Your significant other isn’t the only one interested in knowing what you’re thinking about as you sit in silence. Psychologists have long sought to record and study these inner monologues, Ferris Jabr writes for Scientific American.
Some people have tried to eavesdrop on the silent conversations in other people’s minds. Psychologists have attempted to capture what they call self-talk or inner speech in the moment, asking people to stop what they are doing and write down their thoughts at random points in time. Others have relied on surveys or diaries.
One researcher, Andrew Irving from the University of Manchester, devised a new means of studying strangers’ inner voices. He started by asking terminally ill patients to walk around with a recorder and vocalize their thoughts rather than keep them to themselves. He told Jabr:
“I realized that you could see somebody sitting in a chair or walking along the street and it may seem like nothing much is happening—but actually an incredible amount is happening. In their heads they may be going from childhood to religion to questioning God to trying to imagining what exists beyond death.”
After those initial experiments, Irving moved on to studying everyday people. He approached around 100 random people walking, sitting or standing alone through New York City and asked them what they were thinking. For those that responded favorably, he asked them to wear a digital recorder and speak their thoughts out loud while he followed closely behind (but outside of earshot) with a video camera. From those encounters came these voyeuristic but completely relatable videos:
You can find more over at Scientific American. But however fascinating, these videos likely only represent a limited and skewed view of the voices in our heads. The participants knew they were being recorded and could have been thrown off by the oddity of speaking rather than thinking personal thoughts. Most likely, we’ll only ever know for sure what the voices in our own heads are saying, regardless of the probing questions we might ask our loved ones.
More from Smithsonian.com: