What’s Up With Those Voices in Your Head?

Casey Schwartz in The New York Times:

BookIn the course of his life, Vincent van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters to his beloved brother Theo. “I have the grounds pretty well in my mind, and will choose a fine potato field at my ease,” he wrote in the early 1880s, when he was 30 and just beginning to think of himself as an artist. Vincent’s letters often sounded more like private speech than outward exchange; he didn’t seem to expect or require a reply. The act of writing, the expression of his internal, inchoate jumble of thoughts, was a crucial part of his creative process, helping him orient himself within his own vision and plan its execution. In “The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves,” Charles Fernyhough, a professor of psychology at Durham University in England, points to van Gogh’s letters as showing how these voices in our heads are connected to larger questions of thought, decision making, creativity — even consciousness itself.

Inner voices are Fernyhough’s subject, but he admits they are slippery, hard to track, chaotic and cacophonous. “A solitary mind is actually a chorus,” he writes. Tune into yours right now: What are you hearing? Who’s speaking, and when did the conversation begin? This is ambiguous territory. Measuring one’s own private soundtrack is hard enough. Now add in the confounding element of other people’s, too. “Studying something as private and ineffable as our inner voices was, my elders might have warned me, never going to furnish a successful research career,” Fernyhough writes. Yet he has a penchant for exploring exactly these kinds of shifting landscapes. In an earlier book, “Pieces of Light,” he took on memory, building an artful case for the intensely improvised, subjective way we recall the experiences that make up our lives. In “The Voices Within,” he has again rendered complicated mental experience without losing its human texture, as so often happens when psychological questions are addressed in the lab.

More here.