Inner Speech, Imagined Speech, and Auditory Verbal Hallucinations


A theory which has had significant influence seeks to explain auditory verbal hallucinations (AVHs) as utterances in inner speech which are not properly monitored and are consequently misattributed to some external source. This paper argues for a distinction between inner speech and imagined speech, on the basis that inner speech is a type of actual speech. The paper argues that AVHs are more likely instances of imagined speech, rather that inner speech, which are not properly monitored (a possibility which has been raised by Wu (Mind & Language 27(1): 86–107, 2012), Cho and Wu (Frontiers in Psychiatry 4: 155, 2013) and Cho and Wu (Frontiers in Psychiatry 5: 75, 2014), although they prefer a quite different explanation of AVHs).

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  1. 1.

    Although Wu and Cho’s own preferred theory of AVHs is quite different. Existing self-monitoring accounts urge that AVHs occur when the intentional production of an inner speech utterance is not properly monitored. Accordingly, an intentionally generated episode is experienced as unintended and an alternative explanation for it is postulated. By contrast, Wu and Cho claim that AVHs are simply experiences of unintended – as they put it, “automatic” (Wu 2012) or “spontaneous” (Cho and Wu 2013) – voice-like episodes in the mind.

  2. 2.

    Accordingly, the present paper will not be concerned to argue for the Imagined Speech Theory against Wu and Cho’s own theory.

  3. 3.

    Frith does mention Feinberg’s paper briefly (p. 81). See pp. 80–93 generally for discussion of the monitoring of intentions and for references to further literature.

  4. 4.

    It is often suggested that there might be no single, unified explanation for AVHs. Frith, for example, offered his theory as an explanation for only “certain” AVHs in schizophrenia (pp. 84, 115). He thought it was most promising for cases in which subjects seem to hear their “own thoughts spoken aloud” (p. 84) (though he elsewhere labels such experiences “[t]hought broadcast” (p. 66) and we might doubt that they are really AVHs as usually understood). As we will see in Section 4, though, one reason to prefer the Imagined Speech Theory over the Inner Speech Theory is the very fact that it is applicable to a larger range of cases. It would not be an answer to such an argument to assert that the Inner Speech Theory is only intended to have limited applicability.

  5. 5.

    See the Section 1, including Footnote 1.

  6. 6.

    Notably, Hurlburt et al. (2013) suggest that there is a phenomenon separate from inner speech (or “inner speaking” as they call it) called “inner hearing”. Inner hearing involves “the experience of hearing something that does not exist in the external environment” (p. 1485). This inner hearing can be “[i]nner hearing of speech” (p. 1485) – an experience as of hearing either one’s own or someone else’s speech. The authors explicate the difference between inner speech and inner hearing of speech as akin to the difference between speaking externally and hearing a voice being played from a recording (again, one’s own or someone else’s voice). This also seems apt as a way to explicate the difference between inner speech and what I am calling “imagined speech”. Accordingly, despite the difference in terminology, it seems likely that what Hurlburt et al. call “inner hearing of speech” is just what I am calling “imagined speech”.

    Hurlburt et al. are somewhat unclear as to whether they take inner speech and inner hearing of speech to be continuous, differing only in degree along certain dimensions, or whether they take them to be different in kind. At one point, for example, they write: “Inner speakings are generally apprehended as being produced rather than heard. That is, inner speaking is more a phenomenon of created action than of received audition. … Sometimes …, the experience of inner speaking is of both producing and hearing the utterance. If the phenomenon is primarily of hearing, we call it inner hearing” (p. 1482). Language like “generally”, “more … than …”, and “primarily” surely suggests differences only of degree. At other points, however, they write: “the phenomenon of inner speaking is distinctly different from the phenomenon of inner hearing” (p. 1485) and they refer to “the phenomenologically unambiguous clarity of the distinction between inner speaking and inner hearing” (p. 1485). My view is that inner speech and imagined speech (which, as above, is likely the same phenomenon as Hurlburt et al.’s inner hearing of speech) are distinct in kind, as the arguments in this section will make clear.

  7. 7.

    This is not a new way to explicate the difference; it is just one intuitive approach. There is perhaps a risk that explicating the distinction between imagining from the inside / imagining from the outside in terms of internal / external points of view will invite the inference that the distinction is only relevant to visual imagination, but this is not so. To borrow an example from Zeno Vendler (1979), one can “imagine [from the inside] whistling in the dark (sensation of puckered lips)” (p. 161). Yet one can also “imagine [one]self [from the outside] whistling in the dark (distance uncertain, but coming closer)” (p. 161). There is a natural sense in which the first episode involves an internal point of view and the second episode involves an external point of view, even though neither involves visual imagery. (Though see also p. 165, where Vendler claims that imagination from the outside is limited to the visual and auditory modalities – i.e. one cannot imagine feeling, smelling, tasting from the outside.) Note: Vendler describes the distinction in terms of “subjective” / “objective imagination”, rather than imagination from the inside / outside.

  8. 8.

    The possibility statements in 1-3 should be read as having narrow scope. Thanks to Daniel Stoljar for this observation.

  9. 9.

    Zeno Vendler (1979) and D. H. Mellor (2012) also make this claim, though Mellor’s wording allows for exceptions.

  10. 10.

    Thanks to Alma Barner for this point (I have modified her example).

  11. 11.

    Shaun Nichols (2003) gives an account of cases like this on the same lines.

  12. 12.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this point.

  13. 13.

    Thanks to Daniel Stoljar for suggesting this to me.

  14. 14.

    Roughly following John Searle’s (2013) analysis of assertions.

  15. 15.

    Thanks to Daniel Stoljar and Martin Davies for suggestions along these lines.

  16. 16.

    Though their exposition does not turn on the point, as mine does, that inner speech is a type of actual speech.

  17. 17.

    In contrast to the theory theory, on which one uses a theory of mind to work out what mental state another individual may be in.

  18. 18.

    Consider Currie and Ravenscroft (2002): “Motor imagery seems to work by operating the motor system as if one were initiating action, but in such a way that action itself is blocked” (p. 83). Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this point.

  19. 19.

    Of course, Moseley and Wilkinson do not claim that it does; they just note that the presence of the voices of others in inner speech would be compatible with the Vygotskyan picture.

  20. 20.

    I have argued above that the phenomenon which Hurlburt et al. (2013) describe as “inner hearing of speech” (p. 1485) is likely the same as the phenomenon which I am calling “imagined speech” (see Footnote 6 above). Notably, Hurlburt et al. explicitly suggest that there can be episodes involving an interplay between inner speech and “inner hearing of speech”. Consider their discussion of the case of a subject, “Benjamin”, in Kang’s (2013) study: “Now he was having an inner conversation with himself about her; this conversation involved two inner voices; both voices were his and had apparently identical features except that one was experienced as being spoken (being produced by Benjamin) and the other experienced as being heard (Benjamin did not experience the producing [of] this voice). The innerly speaking voice had asked, ‘Why are you bringing this woman to my attention?’ The innerly heard voice had replied, ‘She’s pretty’ …” (p. 1485, citing Kang 2013).

  21. 21.

    See Cho and Wu (2014) for a related point about auditory non-verbal hallucinations.

  22. 22.

    This is the one point specific to schizophrenia foreshadowed in the Introduction.

  23. 23.

    One possibility available to the Imagined Speech Theory deserves mention. There is some association between the experience of AVHs and a history of childhood trauma in both clinical and non-clinical populations (Sommer et al. 2010; Daalman et al. 2012). It may be worth investigating whether the experience of childhood trauma could contribute to the development of a more active imagination (or to difficulties in controlling one’s imagination). Cf. Cho and Wu (2014) comparing the merits of their preferred theory as against self-monitoring theories regarding this issue.


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Some of the ideas in the paper were the basis of presentations at the University of Cambridge in April 2014 and the Australian National University in August 2014 and I am grateful for the feedback I received. I am indebted to the following people for valuable feedback on a plan and / or draft(s) and for helpful correspondence and discussions: Ben Alderson-Day, David Bain, Alma Barner, Mike Brady, David Chalmers, Jennifer Corns, Martin Davies, Charles Fernyhough, Frank Jackson, Fiona Macpherson, John Maier, D.H. Mellor, Matthew Ratcliffe, David Smailes, Kim Sterelny, Daniel Stoljar, Sam Wilkinson, two anonymous reviewers, and likely others whom I have forgotten. I am especially grateful to Daniel Stoljar for initially suggesting that I consider the relationship between inner speech and imagined speech. This research has been supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award.

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Gregory, D. Inner Speech, Imagined Speech, and Auditory Verbal Hallucinations. Rev.Phil.Psych. 7, 653–673 (2016).

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  • Schizophrenia
  • Actual Speech
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Internal Point
  • Conscious Thought