The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough

by stephenpalmersf

Written by an author with a lot of experience of psychology and related disciplines, this fascinating book covers pretty much everything currently known about voices in our inner mental worlds – which, it turns out, is not very much. The final section of the book in fact is a survey of the considerable amount of work that still needs doing.

Two main theories characterise the book. The first theory is that inner voice is something children acquire as they internalise their normal speaking voice. This, the author suggests, leads to our inner monologue… or, more accurately, our inner dialogues. But as Fernyhough begins to unpick what we think we know about our inner voices he shifts towards a second theory, which is that the phenomenon is far more complex than we realise, involving more than just words and sound. By the end of the book he leans towards the notion that our inner voices (and there are always more than one) are one aspect of more which is internalised: other types of sensory and cognitive perception for instance. Inner voices come with much more baggage than just words.

You would think that a book with this title would focus on schizophrenia and other illnesses, but actually such conditions are a relatively small part of the deal here. That’s not so say the author doesn’t have much insight into the area – he does, and the insights are well worth reading. But so little is known and agreed about how our inner dialogue works there is clearly much more to come.

Fernyhough also touches on how creative people hear, perceive and use inner voices in their work – particularly authors. These sections are short, but fascinating.

A couple of niggles. Even one mention in one sentence of the fact that all human beings have a model of the world inside their head would have greatly helped. The latter chapters of the book, where “whole people” are mentioned as existing in our inner worlds (as indeed they do), would have benefitted from such a statement. It would have helped to put the whole argument of the book into a better perspective. I also think a few mentions of the considerable difference in how introverts and extroverts perceive their inner worlds would have helped. But these are small points, and likely will be addressed as psychologists begin to work with what this excellent author has put forward.

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