You probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what you think about, or how you think about it. But there is a fascinating, and growing, body of research about our inner experiences  — or, as Kelly Oakes writes for the BBC, “what you were thinking about just before you started trying to figure out what you were thinking about,” and how paying more attention to these thought patterns can actually bring us closer to ourselves

Psychologists like Russell Hurlburt, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, have made it their life’s work to train people in introspection analysis, and gain greater insight into the inner workings of the human mind. 

According to Hurlburt’s research, as outlined by the BBC, there are five categories of inner experiences: ”Inner speaking, which comes in a variety of forms; inner seeing, which could feature images of things you’ve seen in real life or imaginary visuals; feelings, such as anger or happiness; sensory awareness, like being aware of the scratchiness of the carpet under your feet; and unsymbolized thinking… a thought that doesn’t manifest as words or images, but is undoubtedly present in your mind.” In order to give people the tools to investigate their inner experiences, Hurlburt teaches descriptive experience sampling, or DES. 

DES uses open-ended questions to gently guide people through their thoughts, ultimately allowing them to arrive at precise answers about what they were thinking, Oakes writes. In DES, participants carry around a device as they go about their everyday routines. When it beeps — which happens “just a handful of times each day,” — they are asked to contemplate what was going on in their minds just before the device sounded. At the end of each day, participants check in with a psychologist who asks questions about their thoughts and how they manifested.

For most people, honing in on their exact thoughts proves to be difficult. Hurlburt told the BBC that “almost nobody” recognizes just how “careful” he wants them to be about analyzing the moment just before the device beeps. However, one group stands out as being particularly skilled at introspection: meditators. After all, “they’re already used to tuning in to their own thoughts,” Hurlbert notes.

Although it can be difficult to pinpoint what goes through our minds at an exact moment in time, Famira Racy, a co-ordinator of the Inner Speech Lab at Mount Royal University, Canada, tells the BBC that developing a deeper understanding of our internal monologues can help with emotion regulation, problem solving, critical thinking, and communicating more effectively with ourselves. Our inner monologues aren’t filled with mindless musings — they can actually serve as windows into our greater well-being.

You can read the BBC’s full article on internal monologues here.

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