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Consciousness and Cognition 18 (2009) 530531

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Consciousness and Cognition

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Some clarications on the role of inner speech in consciousness q

Henry D. Schlinger
Department of Psychology, California State University, Los Angeles, 5151 State University Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90032-8227, USA

Morin (e.g., 2009, Morin, 1993, 2005; Morin & Everett, 1990) has claimed that language, in particular inner speech, is
essential for what we term consciousness or self-awareness. Although such a claim has merit, several clarications are in
First, calling such behavior speech may be overly restrictive because deaf individuals whose only verbal behavior consists
of signing are surely self-aware even though they dont speak. (Consistent with Morins hypothesis about the relationship
between inner speech and consciousness, we might expect that deaf individuals who do not talk but who are uent signers
would sign covertly and that such covert signing would involve some of the same language areas in the brain as speech [see
McGuire et al., 1997].) On the other hand, we would probably not claim self-awareness in parrots who speak or in autistic
individuals whose only verbal behavior consists of echolalia. Thus, the prerequisite for self-awareness is not speech per se,
but a self-descriptive repertoire that is not restricted to any particular mode of expression. Of course, in most human beings,
the form of the behavior is speaking.
A related point is that the verbal behavior that enables self-awareness, whether speech or some other form, need not be
inner. The dening characteristic of inner speech, perhaps more appropriately termed private or covert, is not its location but
its magnitude and, thus, its inaccessibility to independent observation. As Morin (2009) notes about the neuroanatomist, Jill
Bolte Taylor, who suffered self-awareness decits as a result of a left hemispheric stroke, she was not only not able to talk to
herself (inner speech), she was not able to talk to others either. Thus, what she lost was not just inner speech, but speech
itself. The fact that the verbal repertoire that permits self-awareness in all its permutations is mostly private should not distract us from concluding that human language, no matter what its topography or magnitude, is a prerequisite for consciousness. Dennett (2005) recently echoed this sentiment when he stated, acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language)
is a necessary precondition for consciousness...
Since the form of the behavior is not critical for consciousness or self-awareness, then its function must be. So, what is the
function of the verbal behavior that enables us to be conscious, including self-aware, and what are its origins? Interestingly,
B.F. Skinner offered an answer to these questions toward the end of his seminal paper, The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms (Skinner, 1945). According to Skinner, . . . being conscious, as a form of reacting to ones own behavior, is a
social product. Verbal behavior may be distinguished, and conveniently dened, by the fact that the contingencies of reinforcement are provided by other organisms rather than by a mechanical action upon the environment. The hypothesis is
equivalent to saying that it is only because the behavior of the individual is important to society that society in turn makes
it important to the individual. The individual becomes aware of what he is doing only after society has reinforced verbal responses with respect to his behavior as the source of discriminative stimuli.
The behavior to be described (the behavior of which one is to be aware) may later recede to the covert level, and (to add a
crowning difculty) so may the verbal response. It is an ironic twist, considering the history of the behavioristic revolution,
that as we develop a more effective vocabulary for the analysis of behavior we also enlarge the possibilities of awareness, so
dened. The psychology of the other one is, after all, a direct approach to knowing thyself (p. 277).
And elsewhere Skinner wrote, Self-descriptive verbal behavior is of interest for many reasons. Only through the acquisition of such behavior does the speaker become aware of what he is doing or saying, and why (1957, p. 139).

Commentary on Morin, A. (2009). Self-awareness decits following loss of inner speech: Dr. Jill Bolte Taylors case study. Consciousness and Cognition, 18,
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H.D. Schlinger / Consciousness and Cognition 18 (2009) 530531


This position, recently reintroduced in the context of modern discussions of consciousness (Schlinger, 2005, 2008), is consistent with Morins claim that language is critical, in particular, for self-awareness, where one engages in attempts to subvocally analyze and describe the self (2009, p. 524). If such speech does indeed largely consist of subvocalizing, a conclusion
supported by numerous brain-imaging studies (e.g., Huang, Carr, & Cao, 2001; McGuire et al., 1996; Palmer et al., 2001; Paulesu, Frith, & Frackowiak, 1993; Rosen, Ojemann, Ollinger, & Petersen, 2000), then it is more parsimoniously viewed as a
behavioral process, not a cognitive one. The origin of such behaviors is likely found in the interactions between parents
and language-learning children. Specically, young children learn from parents and others to describe both their public
behavior and their private events (e.g., sensory stimulation, physiological states, feelings, and emotions). Presumably parents
get children to observe and describe their own behavior and inner states by teaching them to answer such questions as
What are you doing? What are you feeling? and Why? among others. Thus, ironically, the behavior that enables
self-awareness initially serves a social function (Skinner, 1945).
As Skinner (1945) also noted, in addition to the behaviors which are described, the self-descriptions, which parents must
initially be able to hear (or see in the case of signing) in order to effectively teach, later recede to the covert (or private) level
along with the rest of the childs verbal repertoire (e.g., talking about objects, events, and situations, problem-solving, verbal
remembering, etc.). The process by which this occurs is not difcult to imagine. Once parents are certain that their children
are speaking correctly, it is not uncommon to hear the parents exhort their children to Say it to yourself, or Use your quiet
voice, thus reducing the magnitude of the vocalizations until they are covert. It is this private speech that has piqued the
interest of Morin and other psychologists as well as philosophers. Not surprisingly, the major methodological obstacle in
studying private speech, for example, in brain-imaging studies, is verifying that subjects are actually talking to themselves.
In the end, researchers and scholars are free to dene consciousness or self-awareness as they wish, but those, like Morin,
who do so in terms of language are on more solid scientic footing because such behavior and its neural correlates as data
are more easily observed and, more importantly, because experimentally established principles pertaining to each already
exist. An advantage of considering the private components of consciousness to consist largely of subvocalized speech is that
the continuity of behavior (from public to private) is preserved without the necessity of inventing other processes or making
unnecessary assumptions. In other words, such an approach is parsimonious.
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