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A time-travelling tour de force

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from Professor Charles Fernyhough's talk as part of the student stream at the Society's Annual Conference.

11 May 2016

In his new book 'The voices within: The history and science of how we talk to ourselves', psychologist and novelist Professor Charles Fernyhough (Durham University) notes that William James once described reflecting on one's own thoughts as 'trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.' As part of the student stream at the Society's Annual Conference, Fernyhough served as a shining example of a classy, old-school psychologist who's not afraid to tackle the hard problems.

'The voices within' is dedicated to Cambridge psychologist James Russell and it's easy to see why: the pair share a love of 'cumulative, substantial, satisfying' psychology which considers not what we are like or what we tend to do, but how it is that we can do what we can do. Here Fernyhough hopped from descriptive experience sampling to brain imaging, from present to future to past, from science to art.

That tour de force began with a segue from the Mel Gibson film 'What Women Want' to the thinking of Fernyhough's obvious hero, Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet developmental psychologist born in 1896. The former is an interesting view of how our culture views thinking, largely as internal language. The latter's 'beautifully simple, incredibly rich ideas' propose that children are social from day one, and that inner speech comes from private speech, which comes from social dialogue. This means that inner speech has a dialogic quality, and it can be expanded or condensed. Throughout our lives, we can move between these levels.

But how can psychologists study such an ineffable phenomenon? Fernyhough covered individual difference studies, dual-task paradigms which 'knock out' speech, and neuroscientific methods. His passion, though, seems to be the Descriptive Experience Sampling method pioneered and developed by Russ Hurlburt. Starting out as an engineer working for a company that made nuclear weapons, Hurlburt had devoured books from the Arlington County Library. 'What I found was that every book in psychology would start by saying, "I'm going to tell you something interesting about people"', he told Fernyhough, 'and then I'd get to the end of the book and say "Well, I didn't learn anything that I thought was actually very interesting: I learned the theory but I didn't learn anything about the person. I thought, if you could just randomly sample [people's everyday experience], that would be good.' 

Catching inner speech as it happens naturally, Hurlburt has found there isn't as much of it as you might expect. Inspired by Hurlburt's work, Fernyhough has developed a smartphone app 'Inner life', and has now taken a similarly naturalistic approach to inner speech in the brain scanner, Fernyhough has discovered that when you wait for inner speech to happen naturally, you get activation in bilateral heschl's gyrus (auditory perception) but not in Broca's area, left interior frontal gyrus (speech production). When inner speech is instead elicited, you get the opposite pattern. If this distinction is seen more widely with other tasks, it could have big implications for neuroimaging studies.

Leaping back 600 years to The Book of Margery Kempe, Fernyhough demonstrated how voices take on an extraordinary range of forms. They can be auditory but non-verbal, auditory but non-human, even multisensory. All of this is prefigured / described beautifully in this medieval manuscript. Fernyhough gave an evocative account of Margery's meeting in Norwich with Dame Julian of Norwich, whose 'Revelations of divine love' is the first book in English known to have been written by a woman. In this 'early hearing voices group' the women described the distressing, weird experience of hearing voices as 'a conversation you can't quite overhear.'

One model of voice hearing suggests that such experiences involve a 'misattribution' of normal inner speech to an external source. But if this were the case, why do such people have any normal inner speech at all? Vaughan Bell has also pointed out that such models neglect social dimensions of voice hearing. Fernyhough and the Hearing the Voice team at Durham are now working with UCL's Joanne Atkinson on inner experience and voice-hearing in people who have been deaf from birth. 

For any budding psychologist in the audience, this was a timely reminder that their careers don't have to unfold as learning more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing. Fernyhough is a true polymath who seeks out problems that are so blindingly obvious most others have failed to see them; he then hops over disciplinary boundaries, nips about in time and borrows all manner of navigation aids in search of paths to enlightenment.