Language and Thinking
  • Selftalk and Thinking

    One of the most important and least recognized features of the human mind is selftalk. In adults, selftalk is described as "thinking" or “reflection.” Aristotle declared that thinking was “inner speech” and he defined the rules of logic, the proper methods of constructing relationships among statements. Selftalk is a continuous narrative feature of the mind. Through selftalk, language becomes a dominant feature of cognition. Narrative dominance enables some of the best cognitive abilities that humans display, but narrative dominance can also be disabling.

    The recognition that selftalk is thought resolves tedious debates about the relationship of language to cognition. It is no longer necessary to argue that the structure and content of languages influence thinking. Language is thinking. It is also necessary to understand that most human action is independent of language. Most decisions are made quickly by subconscious processes that are independent of language. Most skills are learned mimetically and deployed without the intervention of language.

    It is also necessary to appreciate that language has become mathematics, computer programming and other symbolic representations of the world out there that allow humans to describe more precisely what is going on out there. Greater precision permits greater control of their actions in the world.

    Selftalk (thought) begins in children learning language, connecting words to their experiences and actions. Language skills develop slowly in a predetermined sequence that requires daily practice. The meaning of words and sentences develops as sounds are linked to experiences in real time. Children will talk to themselves as they play and learn. Their monologues begin with repeating words and statements they copy and extends to problem-solving and creative narratives that expand the range of linguistic ability.

    A two-year old will walk around repeating words and simple phrases without an audience. A four-year old girl can sound quite convincing as she speaks to her dolls or pets in long narratives, acting as a competent parent. As children play, problem solve, learn new skills they will often talk to themselves much like a voice-over monologue in a documentary movie.

    The child’s narrative will reveal how their cognitive processes are developed. A sensitive adult will learn much by quietly listening and sometimes can add some direction or advice, without inhibiting the child’s selftalk. As children mature, their spoken private monologues become silent continuing in the privacy of their mind as selftalk. Laura Berk studied the private talk of children and suggested:” As a child gains mastery over his or her behavior, private speech need not occur in a fully expanded from; the self after all is an understanding listener. Children omit words and phrases that refer to things they already know. They state only those aspects that seem puzzling. As they practice, children start to “think words” rather than saying them. Gradually. private speech becomes internalized as silent inner speech aka thoughts.”

    Selftalk is desirable to review, to learn from experience, to rehearse and to cope with threats. Selftalk, as rehearsal, prepares speeches that will be use in future encounters. Fantasy is selftalk in the form of internal story telling with good outcomes. Fantasy is rehearsal, reassurance, integral parts of regenerating interest in projecting oneself into the world. Threats generate the most compulsive self-talk in the form of conversations that repeat as endless loop tapes. Threat responses can be either combative or conciliatory.

    A threatened self-talker will try different strategies of replying to a threat, and will be preoccupied. Worry describes the self-talk responses to threats. Other terms such as reflection, contemplation and silent prayer refer to self-talk. Some commentators have confused consciousness with language. This is an understandable mistake when you realize that selftalk is a prevalent experience.

    Professional story-tellers such as book writers and university professors spend their idle time talking to themselves and refer to selftalk as “thinking and reasoning.” The dominance of the personal narrative is a feature of mind activity that separates humans from other animals.

    This narrative function lies in the left hemisphere in most people and is generated from the specialized language processing centers in the temporal and frontal lobes. The narrative appears whenever a human is conscious. The narrator emerges with dream recollections as a sleeper becomes conscious. Dream activity involves the whole brain, but the left temporal lobe reports the event, using the style of fictional narrative

    The selftalk narrator appears to be an innate feature of the human mind that has an agenda of its own. Humans, like myself, who attempt to control the narrator encounter stubborn resistance and generally concede that you cannot change the narrator’s scripts. Masking self talk works briefly. You can use a mantra that you repeat to mask the narrator. You can use music and other sounds that are designed to have a masking effect.

    Gazzaniga described the specialization of left and right cerebral hemispheres. He suggested that the left hemisphere has a conscious experience different from the literal right brain that lives in the present. The left hemisphere attempts to explain everything and always comes up with a theory, no matter how outlandish. The left side specializes in the selftalk narrative. Gazzaniga stated: “The human brain is a collection of neurological adaptations established through natural selection. These adaptations each have their own representation—that is, they can be lateralized to specific regions or networks in the brain. But throughout the animal kingdom, capacities are generally not lateralized. Instead they tend to be found in both hemispheres to roughly equal degrees. And although monkeys show some signs of lateral specialization, these are rare and inconsistent. It has always appeared that the lateralization seen in the human brain was an evolutionary add-on … (we speculated) that some lateralized phenomena may arise from a hemisphere’s losing ability, not gaining it. In what must have been fierce competition for cortical space, the evolving primate brain would have been hard-pressed to gain new faculties without losing old ones. Lateralization could have been its salvation. Because the two hemispheres are connected, mutational tinkering with a homologous cortical region could give rise to a new function—yet not cost the animal, because the other side would remain unaffected.”

    The whole notion of an inner monologue that is continuously active in the minds of all humans is precarious since there is no direct evidence and no objective criteria for this activity. Only the person who is experiencing selftalk as an inner monologue knows that this is occurring and many observers have little insight into their own process and may not recognize or report selftalk. This is a problem of studying your own consciousness, observing from a meta-monitor position that is somehow aloof, detached from the flow events passing through consciousness including selftalk. The high goal of meditation practice is to reside in the metamonitor, undisturbed by emotion or feelings; to be calm, clear, stable and present. You are instructed by ancient texts to observe the inner monologue but to remain detached from it. I experience my “thoughts”. I am not my “thoughts”.

  • Dr. Gislason wrote: "In this brief reflection I describe some basic truths about languages that are aspects of human nature most likely to endure. I feature storytelling and selftalk as the two most important features of the human use of language. I consider how languages fit in the larger scheme of intelligence and human interactions. Interesting challenges emerge when language is used to describe itself. Spoken language is an innate ability of humans that emerges in all human groups. Spoken language is the key to interaction among humans. There are several thousand languages in human groups that enhance group cohesion and at the same time separate groups that cannot communicate. I trace the evolution of sound communication from animals who have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years to computer programming that uses condensed forms of cryptic languages that are received and expressed by electronic circuits."

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    Human Nature
    The Good Person
    Pieces of the Puzzle
    The Sound of Music
    Surviving Human Nature
    Language and Thinking
    I and Thou
    Emotions and Feelings
    Neuroscience Notes
    Children and Family
    Intelligence and Learning
    Religion for 21st Century

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    The Psychology, Neuroscience and Philosophy series was developed by Persona Digital Books. The books are copyright; all rights to reproduction by any means are reserved.
    The author is Stephen Gislason and the publisher is Persona Digital Books.