Shedding Light on the Voices in Our Heads

Summary: A new study reports the brain considers our internal voice to be the same as speaking our thoughts aloud. The findings could have important implications for understanding auditory hallucinations in Schizophrenia..

Source: University of New South Wales.

As far our brains are concerned, talking to ourselves in our heads may be fundamentally the same as speaking our thoughts out loud, new research shows.

The findings may have important implications for understanding why people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia hear voices.

UNSW Sydney scientist and study first author Associate Professor Thomas Whitford says it has long been thought that these auditory-verbal hallucinations arise from abnormalities in inner speech – our silent internal dialogue.

“This study provides the tools for investigating this once untestable assumption,” says Associate Professor Whitford, of the UNSW School of Psychology.

Previous research suggests that when we prepare to speak out loud, our brain creates a copy of the instructions that are sent to our lips, mouth and vocal cords. This copy is known as an efference-copy.

It is sent to the region of the brain that processes sound to predict what sound it is about to hear. This allows the brain to discriminate between the predictable sounds that we have produced ourselves, and the less predictable sounds that are produced by other people.

“The efference-copy dampens the brain’s response to self-generated vocalisations, giving less mental resources to these sounds, because they are so predictable,” says Associate Professor Whitford.

“This is why we can’t tickle ourselves. When I rub the sole of my foot, my brain predicts the sensation I will feel and doesn’t respond strongly to it. But if someone else rubs my sole unexpectedly, the exact same sensation will be unpredicted. The brain’s response will be much larger and creates a ticklish feeling.”

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We spend a lot of our time talking to ourselves in our heads NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to UNSW.

The study, published in the journal eLIFE, set out to determine whether inner speech – an internal mental process – elicits a similar efference-copy as the one associated with the production of spoken words.

The research team developed an objective method for measuring the purely mental action of inner speech. Specifically, their study in 42 healthy participants assessed the degree to which imagined sounds interfered with the brain activity elicited by actual sounds, using electroencephalography (EEG).

The researchers found that, just as for vocalized speech, simply imagining making a sound reduced the brain activity that occurred when people simultaneously heard that sound. People’s thoughts were enough to change the way their brain perceived sounds. In effect, when people imagined sounds, those sounds seemed quieter.

“By providing a way to directly and precisely measure the effect of inner speech on the brain, this research opens the door to understanding how inner speech might be different in people with psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia,” says Associate Professor Whitford.

“We all hear voices in our heads. Perhaps the problem arises when our brain is unable to tell that we are the ones producing them.”

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: The research was funded by an ARC Discovery Project grant and Associate Professor Whitford is supported by an NHMRC Career Development Fellowship.

Source: University of New South Wales
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to UNSW.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Neurophysiological evidence of efference copies to inner speech” by Thomas J Whitford, Bradley N Jack, Daniel Pearson, Oren Griffiths, David Luque, Anthony WF Harris, Kevin M Spencer, and Mike E Le Pelley in Stem Cell Reports. Published online December 4 2017 doi:10.7554/eLife.28197

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of New South Wales “Shedding Light on the Voices in Our Heads.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 8 December 2017.
<https://neurosciencenews.com/internal-voices-8139/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of New South Wales (2017, December 8). Shedding Light on the Voices in Our Heads. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved December 8, 2017 from https://neurosciencenews.com/internal-voices-8139/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of New South Wales “Shedding Light on the Voices in Our Heads.” https://neurosciencenews.com/internal-voices-8139/ (accessed December 8, 2017).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Abstract

Neurophysiological evidence of efference copies to inner speech

Efference copies refer to internal duplicates of movement-producing neural signals. Their primary function is to predict, and often suppress, the sensory consequences of willed movements. Efference copies have been almost exclusively investigated in the context of overt movements. The current electrophysiological study employed a novel design to show that inner speech – the silent production of words in one’s mind – is also associated with an efference copy. Participants produced an inner phoneme at a precisely specified time, at which an audible phoneme was concurrently presented. The production of the inner phoneme resulted in electrophysiological suppression, but only if the content of the inner phoneme matched the content of the audible phoneme. These results demonstrate that inner speech – a purely mental action – is associated with an efference copy with detailed auditory properties. These findings suggest that inner speech may ultimately reflect a special type of overt speech.

“Neurophysiological evidence of efference copies to inner speech” by Thomas J Whitford, Bradley N Jack, Daniel Pearson, Oren Griffiths, David Luque, Anthony WF Harris, Kevin M Spencer, and Mike E Le Pelley in Stem Cell Reports. Published online December 4 2017 doi:10.7554/eLife.28197

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