16/11/2016 08:26 GMT | Updated 17/11/2017 05:12 GMT

The Song Of The Psyche

Our inner voices, our internal monologue, are as enriching and insightful as could be. But our understanding of them is limited.

Sat on the bus home one bright, cold day in February I raised my head from my phone and suddenly felt and saw streams of warm light pouring out of my hands, legs, and head. It was an unusual occurrence, one that I had not had before, but what happened next was even more surprising. A voice appeared. It was cruel and cold. It was mocking and taunting me. This voice seemed to come from outside. It was malicious, as if the voice of the Devil.

The crush of the evening rush home has just started, and I have managed to tumble headfirst in to psychosis. We all hear voices. Our thinking is a kind of conversation. But for some these voices are external, and are more tormenting than helpful. I suddenly found myself in the company of an aggressive adversary who became more and more threatening as time went on.

The bus has stopped and I am waiting for the voice to stop too. But it follows me home. When I am in bed I can hear it as if it were through paper walls, cursing my name, threatening to come get me. This is a psychotic break, where the frontiers between reality and delusion become dangerously blurred. I begin to believe the voice is telling me the truth.

One technique I eventually devised for taming the voices included forcing them to read off a page to me. By focusing my voices on what I was reading, I could command them for something purposeful, and distract them from negative commentary. To me this opened up interesting questions about the extent to which we can control our inner voices, and harness them for good.

It is a question examined by Charles Fernyhough in The Voices Within, an erudite and accessible study in to the elusive workings of our inner voices. In many ways it is a landmark study; its author notes the paucity of research in to internal voices, namely due to the viability of doing empirical research on something so intangible. But pioneers have developed methods, and some of these are the subject of this book.

The act of talking to oneself is an essential and creative process. That's what Charles Fernyhough argues in his heralded new work, The Voices Within - a wonderful study into the elusive workings of our inner minds. According to Fernyhough, the voices in our heads that we all hear point to wider questions about thought, creativity and consciousness that have been longstanding, ongoing dilemmas within philosophy, but have been forgotten and overlooked by modern scientific theories of mind. Fernyhough argues that, by reflecting consciously on the way we talk to ourselves, we may discover more about what the purpose of this 'self-talk' is, and ultimately use it for our growth, learning, development and advantage.

Elusive, hard to grasp, disordered and deafening, inner voices are a subject that has proven painstakingly difficult to study within the parameters delineated by science. Fernyhough constantly refers to scepticism towards research which tries to understand inner speech. Speaking about his own chosen career path studying inner voices, he writes: "Studying something as private and ineffable as our inner voices was, my elders might have warned me, never going to furnish a successful research career." But he is successful. One suspects this is in part due to his ability to present facts and evidence, in calm and convincing manner, in order to build credible, legitimate research.

The questions Fernyhough asks are fascinating. Having established the commonality and near universality of experiencing an inner voice, he asks: How and when did these voices first enter our heads? Moreover, do young children hear voices the same way adults do? And what distinguishes a normal inner voice from the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenia? There are no hard and fast answers, and the direction of travel for research in these areas is not clean and easy, but there is progress being made.

He is at his finest describing the connection between internal voices and creativity. For time immemorial, writers have described being compelled by an inner guide, an inner voice, wild and rampant, that instructs and inspires their work. In one study cited, a researcher found a correlation between how skillfully student wrote and the extent to which they listened to an inner voice while doing so. In a TED talk on her experience hearing voices, Eleanor Longden have recounted being able to succeed in exams because her voices were guiding her through the questions.

The Voices Within is a fascinating and profoundly compassionate book that enriches our understanding of the purpose of our inner voice. Fernyhough argues that, by reflecting consciously on the way we talk to ourselves, we may discover more about what the purpose of this 'self-talk' is, and ultimately use it for our growth, learning, development and advantage. Should the reader persist with the book, she will be rewarded with a wealth of insights in to how to listen to and appreciate the value of our private self-talk.