Thinking and Internal Dialogue

Van Talmage
3 min readJan 13, 2023

So do you have an internal dialogue in your mind? A stream of consciousness? Do you use language for this dialogue? Or perhaps a mixture of language and images? Or is it a series of smells that express the world, much like canine and bears.

I am betting language. We converse with ourselves in our native language. Which begs the question: what happened before language? Did we have a smell/sight worldview until language came along? A language based internal dialogue is so much more powerful than either the sight or smell. Language with a mixture of images is the most powerful.

So when language came along, and was perfected, Homo sapiens started the road that led to today’s position as the most significant species on the planet.

The reason of course is that language allows for the expression of an infinite number of non-physical ideas (e.g. 2+2 = 4). It does this with a minimum set of symbols which can be rearranged to make a myriad number of combinations. Each combination is a sound. Language, using sound, is the most powerful communicator because it is most energy efficient, most bang for the buck.

So we ‘think’ in language. Well wait, what is thinking. Here is my simplistic view our brain functions:

1. Automatic Control Mechanisms (heartbeat, breathing, etc.)

2. Stimulus Response (actions connected to sense organs)

3. Internal Dialogue (thinking, reasoning)

This is the order of development. Internal Dialogue may have happened earlier than language but it was greatly enhanced as humans developed their sound production/reception repertoire (i.e. language).

This is my simplified view of how we got there:

1. Humans started with all of traits and body structure that primates had.

2. Because of sheltering and fires, hominoids were in close contact and used sounds as communication between individuals.

3. Slowly (very slowly) our distant ancestors strung sounds together to give more information through sound techniques. These simplified sound structures were stored and repeated in the brain and a sound based stream of consciousness was developed. The use of sound is more energy efficient than images in conveying information. (see …

4. Language enhanced this internal dialogue and this learned technique was passed down through all subsequent generations.

Here is my simplified view of what is going on:

1. Your brain is made up neural networks that are stimulated with its own biochemical system. There are approximately 86 Billion neurons in the brain and that they are structured into pathways connected by synapses. Brain activity is the signaling process that goes on between these neurons. There is a near infinite number of neural pathways.

2. A language based internal stimulation gets started in the brain and it goes on forever until we die. Think of it as train (of thought) running through this huge network of connections. As long as it gets the proper energy input (oxygen, nutrients), the stimulation activity that is the internal dialogue continues.

3. You can pause or change the internal dialogue. Meditation, focus without thinking (exercise), or other techniques. But it (internal dialogue) always comes back.

4. The internal dialogue can be extended to the spoken or written word. Except you cannot possibly get the full internal dialogue to an external state. Internal dialogue is too fast.

5. Reading is the reverse process wherein we are using language to take information. Reading is done with internal dialogue and it simply overrides the default of dialogue from internal thought.

6. We could restrict our definition of ‘thinking’ to that part of internal dialogues that draws on other resources (memory of places or learned procedures or perceptions of time) and puts them into language.

Here’s what we don’t know: we do not know the circuit patterns and coding structures within the neural networks. With nearly an infinite number of pathway combinations, this is not surprising. But there are folks out there thinking about it, trying to decode it.

To understand this, consider that MRI imaging of the brain has a time span in milliseconds. Pathway connections within the brain operate at micro and nano timescale, so that MRI is missing the real action. It can identify brain activity, but only at the highest level. There is much still to learn in the actual mechanics of brain activity.