I find the differences in the way people think fascinating, to the point where I went around asking people (n~=40) whether they thought verbally or otherwise when I was in high school. I got about 50-50 responses, and proceeded to try to train myself to think conceptually (from a base state of near-constant internal monologue). This was somewhat successful - it took around 3 days of conscious adjustment ("clearing" my mind every time I thought verbally was extremely frustrating) but without maintenance, I slipped back into primarily verbal thought. 

The results of this simple personal experiment sat in the back of my mind for a while (made it easier to switch between modes at will but didn't radically change me), and I'm curious if other people have tried/are willing to try this, and/or what their "base state" is. Some other questions swirling around my mind that conversation around this topic might inform:

  • Is one method of thought inherently faster or are humans rate-limited in processing? (tangential info: languages across the world appear to convey information with a consistent bitrate)
  • If you think verbally, do you also subvocalize when you read? Can you "turn off" your verbal thought and does it cause any discomfort? (if you try it, do it for at least a week and report back!)
  • Is there a difference between thinking conceptually and visually? My base state if not verbal is conceptual, but I can force myself into something more actively visual. Some modern fMRI studies into the overall internal-thought topic would be interesting - if anyone is on track to a PhD dissertation in psychology or neuroscience, here's your chance!
  • What sort of things do you comment on to yourself? Questions? Basic repetitive life occurrences? (I can't find the direct research paper link but a Stanford study claims ~90% of our thoughts are repetitive)


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I naturally rarely think in words unless I'm constructing a verbal artifact (speaking, writing, planning what to speak/write, daydreaming conversations, etc).

But I've recently began to occasionally deliberately think in words, after writing made me appreciate that verbal algorithms can be helpful for focusing attention and enforcing rigor. However, verbal thinking feels inefficient in other ways (less tolerant of ambiguity, trapped to the ontology of language, single-threaded, etc), and it would be extremely annoying if I had to have an inner monologue all the time, even if I could think nonverbally "around" it.

I have also been fascinated with this question for a long time and have been polling people since middle school. Consistent with the results of this Twitter poll I recently ran, more than half the people I've personally asked report that they think primarily in words. (Several people have weakened the claim when I asked them more probing questions, like whether they think in words while doing math. Some people who normally "think in words" don't think verbally while doing math, but others have to.)

Very interestingly, many people disbelieve that I don't think in words, as they are unable to imagine how it would be possible to think at all without words.

Yes I have an internal monologue, but it's mostly text+emotion based, with occasional images. Like a telepathic chatroom rather than a voice chat.

Can you "turn off" your verbal thought and does it cause any discomfort?

I probably could if I tried hard enough but I think it would probably be destabilizing to my mental state.

Is there a difference between thinking conceptually and visually?

Yeah I think so? Sometimes a message to myself will have an image and that's a very different experience than a pure conceptual message, which is again different from my normal mash of text+concept.

What sort of things do you comment on to yourself? ~everything

My thoughts about what's happening, other perspectives on what's happening, meta commentary on the thoughts, warnings, arguments with simulated people, arguments with myself, meta stuff about that. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of its repetitive but a lot is also unique.

If I'm in flow, there's either nothing at all or I'm not aware of it.

I can't even imagine what it would be like for thoughts to be in the form of words before I have to verbalize them, and I don't know what words I will use to express something until moments before I speak or write at most.

I subvocalize, but not while reading and it's almost always just repeating the last thing I said or cursing at something or myself.  I think it is notable that expletives don't use the same brain pathways as ordinary speech and are frequently preserved when strokes destroy speech.

I think I'm like >95th percentile on verbal-ness of thoughts.  I feel like almost all of my thoughts that aren't about extremely concrete things in front of me or certain abstract systems that are best thought of visually are verbal, and even in those cases I sometimes think verbally.  Almost all of the time, at least some words are going through my head, even if it's just random noise or song lyrics or something like that.  I struggle to imagine what it would be like to not think this way, as if I feel like many propositions can't be easily represented in an image.  For example, if I think of an image of a dog in my home, this could correspond to the proposition "there is a dog in my home" or "I wish there were a dog in my home" or "I wish there weren't a dog in my home" or "This is the kind of dog that I would have if I had a dog."

I was the same way, but I honestly do not feel a negative impact from skimming the useless noise off. You should try it! Just catch yourself when you're making short-term, ultimately unproductive observations. It helps to switch to thinking in a language you're less familiar with. Then if you wish, you can return to the super-verbal state of mind

Depends on what I'm doing. My baseline is verbal/auditory, and that is the mode my short-term memory loop utilizes most effectively. Reading printed text is primarily an auditory experience for me.

I don't seem to have an autobiographical narrator as such, but I do a good deal of processing in the verbal mode, increasingly when I am less familiar with a task or process. If I am trying to learn a new task or process, that processing often escapes as a literal verbal output that sometimes makes my kid ask if I'm "talking to YouTube". I guess this is a stronger version of an internal verbal/auditory processing loop.

When I'm very focused on a mechanical task like exercise or chopping vegetables or typing[1], I often switch to a more spatial mode; there is a visual component, but it would be more revealing to think of it as proprioceptive.

In meditation I often have access to a more sensory-first mode where I seem to experience mind-body inputs in what feels like a less processed way. Here, autobiographical thoughts "look" surprisingly similar to other sense inputs bubbling up from a pool of possibilities and either serially spooling out, usually as text (audio mode), or just settling back into the whole general mishmash.

When I'm cooking, I tend to think in smells and... processes I suppose? It's like I know what smell I want and how to get there, but there's not much visualization and very little verbalization unless I need to do math.

[^1] Refinement: I learned to touch-type back in the 90s, so this refers to the active translation of mental symbols to digital text. There is sometimes an audio stream happening of the names of the keys I press an instant after the fact, which I take to be an error-checking process. The actual mental objects involved in eventually outputting gestures have a very tactile flavor.

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I have the capacity to monologue internally, and use it moderately often, but not constantly. When I'm not monologuing I guess there's just a direct link from thought/input to action without an intermediary vocalising about it. 

When reading my default is to read "in my head" as if reading aloud, but with a little effort I can suppress that and just scan the page while understanding the words. With the result that reading is a little faster if I don't vocalise it, but also less pleasurable if the rhythm of the prose would be part of the experience. Not sure how retention of what I've read compares - I suspect it might be reduced if I'm scan-reading (it lends itself to skimming).

I can generate internal imagery and sounds more generally, but not to the extent of full-blown voluntary hallucination. Mental images tend to feel like they're in a separate space from my main visual field (somehow above or inside my head, if I had to give it a location) and they aren't perfectly vivid; maybe only partly in full focus/detail at a time.

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