Internal Dialogue vs. Abstract Thought

The recent spotlight put onto internal dialogue vs. abstract thinking reminds us about the diversity of thought processes and how they affect us at Stuyvesant.

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One of humanity’s most defining traits is the variety in our thought processes: the way that we interpret and react to information and stimuli. For some, information is interpreted as purely linguistic and characterized by an “inner voice” in the head. For others, the thought process involves internal images, color patterns, or other visual representations that may be organized spatially. The diversity in different methods of thinking is groundbreaking: our different methods shape us as unique individuals by dictating how we organize our lives, our personalities, and our perception of the world. Fully grasping the variety of different thought processes would prove useful in improving education, work, and other parts of one’s day-to-day life.

The cause of this variety in thought processes is difficult to find, but thankfully, neurology can attribute some of our thought processes to the physical structure of the brain. Neurologists have divided the physical brain into several components, such as the frontal lobe (responsible for thinking, behavior, memory, and movement); temporal lobe (responsible for learning, hearing, and emotions); and occipital lobe (responsible for sight). Within these different parts of the brain, the number of potential neural pathways that exist is enormous, hence the diversity of different methods of thinking.

The way our brains react to different stimuli and information is also vast and closely related to a physical neural structure. A Harvard study published in 2017, conducted by Elinor Amit and Evelina Fedorenko, on the effects of different methods of thinking has shown that different types of thinking activate different parts of the brain. One would expect internal dialogue, characterized by internally audible or visual language, to trigger responses in Broca's and Wernicke's areas, which are responsible for linguistic processing and production. Surprisingly, "internal dialogue" activated the areas of the brain associated with visual processing and thinking. Amit and Fedorenko also found that when thinking about ideas or objects that are closely related (emotionally, physically, or temporally) to the subject, subjects tended to use visual thinking, which occurs in the occipital lobe. When instructed, however, to think about objects and ideas that were far away, the subjects used inner speech, which occurs in the temporal lobe.

Psychologists have classified thought processes into two main categories. The first involves internal speech, and the second is comparatively more visual, with thoughts “appearing” in the forms of colors and shapes. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky took these classifications even further in proposing two different kinds of internal linguistic dialogues. The first kind, expanded dialogue, includes the use of all linguistic conventions such as proper grammar. The second kind, condensed dialogue, involves thinking in “pure meaning.” For those who think in “pure meaning,” linguistic conventions (such as an inner voice’s use of grammatically correct language) may be completely ignored.

One of the best places to see the effects of different thought processes is a place where learning and thinking are universally present: Stuyvesant High School. Of the 240 students participating in a Facebook-conducted survey asking how they thought, 77 percent reported their methods of thinking being dialogue or speech, 21 percent described them being visual, and 2 percent used different strategies. Junior Veronica Fuentes explained how the presence of music during her sleep resulted in music continually playing in her head. The constant activation of neural pathways associated with music and audio stimuli most likely affected this consistent presence by neural adaptation. Sophomore Jasmine Wang characterizes her thought process as a distinct internal voice, which she describes as tending to be bubbly. The voice's mood, however, can change depending on Wang’s mood.

Junior Diego Vasquez's thought process lies at the crossroads of audible and visually abstract methods of thinking. Vasquez has synesthesia, a condition characterized by the intersection of different neural pathways. This leads to the stimulus of one sense triggering the response of another. Vasquez described music "like Jackson Pollock, but three dimensional, more filled with brighter [colors], more melded together and lava lamps, and filled with random fluid or solid interjections.”

When comparing Wang’s thought process to Vasquez’s, they seem completely different from one another. However unrelated these thought processes may seem, they provide insight into the diversity of our psychology and how it affects learning and basic day-to-day function. Because our thought processes are so influential in our daily lives, fully understanding the extent of their variety would prove beneficial to us all by allowing us to appreciate and adapt to them. Instead of maintaining a singular method of working and learning, understanding different thought processes would allow schools and workplaces to fully accommodate all students and employees, as well as their learning styles and methods.