I don't know about you, but I'd always just assumed that even though people think different (and mostly wrong – do better, everybody) thoughts from myself, everyone sort of thinks in roughly the same way that I do.
Well, it turns out that is not the case at all, and I'm far from alone in my mistake. A tweet went viral last week, and it's sparked a lot of conversation about whether or not people have internal monologues.
For me, I'd always assumed that everybody has an internal monologue, and that monologue is voiced by Patrick Stewart. It's odd to learn that a lot of people don't have this at all, or it's portrayed by someone other than Captain Picard.
Most people do genuinely seem surprised to learn about people thinking in the opposite way to them.
Ask people around you and you'll likely find someone who doesn't think the way you do.
A colleague (Tom Hale) told me he doesn't hear an internal monologue, and responded with annoyance when I suggested that his lack of internal monologue made him like a non-playable character in a video game, or a Buddhist monk that's achieved enlightenment.
"Do you walk around saying in your head 'OK, up the stairs, then open the door, then I shall open the toilet seat'," he asked me, in a confrontational manner. "I just think in abstract terms, I guess? If I want a coffee, I won't say in my head (like a maniac) 'I am a bit tired and thirsty, I shall make myself a coffee'. I just think about it abstractly, maybe imagine walking over to the kettle, etc."
Something experienced by a lot of people online.
For me, in reality, it's a bit of a mix. For mundane tasks, I don't think [Patrick Stewart voice] "I am hungry now, some porridge I shall consume!". This is all done in abstract, maybe an image of porridge accompanied by a feeling of hunger. But more complex stuff, like thoughts about what I want to do over the next year or so, will be done through an inner monologue, sometimes with a cockney accent just to keep things fresh.
For the large part, I will have full conversations inside my head, sometimes like an argument where I'll dismiss something my inner monologue has said a second ago. It's basically like what happens on British sitcom Peep Show.
A (non-scientific) poll beneath the viral post on inner monologues showed that the majority of people experience their thoughts as words (currently around 58 percent), with 14 percent experiencing thoughts as concepts, and 19 percent experiencing both.
In more scientific studies, it seems people experience more of a mix than the self-selected responders to a viral post that implied it was either/or.
A small study in 2011 tried to get a better picture of how people think. They gave beepers (Patrick Stewart impersonating an observational comedian voice: Remember beepers? What's the deal with beepers?) to a random sample of students. When the beeper went off, they had to note down what was going on inside their heads moments before it went off. This went on for several weeks, to get them used to it and then to get an accurate picture of what was happening inside their minds.
"Subjects experienced themselves as inwardly talking to themselves in 26 percent of all samples," the team wrote in Psychology Today. "But there were large individual differences: some subjects never experienced inner speech; other subjects experienced inner speech in as many as 75 percent of their samples. The median percentage across subjects was 20 percent.
"Some people talk to themselves a lot, some never, some occasionally."
In case you're wondering, deaf people have reported having an internal monologue too.
"I have a 'voice' in my head, but it is not sound-based," one person who was born deaf wrote. "I am a visual being, so in my head, I either see ASL signs, or pictures, or sometimes printed words."
There are also people out there who can't picture things in their heads, known as aphantasia.
If you want to know what that's like, check out this essay by somebody who can't form pictures in their mind.