Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Talking to Ourselves

I'm as eager for the plague to end as anyone, but one thing I'll miss is the freedom to talk to myself in public. Of course, I've always had that freedom, but when you're wearing a mask, no one can tell. For whatever reason, I don't mind admitting that my inner dialog sometimes escapes into the wild, but it would be embarrassing to have strangers actually hear me muttering to myself as I walk along a sidewalk.

I don't know when I decided that talking to myself was something to hide, but it's been a message that's been internalized for a long time. Even as a boy, I knew that etiquette required I confine the externalization of inner conversations to behind closed doors, and even then it was best to restrict them to whispers lest your brother tease you for it. I still whisper when I talk to myself, because it's important, I guess, to keep it a secret. I know it started even before my teachers convinced me that "real reading" meant not even moving your lips. I know I didn't care who heard me when I was a baby just beginning to vocalize, so it was sometime during my first six years that I got the message.

It's an odd thing, too, because words, while inert here on the page, represent sounds, built from smaller units that also represent sounds, yet we've almost universally decided that there is something wrong with releasing them into the world where someone might actually hear them except under certain proscribed circumstances. We tend to see talking to oneself as a sign of mental illness, and it can be, such as with schizophrenia, but the opposite is actually true in most cases. Talking to oneself has been linked to greater emotional control, higher intelligence, better memory, improved performance in visual search tasks, and perhaps most importantly, it helps to relieve feelings of loneliness. Indeed, even when we manage to keep the words from becoming audible, scientists have found that our tongue and vocal cords are activated nevertheless, shaping words soundlessly as we think or read.

We've not always had this relationship with our own voices. Up through the Renaissance, at least, western culture, like the rest of the world, was still largely an oral culture. Even reading was mostly an oral activity. Those "study carrels" you might remember from your school library originated not as a way to prevent you from being distracted, but rather to prevent others from being distracted by monks as they read or sang aloud. Words, you see, couldn't be confined to a page or one's head: they were real things, momentary deities, that had a real impact on the world. 

We learn this quite young. Indeed, one could argue that it is the real world "magic" of words that first motivates us to speak. Our cries summon nutrition and nurturing. Just as we experiment with our hands and feet to see how they can affect the world, we do the same with the sounds coming from our mouths. The word "No," for instance, can have a powerful impact. I've suffered permanent hearing loss from children who have discovered that a high pitched shriek can make silence fall in an instant. Chanting, repetition, and song unify groups engaged in communal activities. 

I've learned the conventions of keeping my internal dialog silent, but I've found that I make more sense, that I can hear myself better, that I'm more lucid when I speak aloud. Even as I write these words, I often try them out first aloud (in a whisper). Sometimes I'm speaking the next sentence even as I'm writing this one. I always take a few minutes to "listen" to my words before I publish them.

Do I want to live in a world in which everyone is talking aloud to themselves? I imagine it would be rather distracting at first, and probably overwhelming for some, but I can't help wondering what we lose when we, without even really knowing we're doing it, place a cone of silence over our thoughts, feelings, and words, when we prevent them from becoming real active forces in the world. When we hide even the best of our thoughts for fear of shame. It carries over into other aspects of our lives. The convention we all know of sitting silently as we, say, watch a movie or play, would have been unheard of in Shakespeare's time, for instance. Audiences expected to be part of the show, to contribute, an expectation that goes back through human history to Homer and beyond, and still lives today in indigenous cultures where the idea of being a passive audience is simply unacceptable. An oral society is one in which we all take part, shaping reality with our spoken words, whereas a "literate" society is one in which we tend to retreat into the silence of our own heads, only imagining the sounds, experiencing existence one-step removed from life itself.

In preschool, we are an oral society, even as the habits of literacy continue to shape us. We sing together, a lot. We talk and chatter and chant. It's quite common for children to carry on quiet monologues as they lose themselves in their play. Dramatic play does not exist without the spoken word. Much of what the children say to us is a kind of stream of consciousness in which they are thinking even as they are speaking, listening to themselves even as they are forming sounds into words, shaping the world for themselves and others. I enjoy few things more than to just listen to a play yard full of preschoolers, their voices mingled together making individual sounds that join together to make new sounds. 

It's music. 

It's poetry. 

Perhaps it's even the voice of a collective consciousness in the process of creating the ever-emerging now.


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