A new paper from New York University researchers suggests that most people do hear an internal voice while they’re reading. The insights from this analysis lend some support to theories that say auditory hallucinations are inner voices that are incorrectly identified as not belonging to the self.

So when you read something do you “hear” the words in your head, as if someone was talking to you from inside your brain? Have you ever wondered if you’re the only one who does? Or doesn’t?

Well, Ruvanee Vilhauer at New York University did. She got on Yahoo! Answers and combed through posts between 2006 and 2014 for relevant questions. She ended up with 24 questions pertaining to this phenomenon and 136 answers between them, in which people described their own experience when reading.

*Indecipherable cactus reading voice.*
Image via pixabay

Vilhauer analysed all the relevant content and looked for recurring themes and insights. In total, 82.5 percent of contributors said that they do hear an inner voice (or IRV – inner reading voice) when reading to themselves, and 10.6 percent said they didn’t. Out of the ones who reported hearing the voice when reading, 13 percent only do so sometimes. They said that various factors increased the likelihood of this happening, most often their interest in the text.

The experiences of the remaining 6.9 percent of contributors was unclear from their posts.

“We all hear our voices in our heads at times – even those of others we know – especially while reading,” said one Yahoo contributor.

Another thing that Vilhauer was interested in was what voice or voices the readers hear. About half of the contributors reported to always hearing the same internal voice, most usually their own but different in some way from the one they use to speak — for example in terms of pitch or emotional tone. Some of them described or implied that their IRV was just the same as the inner voice they used for thoughts.

Those that reported hearing different voices tended to switch between them depending on what character was speaking in a story. If the text was an email or text message from someone they knew, they heard the sender’s voice.

It’s not just forming the words in our mind as we read them, either. Answerers refer to their IRVs as being “audible” in some way, and speak of them as having volume, depth or accent. The issue of control over IRVs also came up, with some finding them to be distracting, unsettling or even scary, while others found they could deliberately alter it or chose another one if they wanted.

But after reading all of this you must be asking yourself — almost all of us internally hear the words as we read them, so why hasn’t anyone done any research into them before? Well, I can’t remember if I started hearing this voice before I learned how to read or after, but it’s something I got so accustomed to that I take it for granted. Indeed, Vilhauer found that many people just assume that their experience when reading is the same as everyone else’s and just…kinda leave it at that.

On the other end of the spectrum, those that don’t hear anything when reading believe that it’s the norm.

“Nooo. You should get that checked out” one Yahoo! user answered to a question about this voice.

“NO, I’M NOT A FREAK,” another adds.

The usage of all-caps tells me otherwise, though.

Vilhauer thinks that psychologists have failed to study this phenomenon because just like everyone else, they’ve assumed that there’s no variability in this and everyone experiences reading the same. Being the first study to ever look at the issue, and considering the somewhat unconventional methodology it uses, further research is needed to confirm the findings. That being said, it’s awesome that someone thought of researching this.

The full paper, titled “Inner reading voices: An overlooked form of inner speech,” has been published online in the journal Psychosis and can be read here.



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