Do iPods block out internal conversation?

This is a claim my supervisor has made from time to time. It’s one I’ve tended to be rather sceptical of but it came to mind earlier when I was walking home, with no music as a result of having forgotten to pickup headphones when I left the house. To say that listening to music on headphones ‘blocks out internal conversation’ is not to suggest that we cease thought or feeling when listening to music. In fact the process of walking and listening to music (one of my favourite things in the world on a sunny day) is usually  emotionally and perceptually rich – take this for example, a song which for some reason is tied up in my mind with walking around on hot summers days but also tangled up with memories of various gigs in different cities and a couple of quite distinct periods of my life:

But what happens to my internal monologue when I’m walking along on a summer’s day listening to this song? It struck me earlier that I entirely see my supervisor’s point. My experience is of feelings and thoughts drifting in certain directions as a result of the music and the meaning (or lack thereof) past experience has embedded into it for me. But what inner monologue remains, if any, seems staccato and disjointed. Whereas earlier today when I found myself very aware of not having music for a 40 min walk (habitually I just would have music with me without thinking about it) I had a long drawn out inner dialogue about various things that have been on my mind recently. It’s this sort of dialogue through which we come to exercise agency (in that we decide on courses of action after deliberating internally about our circumstances and our concerns) and, if iPods do ‘blot this out’, it points to unacknowledged implications held by the ubiquity of this technology.

4 thoughts on “Do iPods block out internal conversation?

  1. I find that being without an iPod is a very different experience without one. When I’ve forgotten my headphones on my walk, or worse still, they have broken, I find myself sometimes in a state of panic, like I am about to embark on a long journey in the company of a passenger with whom I do not wish to converse. However, sometimes I am so engrossed in my thoughts that I will have put my headphones in and not even realized that there is no music playing until some other loud external noise brings me back to awareness of the outside world. As someone so often held hostage by my internal monologue, there is a huge sense of relief in blocking it out, but I do also worry that this is somehow a waste of otherwise productive brain-time.

  2. This is an intriguing reflection. Let me spear off at an angle for a while …

    There is a very nice piece on the inner voice in New Scientist for June 1st, which inter alia covers the ideas of Vygotsky on this. It includes a really neat little piece on reciting limericks silently—I won’t steal the author’s thunder …. If you are interested in the link back to psychology and cognitive science, this, as far I can decode the material, links to the idea of a ‘default network’ (DN) in the brain. The DN develops usually in later childhood, before that one has much less sense of how we look others. (This fits that Vygotsky argument about how the inner voice develops in childhood). It is the basis for day dreaming. Over-activity of the DN can lead to obsessive dreaming and this may also connect to some psychological disorders. Eg schizophrenia and depression, and the latter may be based in part on rumination–a kind of negative daydreaming.

    I guess in the instance you raise, the issue is how the music does/does not allow the DN to function and to what effect….

    I mention all this because I see that sociology can advance in areas like this l when it links to the best stuff in psych and cognitive science. In this case, the idea of ‘agency’ is best grounded, I think, in arguments about ‘executive functions’ themselves linked to various parts of the brain. Hence many debates about working memory and intelligence, about psychopathic behaviour and the para-limbic system and/or the pre-frontal cortices, etc,

    I’ll be interested to see how this works for you.


  3. I’ve had the same thought but then I worry that a ‘waste’ implies some instrumental orientation towards my own thinking which isn’t really helpful or plausible. Nonetheless now I’ve started thinking about it, I can’t help but wonder what internal conversations I may have had in all the many thousands of hours I must have spent listening to music while travelling in the last decade.

    ” I find myself sometimes in a state of panic, like I am about to embark on a long journey in the company of a passenger with whom I do not wish to converse”

    That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m curious about now. There’s a more more interesting sociology of portable music than I realised existed. I must find time to read some 🙂

  4. I completely agree but I think this work has to be treated carefully – I think the notion of reflexivity (as the capacity to weigh up self and circumstances, determining courses of action in light of them) is important precisely because it’s a key (if not the only) interface between inner life and the social world. It allows trajectories of social action to be explained in a way that takes the individual seriously while avoiding a lapse into voluntarism. So what I’m really interested in next is how to look at the wider cognitive science literature (I’ve tended to only read the popular stuff) and try and understand the underlying sub structure of reflexivity, something which is beyond the domain of sociology but nonetheless has profound implications for how we conceptualise the individual in an empirically adequate way for sociological work.

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