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Who is the Narrator Inside Your Head?

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

I was surprised to learn that not everyone has a narrator inside their head. The estimates of who has an inner voice, in articles I read, ranged from 20-50%, with no clearly researched answer. I am curious how you think.

Temple Grandin, who is an author, consultant to the cattle industry, professor and autistic describes herself as thinking in pictures. If she is solving a problem in her work — for example, how to move cattle into a pen — she visualizes walking into that pen with the cattle. She identifies what items, like a shiny piece of metal, a fence, a wall would startle or help her.

I asked some random professionals I know about their inner voices. One is a retired high school principal. She describes that some students learn, as we know, visually; kinesthetically; some by reading and some are almost entirely auditory. (Dr. Neal Fleming’s VARK model of learning.)

She became a math teacher, and says even now she counts without thinking about it — how many steps she goes up, how many dishes she puts away. She explains it is important for children to learn what numbers are, not just recognize a written numeral. Understanding concepts of numbers, she explains, makes it easier to understand math.

As a child, she excelled in math. She understood certain numbers had friends. The numbers and their friends also had colors.

It’s estimated that about 3–4% of the population are synesthetes, that is, people who “see” music or letters or numbers in color, or the senses cross in some other way.

When I asked if the retired principal had an internal narrator, she said she had to think about it.

While she thinks mathematically, I am drawn to the narrative.

Psychologists haven’t studied this phenomenon of how we think and who our internal narrators are to my satisfaction. At least I haven’t discovered the book or research, beyond Joseph Campbell’s work on Carl Jung, and Temple Grandin’s work as someone on neurodivergence. Other research decried the lack of research.

We know some people easily see patterns. They may make great coders.

We have theories about learning, which are close to theories of how we think.

We know we have visual processors and verbal processors. Even our automatic responses may point us to our primary method: “I see what you mean.” “I hear you.” “I feel you.”

I suspect that many of us have someone who whispers to the inner narrator. I’m not sure how to label this sense of inner self — an avatar, a persona, a psyche, consciousness, an aspirational image, the hero of your journey. Perhaps some would say this is the voice of God, and that is who guides their inner voice.

I’ll use the word avatar, as in Merriam-Webster’s definition of an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a person. This sense of avatar is not the same as the movie or a computer image. Although I do think it is an interesting question of how or who or what we choose as an avatar in technology to stand in for how we present ourselves online.

I suspect this narrator/self-avatar first takes residency in childhood and changes as we grow into and through adulthood.

I asked a friend if she had a sense of this inner idealized self. She immediately understood the question. “When I was a girl,” she explained, “I read all the children’s pioneer stories or stories about the West. I had this image of myself riding a horse across the plains, hair streaming behind me, free as the wind.”

She has been a free spirit in her life and became a horse owner for some years in her adult life.

Photo by Paula Palmieri on Unsplash

In digging through old boxes to save or toss, I came across an early school project that outlined the Greek Pantheon and had little biographies I’d written of each major deity. I didn’t remember my interest in Greek gods and goddesses going back that far.

My whisperers have primarily been Greek deities or famous Greek women. Athena with her owl attendant has been my inner avatar most recently. The Greek deities have examples for each life stage, the archetypes of Maiden, Wife, Mother, and Crone.

While we may hold these stories or images within ourselves as our models, I am not sure this is a consciously stated element of how we present ourselves to our families or partners, or therapists. A therapist never asked me “Who whispers to your inner voice? Who are you incarnating?”

Not everyone can answer the question. I have a friend who always apologizes, and apologizes for that tendency by explaining she was brought up in a big Catholic family and was one of the nine children, more a herd than an individual. It is her perception of her experience that is telling. Her siblings may have different perceptions.

A role model may be defining, but is not an inner voice.

A retired therapist I asked said that she had role models, but didn’t describe those role models as inner voices or persons who informed her inner voice. She came of age with feminism, and the heroines of the feminist and Civil Rights movements are those she holds up as examples.

I wonder for those who identify as transgender or nonbinary if the gender of their voice is identifiable? My voice has been a woman’s voice, the voice I think of as my Self. I suppose the voice could sound like any narrator — Meryl Streep or James Earl Jones or Donald Duck. But maybe then we would be Meryl Streep or James Earl Jones or Donald Duck.

There were years when I heard my mother’s voice in my head, usually as the disciplinarian who might disapprove of an action.

When I was in my 20s and actively exploring who I would become, I gave the “acting-out” part of my Self another name. It was as if she were the one freed to go to bars, to be wild, to lose her judgment. She’s been gone for a long time.

Stories published on this blog platform are mostly observations, experiences, and opinions. I am interested in a written conversation because I don’t know how we think, I only know how I think. Sometimes I am not so sure of that. We read a great deal about what we think but seldom describe the process.

When I looked up blogs on the subject of inner voice on this platform, there was a wide range of assumptions that, of course, other people have inner critics, sordid inner voices, inner voices that are always true, inner voices that come from God, inner voices that… are on a continuum I don’t recognize. Some people have named their inner voice. Some seem at odds with their inner voice. Some talked about an inner dialogue. More results came up for inner monologue.

Two writers talked about their internal thinking process in divergent ways, as a person without that “inner eye,” someone who is non-visual in her thinking (@Danielle Loewen) and someone who doesn’t have the inner narrator (@Madison Epting).

Do you have a narrator inside your head? How would you describe your narrator? How do you think?

It is evident to me from my little bit of reading that we are very divergent thinkers, and most of us assume other people are like us.

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3 Responses

  1. SingingFrogPress
    | Reply

    This essay really speaks to me, especially since on the same day I read it, I had just read this NY Times article on “hearing voices” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/17/magazine/antipsychotic-medications-mental-health.html. I think it may interest you. It covers all the ways people who are diagnosed as mentally ill because they hear voices which interfere with their abilities to live ordinary lives, and how now-a-days such people are forming support groups and finding other, non-medication ways to deal with their voices. I’m thinking it’s all on a wide psychic continuum. Personally I hear lots of interior voices all the time–my mom and dad saying things that have stuck with me, without ever a hint that I’m hallucinating. And hubby Jay talks about the “Committee” in his head who have discussions about what he should or should not be doing, thinking, etc. Thanks for writing this!

    • Sharon Johnson

      Yes, I think it is fascinating to understand how people think or perceive because it has become clear to me we are very different. No wonder we have difficulty understanding each other, on top of all the many other factors!

  2. Cheryl West
    | Reply

    As a high school teacher from 1985 to 2016, I did approach teaching with the view that students had different learning style preferences, visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and so on. While I didn’t individualize instruction by how I perceived a child’s style, I offered lessons in a combination of styles. I told students that to learn something it is helpful to see it, speak it, write it, and even draw or construct it. 2-D and 3-D projects were a favorite in my English classes, making a map or model of the locations in The Lord of the Flies novel for example. The theory of learning styles has been debunked in recent years but I still believe I am primarily a visual learner. But as a child I talked to myself outloud constantly so I guess I’m an auditory learner too.

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