What the voices in your head sound like

When we read something silently we are, essentially, saying it to ourselves in our internal monologue. Psychology researchers at Britain's University of Nottingham wanted to know whether the voice that reads in our heads matches the voice that we read aloud in. In other words, does your internal monologue have an accent?

It's an interesting question. Although you might think it's a given, previous studies have suggested that the voice you speak with and the voice you think with might not be pronouncing words quite the same. This newer study, published in PLOS last fall, found the opposite—that there is at least some level of match between audible and silent pronunciation.

What I really like, though, is how they constructed the study. After all, you can't just ask people how they pronounce words in their heads. Like the question of whether you say "soda" or "pop" or "coke", once you start thinking about it hard enough to answer, you suddenly lose all ability to know what you do when you aren't paying attention. (Note: That soda/pop thing hasn't actually been scientifically demonstrated. It's just a bit of personal anecdata that I thought was relevant here.) In order to get around that problem, the Nottingham researchers had subjects read limericks while carefully monitoring their eye movements. The subjects were chosen based on their accents—one group pronounced their "a" sounds so that "path" would rhyme with "Kath". To the other group, that rhyme wouldn't rhyme at all. Instead, for them, "path" rhymed with "Garth".

The subjects read the limericks silently to themselves. But when they got to rhymes that didn't make sense with their spoken accent, there was a distinct disruption in eye movement. Basically, the physiological equivalent of the subjects having to stop and think, "Wait. That doesn't rhyme."

The other really cool thing I found in this paper: The fact that what we know about he author of the piece can influence how we read it.

... some previous studies have presented evidence to suggest that ‘person-particular’ knowledge of the author of a piece of text can influence reading of that piece of text. For example, it has been demonstrated that knowledge of the presumed author's speaking speed can influence how quickly people read aloud a passage of text [32]. This finding has also been replicated, and extended to silent reading [33]. Findings from other studies examining auditory imagery during reading have suggested that readers simulate aspects of the voices of the characters featured in the text (see [34], and also [35], for related findings). The current research supports, and extends these findings, by demonstrating that in the absence of information about the writer's voice, or that of characters involved in the text, inner speech during silent reading resembles the reader's own voice.

Henceforth, I shall refer to this as "The Just-Read-Trainspotting Effect", in honor of the three weeks during college when I couldn't get my inner monologue to stop drifting into an approximation of a heavy Scottish accent.

Via Stan Carey

Image: Eight-Minute Mouth Move, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from bruce-asher's photostream


      1. Kinda like Billy Connolly on crack? or Kelly Macdonald on poppers? (Yeah, I just named two out of the three vocal leads of “Brave.” So shoot me.)

      2.  You can’t really say “Scottish accent”, because that’s a bit like saying “American accent”.  *Where* in Scotland?  Well, in Trainspotting the book is written in dialect that approximates the accent of working class people from Edinburgh housing schemes.  I’m Scottish, and I don’t sound anything like that.  I don’t sound anything like the people from Glasgow I work with, who *also* don’t sound like people from Edinburgh.

        It’s maybe not as bad as saying “British accent” – what the hell is a “British accent”?

          1. My American accent really isn’t very good, but I think it’s actually a bit of a mash-up of all of them.

            That said, I could attempt Texan; but now I need to consider a West Texan??  The last thing I needed to hear was that there were multiple Texan accents (I guess it is a big place though).  I think I’ll stick with my mash-up.

        1. It’s what you make of it.

          If asked to ‘do an accent’, you’ll likely have a pre-stored ‘generic’ version of that accent; I guess it will vary depending on your exposure.

          If asked to do Scottish I’d likely be shooting around the Edinburgh region, but I’d also be missing by quite a bit I’m sure; I’m not good at accents.

          1. There are no hard and fast boundaries between accents but adjacent accents do share areal features; a generic accent is possible if also phoney.

          2. @Wreckrob8:disqus 

            Definitely; I think this is how we end up with a load of crap accents in films, because they’re going for something generic that people will get, but at the same time is completely fictitious.

          3. I’ve always thought that was pretty fascinating – those accents that don’t actually exist, but are constructed from an imagined generic synthesis of several accents, filtered through the culture and vocality of Hollywood. Sean Connery, who can apparently pass for an American’s idea of Russian, English (twen-cen urban upper-class), English (19th c. military lower-class), Scottish, and god knows what else, is sort of an embodied example par excellence, having spawned his own incredibly diverse informal family of reconstructions and derivatives. Like Israeli Hebrew or the invention of Erasmus that we pretend is the pronunciation of Classical Greek. Wheels within wheels, fleas upon fleas, simulacra begetting simulacra…

            Considering that these accents – especially cinematic ones, that can become intimately familiar to hundreds of millions of people – also curve back around and affect the evolution of ‘natural’ ones, don’t they deserve  to be considered as ‘real’ accents – albeit of a categorically different kind – themselves?

          4. @NathanHornby: Texas is indeed “a big place”… from east to west it stretches about 850 miles–roughly the distance from London to Munich. I think an area of that magnitude could definitely support a few variations in inflection and dialect.

            From an old country song: 
            “The sun has rose | The sun has set | We still ain’t out | of Texas yet”

        2.  Should we get so specific that when we do an accent we have to give the name and address?
            I was pretty good at American southern and Midwestern accents at one point and could tell you a state after hearing just a little speech.  In some cases I could tell you regions within states.    But there are state and regional similarities.  There are even country wide similarities.  Sometimes English, South African, and Australian can be confused until you develop an ear.

          1. I’ve met several people from all over South Africa and Australia, and I must admit, I’ve never noticed regional differences.  Oddly enough I pick out regional differences in my French friends accents easily; maybe it’s because of the language thing?  Like I hear Australian and consider it more as an English accent, a category in its own right, and don’t look any further.

            That said, I find it hard to believe that anyone could hear someone from Sunderland and someone from Sussex and not notice the difference; they’re practically different languages.  Maybe I’m wrong.

          2.  @NathanHornby I think you hear more difference, the more familiar you are with a manner of speech,  that doesn’t make the broader category invalid.

    1. I had an instance of this while reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a plane. My entire inner monologue was Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke making crazy observations as I walked through an airport for 2 hours waiting for my connecting flight.

  1. whew. i thought i was the only one with a “non standard” inner dialog. my inner voice frequently sounds like alan watts (one of the guys who popularized buddhism in the west in the 50’s-70’s.) and when i’m in a particularly weird mood, i use a yoda voice internally to keep things interesting.

    fwiw, i’ve found that boring meetings are a little more tolerable when you imagine you’re yoda and use your inner voice to dispense office jedi wisdom: “ohhh! comic sans! powerful font was he!” or “for 800 years have i been crafting power-point presentations. my own counsel on page effects will i keep!”

  2. I definitely imagine people’s writing in their voices if I know what their voices sound like. If I don’t know, I hear it more flat and neutral. It can be weird if I read something unfamiliar, then see a video of the author speaking, then go back and read it again.

    1. This sounds like me.

      Listening to Gweek has given me quite a diverse exposure to both Mark’s and Rob’s voices, which has changed how I read their posts, both in terms of tone and accent.  There’s a lot that’s hard to put forward in writing that spills out effortlessly when speaking; and I think often without that context writing can be very ‘flat’ – but that definitely refers more to the tone than the accent.

      Incidentally I still can’t put Rob’s face with his voice.  Even if watching video of him, there’s a huge disconnect for me there for some reason.  It’s all just very wrong.  And I’m English, and knew that he was English, so it’s not even that. Can we get a scientist on to that?

      EDIT: Funnily enough Maggie, for what it’s worth, you sounded exactly how I might have imagined you to sound. Perhaps that’s even stranger.

        1.  I felt the same way the first time I heard your voice (in a live webcast you did a while back, I think) – exactly as I thought it might sound based on how you look and how you write.

          I was a bit thrown by Mark, Xeni, and Rob (although in his case it’s probably because I didn’t realize he was English until I heard his voice). I’ve been reading BB for years but had somehow managed to never hear Mark or Xeni’s voice until I met them at the BB meetup last summer. As NathanHornby said, once I heard their voices and talked to them (and, now, after listening to so much Gweek) I read the things they write differently – in Mark’s case especially it enhances his writing imagining it in his somewhat eccentric and joyful-sounding voice :)

          But, I think everyone imagines themselves sounding different than they do in recordings, don’t they?

  3. I, like so many others my age who watched The Dukes of Hazzard when we were small, have an internal monologue that frequently sounds like Waylon Jennings.

      1.  Of course the added bonus is that if I’m late for work I just slip in a bluegrass tape and I can drive at 1.5x normal speed.  The only real downside is that this means that the bridge near me is washed out, and that’s starting to get *really* expensive on replacement suspension components.

  4. Everything I read if it has a setting, or I know the origin I read in my head as that accent. Especially because there will be terms that you only HEAR in an english accent that will be awkward to read in an american accent and vice versa.

    1.  I think it depends on if you’ve heard the writer speaking, or if you’ve heard a particularly memorable voice reading the part.  I hear the “narrator” parts of Douglas Adams’ books as sounding like Peter Jones – not just “the Voice of the Book” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although that of course is where I know him from – and if I’m reading it aloud I tend to read it in a rather Peter Jones-y kind of voice, as best I can.

      When I read Kinky Friedman’s books, they sound in my head like the Kinkster.

    2. The first time that I re-read The Two Towers after seeing The Two Towers, I heard Viggo Mortensen in my head saying, “Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall.” Just about jumped out of my skin.

  5. Very interesting!

    I had this same thought a while back, and tried to work it out myself, but as you say, the more you think about it the harder it is to come to a conclusion.

    But surely it depends on how you read?  I’m a slow reader, I literally read the words.  Whereas if you’re a good reader you likely scan sentences and lines which involves more ‘absorbing’ than reading.  I wonder how this affects things.

    The way they tested it is also damn clever.

    1.  I read by scanning sentences and so on, and the only time I really “hear” my internal dialogue is if I’m consciously thinking about it – which of course is inevitable if you’ve just read about it and are having a discussion about it, but otherwise is almost never.

      I suppose it happens if I’m writing (and thinking about what I’m writing instead of just spewing nonsense) but I can’t tell. I’m doing it now as I write, but that’s because we’re talking about it :)

    1. Exactly what I was thinking when I read this post!

      I always apply accents and tone/pitch to my internal dialog as would see fit for the content. 

  6. Are we so sure there’s an internal monologue?  If I want to think specifically about a sequence of words, I go back and think about how the words sound to myself.  Otherwise, I don’t feel that there’s a voice in my head when I’m reading.  

    1. I mentioned above:

      “But surely it depends on how you read?  I’m a slow reader, I literally read the words.  Whereas if you’re a good reader you likely scan sentences and lines which involves more ‘absorbing’ than reading.  I wonder how this affects things.”

      Would you say you fit into the latter category?  Would be interested if my theory has some weight to it.

    1. They’re talking about Norma Shearer in The Women. And most other Hollywood stars of the day. It means an American trying to sound vaguely British.

      1. I love that accent. My grammy used to do a great send-up of that accent. She’d pull it out whenever she was making fun of politicians while we watched McNeil/Lehrer. Usually accompanied by the phrase, “Well, la di dah.” 

  7. I do not pronounce the words in my own heard.  Aside from Sean Connery and Samuel L Jackson, I really don’t read in a ‘voice’. I certainly can, but when I do my reading slows down tremendously, so I don’t.

    I am actually surprised by the apparent universality of this experience in others.

    1. after commenting on what a fast reader my sister was, i then freaked her out by saying ‘i wouldn’t want to listen the words being said so fast in my head’. she totally didn’t know what i was talking about so i have been asking people in groups just at random and it seems like it is about 50/50 voice/no voice the latter category being faster readers. ask your crew next time you are out for drinks…

      1. I actually vary between voice/no voice. If I’m reading the news for example, there’s no need for an inner voice as I’m just trying to learn some information and the identity of the speaker/writer is fairly irrelevant. I do find if I’m reading fiction having an inner voice helps me to slow down and appreciate the text more. If I’m reading in other languages my inner voice obviously sounds more like a native speaker, while sometimes I switch accents in my English inner voice to suit the writer or just out of interest. I can’t really imagine reading a transcript of a speech by Obama without hearing his voice – in this case, the intonation and other effects are important to fully appreciating the message.

        1. That’s a good point – there are things that would seem to force one into a particular imaginary sensory modality of reading by virtue of their content and/or source. It’s a really interesting idea to try to consciously force oneself to construct or change the accent of an imaginary voice while reading fiction in order to improve comprehension and appreciation – I’ll have to start trying that sometimes.

          My new question, more specifically RE the study, would be: to what extent does the very fact that the subjects were reading limericks – and rhyming poetry more generally – affect the sensory register of their imagination? If so, does the artificial/conventional as opposed to natural source of their intuition about how to read it affect the accent drift between their audible and imaginary voices?

          I could easily imagine that internal speech rooted in a trained practice of reading-poetry, probably based on reading it aloud as children, would be more likely to closely resemble one’s spoken accent.

    2.  I’m the same way – I think it must be true of most people who read especially quickly. That trait has to favor strength in visual perception, which imaginary auditory perception would seem likely to interfere with and slow down.

    3. I was flabbergasted about two years ago when I realized that people think and read in voices. It never even occured to me. There is no sound as my eyes pass over words, just the concept of the symbols itself. I’m knew I couldn’t be alone, but it’s good to know that there are other people out there.

      “What does that character’s voice sound like in your head?”

      “What do you mean?” Dot, Dot Dot.

  8. I had a professor who claimed that we believed what we read, because we hear it in the voices of our parents who read to us when we were children. He suffered a mental breakdown later in that class, probably manic episode in bipolar disorder. I still like the idea.

  9. When I lived in Scotland, I started thinking in a British accent (yes, generic. My housemates and classmates and friends were from all over the place, so no one voice predominated enough to hijack my brain, so it was a mild, neutral thing), though my spoken accent stayed American. Though it did soften up a great deal. The hardest thing for me were that there were certain words (swearing, slang,  etc) that invaded my mental vocabulary that I worked very hard to avoid letting slip into my spoken vocabulary, because they’d sound all kinds of wrong and fake and annoying in my accent.

    1.  I agree with the letting slip part..  I’ve been watching Misfits on Hulu and from time to time I have caught myself saying something from a completely different country.  I’m such a wanker…*damnit*.

      1.  I watch loads of British television – it’s nearly the only TV I’ve watched the past few years. I occasionally use British slang in speech without thinking, but the way my mind works when constructing sentences as I speak I don’t use words that will make me sound like a… tosser.

        I’ve developed a sort of blending of speech patterns (though not my accent, which is upper-class Western New York and nearly as neutral US as possible) to match who I’m talking to because the people I’ve associated with have always been quite diverse, and I’ve lived and blended in in NY, California, Ontario, and Thailand (though obviously I didn’t blend in there).

        So when I say something British, it’s only in a context where it won’t sound terribly odd to whoever I’m talking to, and you can’t really get away with “wanker” or “tosser” but there are plenty you can. You just have to be careful :) It can make you sound subtly classier (to other Americans) if you adopt some British speech patterns (though I’m not sure the Misfits characters will help you there).

  10. I listen to a lot of audio books, so I often get a narrators voice stuck in my head for time.  I also read a lot of books out loud, so if I know how an author speaks (or have also heard their book), I tend to mimic that performance. 

    When I’m reading silently, I may start by “hearing” it in my head, but once I get going, that disappears.

  11. The voices in my head speak Tagalog which is very confusing as I do not. 

    As near as I can tell, they’re trying to tell me that Eleanor Roosevelt stole my couch.

  12. I don’t wish to be picky – it is a scientific study after all – but isn’t any act of reading at least a duologue. There is always debate to be had about who controls what, where when and how. Maybe scientists should read a few more books themselves, but then you haven’t got a theory, have you? And no research grant.

    1.  What do you mean, exactly? That depending on content/xt, different parts of a narrative might be read in the imaginary voice – or, independent of modality, from the locutionary perspective – of the author, the reader, different characters, or interpretive personae (the Voice Explaining Technical Details in Scifi, the Oddly-Morgan-Freeman-Like Voice Describing Beautiful Natural Settings, etc.)?

  13. The existence of non-rhotic accents, where ‘path’ can rhyme with ‘Garth,’ never ceases to astonish me. I wonder if there’s an English accent where ‘brick’ can rhyme with ‘hammer.’

    1. Thank you for the headache, my brain just about had an aneurism  trying to bend “brick” and “hammer”  to rhyme

    2. Out of interest, where are you from?
      Here in the UK in the south people tend to pronounce the ‘a’ in grass, path and bath as ar in Garth (eg p-ar-th), where as in the north it tends to be pronounced as a short ‘a’, to rhyme with the a in ash.

      Me?  I’m odd, I use both.

  14. I’m in agreement with everyone else if I know or have heard something read before I usually hear it back that way.  But as far as my internal dialog, it usually sounds just like me.  Which kind of makes sense cause I just talk out loud to myself when no one is around anyway.  And yes, I do carry on full length conversations.

  15. I do remember that when reading novels by Sean Hughes (who had a prior career as a wonderful comedian) I’d hit lines or sections that I couldn’t scan until I consciously forced my mind to read these in his voice/tone, at which point they became perfectly clear and often hilarious.

    I’d point you to the “Sean’s Show” episodes available on YouTube to show examples of his voice/style, but sadly they are region locked to the UK — and if you are from/in the UK and don’t know his style already you’ve been living a sad life of seclusion.

    Now, how do I set up a proxy again to get around this regional bullshite…

  16. Another way is to compare typed texts to voice texts. My typed texts are much different than my audible texts, even if the audible text is  correctly translated. 

  17. BTW That picture is a little creepy.   This article would be better illustrated by a picture from the short run TV show “Herman’s Head”

  18. Fascinating! I’m an exceedingly fast reader, but always struggled with certain stream of conscious style writers, Henry Miller being a good example. I always thought of it as though I couldn’t make my brain read the way the voice should sound in the book. Now I know that might be accurate!

  19. I seem to have picked up the habit of reading books after watching their film and TV versions, and simply cannot read them without doing the accents in my head. Most recently of course: Game of Thrones. Wish I could shake this – it’s becoming a bit of a chore to have to character act every book!

  20. Wait a minute, didn’t Merchant and Gervais mock Karl Pilkington once for saying he thinks in an accent?

    Quote:  I don’t think “That’s funny isn’t it”, but “That’s funny, innit?”
    Then the smug duo proceeded to pelt the great round-headed one with metaphorical eggs and tomatoes.
    Well who’s laughing now, bitches?

  21. I’m glad I read the Harry Potter books before the movies came out. Same with all books to movies actually. I prefer my imaginary voices to the actor-substition my brain does. Although, by watching Harry Potter I did finally learn that her name wasn’t pronounced  “Hermee-own” or “Hermee-1” or “Her-my-own”, though I was getting close.

  22. I don’t really “hear” anything in my head while reading. I guess I default to “Standard American” pronunciation (like TV newscasters speak), because if a rhyme or pun relies on a different pronunciation, I do have to go back and consciously re-read it while imagining that accent.

    Possibly related weird effect: When I watch a movie performed in a language I don’t understand with English subtitles, I find myself remembering it as though the actors were speaking English — even transferring the pitch and timbre of their voices into English in my head. I don’t remember it like a recording — more like an impression — but still, I genuinely have trouble remembering whether a movie was subtitled or not.

    P.S. I’m surprised that the question of “soda,” “pop” or “coke” would be one of those that you can’t remember what you do when you’re not thinking about it. To me, it’s more like asking whether I write with my left hand or my right hand — the answer is obvious, and trying to do it the other way feels intensely awkward and wrong. (I say “soda.”)

  23. Oddly I have no inner voice when reading normally (which is slow as hell), but if I make myself read fast I pick up random accents.   Which as a side note when I’m skimming BoingBoing its almost always narrated by Ira Glass or Claudia Christian for some reason(doesn’t matter the reading speed).

  24. I’m from Minnesota, live in Scotland, and watch a lot of tv produced in England.  My inner voice’s accent is all over the place.  It floats somewhere between English, Scottish and Canadian, while my actual speaking voice is purposefully neutral American.  I could speak in a pseudo-British accent of some sort, but I don’t want to offend my British family and friends by sounding like I’m mocking their accents.  Plus, I don’t want to sound like Madonna.  So after years in Scotland, I only have a Scottish/British accent inside my own head.  Sometimes. 

  25. There’s the voices in your head and then there’s THE VOICES IN YOUR HEAD.

    I can tell you from my experience in a pre-medicated bipolar condition that the difference is shocking. Your deliberate inner voice is what you’ve heard all your life. A non-deliberate voice has an almost electronic non-acoustic and unfamiliar voice from what seems to be a specific part of your brain as if it has an actual location inside your skull. It says things you’re not thinking and it doesn’t always make grammatical sense.

    1. Yeah. Like a pattern that surfaces of its own accord out of the white noise in your brain…ghosts talking in the static. I’m still in a reluctantly-sometimes-medicated period, and hearing that kind are about the only thing that drives me to start medicating regularly again for awhile without fail.

      Non-voice-like sounds are different though. After 60 or 70 hours of hypomanic insomnia, I’ll sometimes hear a sequence of chimes that sound more real than real, like the vibrations of an ideal Platonic crystal. That’s worse, really – they make we want to stay moving and follow them – at least the un-voices make it quite clear that it’s time to take a mood stabilizer and some melatonin and go to sleep.

  26. When I read a book by Stephen Hawking I did so imagining his computerized voice reading it to me,it also helped that he uses phrases like one million million million light years away.  So I would say for me this study is on to something.

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