Why We Talk to Ourselves: The Science of Your Internal Monologue

Some of us chatter to ourselves all day long while others’ inner lives take the form of pictures or, like Einstein, abstract visual concepts. But as mindfulness urges us to pay more attention, it’s worth asking: What can our interior life teach us?

Illustration by Edmon de Haro

“Know thyself,” was the advice inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Tao Te Ching insisted that knowing others is intelligence, while knowing oneself is true wisdom. “To thine own self be true,” Shakespeare urged.

Pithy advice. Good advice. Advice that spans centuries and civilizations. But…how exactly do we do that? University of Nevada psychology professor Russell Hurlburt thought a good start was paying attention to the thoughts in our head. Not the eureka! thoughts, necessarily, but the mundane. The “What should I make for dinner tonight?” thoughts. The “That’s a pretty shade of blue” thoughts. The self-reproaching “That was a dumb thing to say” thoughts or the self-encouraging “You can do this” thoughts. The thoughts that, in meditation, we’re taught to label as “thinking.” The thoughts that we barely notice, or that we feel dogged by. The thoughts that, as psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross writes in his book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, allow us “to hold information in our minds, reflect on our decisions, control our emotions, simulate alternative futures, reminisce about the past, keep track of our goals, and continually update…