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Do You Need to Hear Yourself Think?

Philosophy professor studies the cognitive significance of imagination, pretense, introspection and inner speech.

Date: 6/7/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Shh … listen. Do you hear it? That familiar sound knocking around your noggin? It’s your inner voice.

Maybe it’s telling you an hour is too long to go without updating your Facebook status, or it’s weighing the pros and cons of eating a second burrito. But what is your inner voice? And why does it exist? These are among the questions that assistant professor of philosophy Peter Langland-Hassan works to explain.
Peter Langland-Hassan's research interests include theories of imagination, pretense, introspection and inner speech.

Langland-Hassan went to Columbia University for his undergrad and earned his PhD in philosophy from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York in 2009. He spent two years as a post-doctoral researcher in the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology program at Washington University in St. Louis. He knew the Philosophy Department at the University of Cincinnati specialized in the philosophy of science, which was a good match for his research interests, and he joined the faculty here in September.

“In a broad sense, I want to understand the way the mind works, and maybe thereby understand myself a bit better,” Langland-Hassan says. “Philosophers are interested in understanding the mind because there’s a close relation between what we think of as our core selves – what we are – and the notion of a mind.”

A common philosophical approach to cognitive science compares the human mind to a computer. In some ways it’s a good analogy. Many of the mind’s functions, such as memory, operate similarly to how a sophisticated computational device processes data. Langland-Hassan’s research deals with concepts that are a little more abstract. His interests lie in theories of imagination, pretense, introspection and inner speech.  

“You understand how a computer has a memory,” Langland-Hassan says. “But when you take something like imagination, it’s a little less clear how to understand how something like a computer could imagine things and have that creative capacity we associate with imagination.”

In the case of inner speech, there has been little research done, and like with much of philosophy, the questions run deep. Langland-Hassan says studies have estimated the average person is engaged in inner speech about 25 percent of the time every day. Yet for something so prevalent in our daily lives, people who lose their inner speech – through brain damage or cognitive disorders such as aphasia – can still think and solve problems. And if humans can function without inner speech, Langland-Hassan wants to know why we use it so much.

“Part of my work on understanding the cognitive function of inner speech has been focusing on the idea that with inner speech you can judge whether two words rhyme,” he says. “That suggests that at some level when you engage in inner speech, you’re thinking about the sounds of words. Why is it useful for us to think about the sounds of sentences? Why is that a useful way to approach problem solving?”

Langland-Hassan’s work often explores ways psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, disrupt introspective and imaginative capacities. Examining what happens when these functions break down can lend insight into how the mind is structured when it’s working normally.

Philosophers also can clarify the range of possible explanations for peculiar cognitive phenomena and interpret how they relate to other conditions in existing literature. For example, a philosopher can analyze the difference between when schizophrenia patients report having thoughts inserted in their minds versus simply hearing voices – a seemingly subtle yet critical distinction. In that way, philosophers help other scientists and health officials develop more effective therapies.

“Research on mental disorders helps to the extent that we can arrive at better, sharper understandings of the processes underlying these reports, and that’s going to allow for more effective interventions someday,” he says. “Some of the issues are so strange, and our understanding is so incomplete, there’s a real role for philosophers to play.”

When the Gainesville, Fla., native isn’t probing the inner workings of the mind, he’s plumbing the depths of the soul through music. Around the turn of the millennium, Langland-Hassan was a member of the three-piece indie rock band, Elk City, based in New York City. He played guitar and shared vocals on the group’s first two albums, “Status” and “Hold Tight the Ropes.” He left the band after the release of the second album to concentrate on his academic career.

Langland-Hassan still plays a little and has been checking out the Cincinnati music scene the past few months. Meanwhile, there are enough philosophical questions in his research to give his inner voice laryngitis.

“Do we know our own minds better than we know things outside of our minds? Or do we know them roughly with the same accuracy?” he says. “There is some way that you come to know your own mind. It is not simply a given. And how you answer that question, what that way is, will have very important consequences for how well you know your mind.”

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