Inner speech – I’m talking to myself again

I’m still worrying about the development of individual perspective. The evolutionary psychologist in me is absolutely skeptical of the idea that our cultural development might have created a radical change in individual self-consciousness (a Jaynesian rewrite of the software of self-perception).

Can we be confident that a change in the historical expression of individual perspective is a different thing from the fundamental experience of individual perspective in history? (If only Nagel had written What Is It Like To Be A Pre-Renaissance Artist instead). By assuming there is a fundamental human experience to look for, am I already too deeply enmeshed in the fascistic reductionism of biological psychology?

So, ultimately, this is the question: can our experience of ourselves as agents be altered by our culture. Or perhaps more useful, how can our culture affect our experience of ourselves? Next week: cross-cultural evidence. But this week: developmental evidence.

Young children speak to themselves all the time. In fact the majority of their utterances are self-directed rather than other-directed. This is strange for something – language – which is an ability which can only be learnt in a social context. Laura Berk has written a good introduction to this Why Children Talk to Themselves.

As they get older the tendency for self-talk diminishes – it becomes internal speech. A child who is learning not to speak aloud can be developmentally reverted by being made to perform some tricky task. They then need self-instruction to help guide their actions (i seem to remember some experiment in which the participants – either adults or children, i can’t remember now – were forbidden from self-instructing aloud and their performance decreased. Need to chase the details).

So, obviously, externalising thoughts as speech does cognitive work – we can then operate on those representations, and this reflexion is in turn easier if those representations are placed in our short-term auditory memory with the force that comes from them being made physical sounds rather than merely sub-vocally articulated.

Inner speech seems analogous in some way to the development of silent reading – it’s so natural now that it’s hard to spot that it needed to be invented. The question is would inner speech be discovered independently by each child during development, or would it need to be culturally discovered. Imagine if, as an adult society, we never developed the use of inner speech. We would be forced to rely on actual social interaction to perform the cognitive work of internal speech.

This might be a reason why privacy was a non-concept before the modern period – the cognitive costs were too high. It might explain why adults so often tell children off, and each other, for talking to themselves – it’s the historical legacy of a culture that had to learn to internalise speech.