QotW: Can accents influence my brain's voice?

Does your mind also slip into different accents when thinking about things?
08 March 2022


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Fiona wrote in to ask "Why do I hear voices in my head when I'm thinking? And can this voice be influenced by accents?"


James Tytko spoke to Hélène Lœvenbruck from Grenoble Alpes University to rattle our brains and find the answer...

Hélène - Speaking aloud requires sophisticated coordination of the movement of our speech organs: the larynx, tongue, lips, and jaw. We constantly have to adjust the commands sent to our speech muscles so that our movements are correct. Sometimes we make speech errors and we can correct ourselves. And sometimes we can “hear” these slips even before we make them. This is because we have an internal simulator, which allows us to predict the sound that will result from the muscle commands being issued.

James - That inner speech you are “hearing” is precisely this simulator, but without the motor functions being carried out. Commands are not sent to the muscles and articulation does not occur, yet we can “hear” the simulation, or the inner voice.

Hélène - Exactly. This inner voice is a lot like our actual voice, and for some people the voice has the person’s own accent! In an interesting study, researchers at the University of Nottingham have shown that silent reading can be influenced by regional accents.

James - So like how, in the South of England, we might rhyme grass with farce, for example, but someone in the North might rhyme grass with mass?

Hélène - Precisely. To do this, they compared the eye movements of Northern and Southern English participants when reading limericks. The study found that eye movement behaviour was disrupted when the final word did not rhyme, as determined by the reader’s accent. This suggested that participants produced inner speech with their own accent while reading.

James - How interesting. You mentioned that this was only for "some" people, though. What about everyone else?

Hélène - Some people do not hear an inner voice when they read, and some people do not even hear a voice when they talk to themselves. This is called auditory verbal aphantasia. Then there are those who rarely use words when they think at all, but rather images or abstract symbols. There are many questions about the versatility of inner speech which remain unanswered and further research is needed. Researchers in Grenoble, France are conducting an online survey on the diversity of mental imagery (including inner speech). You can participate and find more information on our website: https://aphantasia.hypotheses.org.

James - So, Fiona, that inner monologue you are hearing is best thought of as a simulation of your actual voice, kind of like a trial run to smooth out any of the creases before we attempt actual speech. It occurs even when we have no intention of saying anything out loud, and is affected by accents as researchers at the University of Nottingham have found. Thanks to Helene for offering her expertise on this topic. Next week, we'll be tackling this head scratcher from listener Marian.

Marian - I've noticed that when I scract, the itch tends to move to another part of my body. I was wondering why this is the case.

If you have any thoughts on what we discussed today here on Question of the Week, please tweet us on @NakedScientists or log on to the forum on the website to join the conversation. If you’ve got any questions yourself that you’d like us to tackle, send them by email to chris@nakedscientists.com 


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