Can You Hear Yourself Think?

Illustration by Robert Samec

It’s dinner time and you’re starving. Will you eat at a dining hall or spend some extra cash on Chipotle?

As you were thinking about your answer, did you mentally talk yourself through the decision-making process? Or were your thoughts abstract, with no internal dialogue tracking them? In fact, people with both modes of thinking exist. There are those who think with a voice in their head and others whose thoughts present themselves as  ambiguous ideas that must be consciously verbalized. 

Of course, not everyone fits narrowly into one category or the other. After all, the incredible part of being an individual is our unique, subjective perception of the world around us. But many are shocked to learn that others don’t share their own thought processes. You might be wondering: is there a meaningful difference between these two ways of thinking? I had the chance to interview Maddy Bale, ES ’24, a Yale student who frequently engages in internal monologue to find out for myself.

When posed with the Chipotle question, Bale explained her thought process as an internal dialogue: “It would depend. Did I recently get Chipotle? What would I order? What’s at the dining hall?” I, however, am an abstract thinker. I visualized the action of me pulling out my already-light wallet and contemplated how much I’d prefer a burrito over dining hall pizza. We ultimately came to the same answer—“Yes, I’m cashing out on that Chipotle.” Although I can mentally draft a sentence explaining my decision in the same way that Bale can follow an abstract line of thought without an internal dialogue, it takes an active effort to do so. 

With more discussion we uncovered further differences that could be linked to this distinction in our modes of thought. When contemplating a question on her own, Bale explains that she mentally talks through the issue, noting that she hates thinking out loud. Conversely, I often fidget and mumble to myself, clarifying and concretizing my abstract ideas. Bale, furthermore, often walks through pros and cons of choices, whereas I more frequently make decisions based on my gut feeling at the time. 

Research has shown that a neurological distinction does exist and is likely linked to different brain activity underlying these two modes of thinking. A 2011 study gave beepers to participants and asked them to note down what was happening in their minds whenever the beepers went off. After several weeks, the researchers ran analyses and found that some participants experienced internal dialogue almost all of the time, some experienced it occasionally and others never experienced it at all. It is also important to note that although some people lean much more heavily toward one mode of thinking, many report having used both without even realizing it. A 2017 study found that most people fall on a spectrum, thinking both visually and verbally. Even those who typically have an internal dialogue often invoke visual images or abstract ideas along with their inner speech. For instance, in contrast to their typical mode of thinking, when a verbal thinker decides on which hike to take, they don’t necessarily narrate the pros and cons of each option—they might instead simply picture the path and choose that way.

The next time you and your friend are deciding on whether or not to order Chipotle, their thought process might be fundamentally different than yours—even if you arrive at the same conclusion.

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