, as Patrick Macdonald (1989) points out, directing becomes something else (p82). That's why it's important, when you're learning to give directions, that you say them in the right order. When all that's entailed in primary control -'going up' -has become our primary habit, as Dewey called it, then all we have to remember is to 'go up' to take a step (or whatever). 'Going up' creates the advantageous conditions which determine how the activity of stepping is organised. Walter Carrington used to say, "You donít go around rabbiting on to yourself about freeing your neck and not pulling your head back once you've decided that's what you want."

The Alexander Technique develops a sense of presence and non-attachment -space that gives you time to survey what's happening and your role of involvement: "Given what is happening, if I take that action then that is the most likely consequence -I wonder what will happen if...? Shall I go ahead now or not?" That's when the self-control operates, in the space between receiving a stimulus and our response. We are, then, not so liable to becoming out of touch with our reason (or our senses), or quite so subject to impulsive "emotional gusts".

So, yes, talking to ourselves is a very useful tool for learning and practising self-control -a useful way of working on ourselves, as we say -but it's not necessarily a part of applying the Technique or good use. Once we are competent then our mind quietens and awareness can return to sense-informed observing (monitoring), and we can fully engage with the unfolding of life's rich tapestry.

Tullett, A, et al., Inner Voice Plays Role in Self Control Acta Psychologica
, September 2010.


Alberto Manguel,
A History of Reading
, New York: Viking 1996.
John Dewey,
Human Nature and Conduct
, 1922.
Patrick Macdonald,
The Alexander Technique as I See It
, Rahula Books 1989.
Iain McGilchrist,
The Master and His Emissary
, Yale University Press 2009.

© Malcolm Williamson, January 2011 



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