While experts disagree on how common self-talk really is, they wholeheartedly agree that it's a valuable tool for self-discovery.

While writing this, I caught myself talking to... myself. Between clicks on the keyboard, I realized I was having an internal conversation about an encounter I'd had the night before. Why, out of the blue, would I interrupt the work I was doing to chat with myself about something that seemed so inconsequential?

If you ask that question of experts in self-talk — colloquially, "talking to ourselves" or more formally the "inner monologue" — one clinical response might be that I wasn't avoiding the task at hand. Instead, and much more intriguingly, I was possibly experiencing a close encounter with the real "me" through a deeply personal internal dialogue.

Russell Hurlburt, psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, would say that the words I used in my inner conversation might've represented a "pristine inner experience" which would take me, in that instant, to the "footlights of [my own] consciousness." I was setting the stage for self-discovery, if this had been a professional appointment.

"I think people are totally interesting. And I think people find themselves totally interesting," says Hurlburt, who describes himself as "a researcher of inner experience."

"'A penny for your thoughts?' is probably the most interesting question in the world," he says.

For behavioralists, inner conversations can reveal repressed emotions, good or self-deprecating, that were stirred by a phone call or triggered by an event or encounter. Like the self-admonishing, "Oh, I sounded so stupid!" Or the self-affirming, "I always feel valued when she and I work together."

It's no surprise that self-talk generates "out loud" talk on social media platforms, where people have been having their own conversations about inner monologues, wondering what exactly they are and if everyone has one.

We asked the experts about this curious natural phenomenon and why you may or may not participate in this most intimate of conversations. While our experts disagree on the frequency of self-talk, they wholeheartedly agree that the inner dialogue is a valuable tool for self-discovery.

Who talks to themselves?

There is nothing new about talking to ourselves. Hamlet did it seven times, as soliloquies, in a play written four centuries ago. Talking to ourselves is joke-worthy, but socially taboo if we're caught talking out loud.

It wasn't until the 1970s that psychologists began to seriously embrace self-talk as a field of study, inspired by the work of psychiatrist Aaron Beck, the father of CBT.

Decades later, in 2009, psychologist Thomas Brinthaupt published one of the handful of analytical tools in use today for measuring self-talk in patients. Called the Self-Talk Scale (STS), it is a 22-item questionnaire aimed at identifying the frequency of self-talk and reflecting four categories of inner chatter: social assessment, self-criticism, self-reinforcement, and self-management.

STS has been used by "tens of thousands" of people in studies worldwide, says Brinthaupt, now a self-described "personality psychologist" at Middle Tennessee State University who works with CBT researchers on finding the deeper meaning to one's mental health as revealed by their inner voice. His questionnaire offers a means for gaining data and underwriting the credibility of research on a topic as ephemeral as thought.

He has found that in general, children talk to themselves as part of the learning process. Introverts are more likely to be self-talkers. "Only children" (those without siblings) talk to themselves more often and into adulthood. Children with "invisible" friends also are more likely to self-talk.

And people who are suddenly alone or lonely are more apt to self-talk. Although yet to be studied, Brinthaupt surmises that people began talking to themselves more — and more often out loud — during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) talk to themselves in ways that mirror the condition — over and over, repeatedly. The deaf or hard of hearing who use American Sign Language have been reported using their hands to self-talk, says Brinthaupt.

It's also been determined, but not yet studied further, that people who suffer brain damage or a stroke and have difficulty speaking "report that they have lost the sense of self-talk."

So does everyone really have an inner monologue?

But experts are divided over whether the experience is limited to people in these categories — or universal.

Brinthaupt argues that self-talk is a ubiquitous activity available to us all. "We talk to ourselves in response to specific events and stimuli in the social environment or imagined events," he says, adding that some people "don't know they have the ability."

Hurlburt takes the opposing view. In 2020, blogger Ryan Langdon wrote a piece in reply to a tweet by Hurlburt on his research. Langdon titled it "Today I Learned That Not Everyone Has an Internal Monologue and It Has Ruined My Day." It generated more than a million responses within a month, says Hurlburt, who later met and interviewed Langdon.

"People believe that they talk to themselves," says Hurlburt, and "some people do sometimes talk to themselves. But of all the samples that I've collected over 50 years of sampling, maybe something like a quarter of them involve words or talking."

Rather than words, some people "see" themselves. One of Hurlburt's most memorable patients, whom he calls Fran, didn't self-talk. She used inner-imagery to visualize what turned out to be an emotionally devastating dialogue — caught in time. Now recovered, she was replaying an inner moving picture of her own suicide, step-by-detailed-step.

The benefits — and downsides — of self-talk

Brinthaupt's categories of inner chatter reflect primary inner concerns. For example, "social assessment" self-talk ("I really shouldn't have interrupted like I did") might seem self-critical but it can also help improve social interactions. Public speakers often self-talk for "self-reinforcement" and "self-management" before hitting the mic.

An inner monologue can also be a tool: Psychologists who practice popular cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) use self-talk as a treatment to reverse negative thinking that arises from conditions like depression. To CBT practitioners, depression is reinforced with self-talk that is critical and negative — but can be weakened when we give ourselves positive and supportive messages.

Hurlburt is not so much interested in self-talk as a behavioral tool but as a direct link to the inner self, a journey of discovery that he's been on since 1971. Using a sampling method and a wearable beeper that he designed and patented, Hurlburt instructs his clients to jot down what they were thinking the moment beeper goes off, hopefully to capture a pure thought.

To Hurlbert, standard surveys and questionnaires are subjective and pollute what should be an unadulterated personal response.

"If you really want to know about what's going on within you," he says, "you have to have a method that allows access to your inner experience without disturbing it."

But if you don't think you have an inner monologue, Hurlbert says, there's no reason for concern. "They are not part of being human," he says. "Some people don't process life in words and sentences."