People talking to themselves. What's going on?

Since I moved to Los Angeles 2 years ago, it is not all that uncommon a sight to see people, mostly presumably homeless ones, having rather passionate conversations with the air next to them.

What I’m trying to figure out is, what is going on in their perception? Just the fact that they have survived this long makes me think that they are not completely unaware of their surroundings. My suspicion is they just don’t care. I can imagine a person going a very long time without any social interaction simply up and deciding (maybe subconciously) “screw it, I don’t care if anyone’s there or not” and start talking.

Or maybe they are re-living old memories. They seem to be rather familiar with the “person” they are talking to.

Or perhaps it is a sort of escapist mechanism that puts their minds away from their reality and into their imagination.

I’ve always been curious if I were to approach one of these people during the act and attempt to interrupt them if they would just ignore me or if they would snap out of it. Of course I’d be much too afraid to actually try it.

If you insist on categorizing it and saying “That’s schizophrenia” or “That’s XYZ mental disease” I’m still curious as to any possible insight as to how they perceive what they are doing: are they actually hallucinating or what?

You will have to forgive me on this one because I actually have a cite somewhere for this but I need to track it down. The answer presented to me that seems to make the most sense was given in one of my cognitive psychology classes last semester. People tend to possess rather exceptional auditory memories. That is, we tend to remember things that are heard more accurately than what we see. This is why many actors learn their lines best by reading out loud (combining the seeing with the hearing).

The habit of thinking out loud may not be actively discouraged but very few people react in a casual manner when someone is talking to themselves. In the case of the homeless, they are much less likely to encounter someone who disapproves of their self-socialization than Bob the Banker would. There are numerous other issues that could be contributing factors too.

This was a rather incomplete answer. :smack: Allow me to clarify:

Even though the auditory memories of the average person tends to be strong, visual memory is usually reinforced by auditory memory. When people read something silently they think it as well. This results in the input of a memory that is both auditory and visual if you equate hearing with thinking.

For the most part this is comparing apples and oranges. There are numerous variables that can send this statement in either direction.

Audio & visual hallucinations come in a variety of flavors and have a number of causes. Schizophrenia is one, bipolar disorder, midbrain damage, drug abuse, alcohol withdrawal…mix that all up into a single brain salad and you’ve got a recipe for a reality that is only superficially connected with your own. Your best bet at getting this question answered would be to learn about the individual in question and not assume the next mumbler that comes along has anything like the same reality as the previous. As far as what the mumbler sees & hears, well, odds are they do in fact have an unseen companion.

I would be interested in hearing what makes you think these people are homeless.

I used to be very bad about walking down the street and having a very animated conversation–with myself– complete with gestures, arm-waving, facial expressions, etc. And I am not homeless. I am even sort of presentable, usually, particularly when walking (as opposed to driving my kid to school while still wearing my fuzzy slippers).

I got very embarrassed when caught, although in fact I was usually caught by myself, as in, “Oh my god, I just smiled at nothing! What will people think?”

Nowadays I see a lot more people talking to themselves. I, for one, assume they are talking on cell phones that I can’t see. I feel comforted that should someone catch me having one of these earnest conversations they will assume that I, too, have a Bluetooth.

(I don’t.)

hah! Interesting to hear that, Hilarity N. Suze, as I suppose part of the reason this topic interests me is that I tend to do something similar, but not quite like this. (more on that in a second)

I said that the people I see doing this are “mostly presumably homeless” mainly because they appear rather dirty/unkempt in appearance and that’s something I tend to associate with homelessness. Yes it’s a presumption, and I don’t know for sure. I don’t ask. I recall seeing at least one man doing this sitting outside a Jamba Juice who was actually perfectly clean-cut and dressed. So that accounts for the “mostly”.

What I do sometimes as I’m walking along is not quite a full-blown “conversation”, but I like to practice certain gestures, facial expressions, and experiment with things I can do with my voice. To anyone who sees me doing this it would appear that I’m doing them for no apparent reason (such as the “smiling at nothing” you mention), and I also get embarrassed if caught. But to me it’s just that: practice & experimentation. I like to see what I’m capable of expression-wise. Sometimes to create the reactions I recall a variety of images/memories, and just the act of recalling them can cause me to react. For instance, thinking about a joke you heard earlier and laughing out of the blue - I know I’m not the only one who has done that so I can’t be that crazy.

I’ve noticed a lot of people on the street apparently having animated converstions with themselves. They invariably have a hands-free headset for the cell phone.

Yes there is that too, but it’s not invariable here. I remember the first time I saw it happen I did a double-take and probably looked at the guy 6 or 8 times before I was absolutely positive he had no electronic device of any kind around his ears/face.

I have animated conversations with no-one all the time, although I’m usually in my car rather than walking. I get into arguments, give detailed explanations, etc., etc., etc. Generally I’m talking to someone that’s not there for the conversation. Sort of like a rehearsal, except that I frequently don’t follow-through with the actual performance. Sometimes, however, I’m just arguing with myself.

I’ve also had people think I was talking to no-one when I was actually having a hands-free cellphone conversation. Those aren’t usually quite as physicial, though.

On the other hand, there was a well-known outpatient in the town where I grew up (where the state mental hospital is located). He had huge arguments with invisible people, all the time. I don’t know who they were, but he didn’t just argue with them - he’d also try to buy them movie tickets, drinks, etc. It didn’t seem to be memories, in that they often argued about current events. Many theories were bandied about, but no one that I know of ever actually found out who he was talking to or what his particular problem was.

Actually, it’s a fairly frequent occurence in that town, due to the outpatient population. Most of them don’t exactly “snap out of it”, but they are generally aware of their surroundings and will often stop the discussion to speak with you if you approach them.

I never tried to find out who they were talking to, though. I did know people that dealt with The Glove Man (mentioned above) who would tell him things like “invisible people get in free today”; he generally just took them at their word and went on with his business.

Firstly i am not a homeless… :smiley: So as time went by even i started talking to my self…a lot…i still do and i just can’t control it…i do not do it out wen on a walk but the urge to talk wen walking or wen people are noticing is there i control it…usually i go up and hang out with my-self in the terrace alone… thats the time it happens the most…
I once tried recording it…but then i became conscious and couldn actually record any thing but the damn wind blowing… :slight_smile: … I have read a lot of articles and stuffs regarding this but they all say its a mental thing n all that. i donno… sometimes it does feel good to connect with your self but then again talking to thin air is a little off track…lol…

Useless anecdote time!

I remember once in a supermarket hearing a middle aged woman having a…rather heated and expletive filled argument, curious I took a look. She was arguing with an imaginary person, very angry and heated argument too!

EDIT:This predated bluetooth earpieces. I saw this a lot more often in the USA, I’m guessing because psych care is not free and it seems socially it is taboo to notice someone talking to themself.


I talk to myself, plants, and inanimate objects all the time, when home. Not even including the animals here.

“Look at you blooming there, you cute little thing.”

“Chair, you’re really in the way, maybe you should go back in the attic.”

“Well, I see it’s time for lunch again, what’s in the fridge, oh those potatoes have to be eaten today, maybe with cheese?”

I try to control this habit in public. Perhaps it is a consequence of often being alone.

I do not have imaginary companions. All my companions are real, just maybe not quite as responsive as some.

Talking to yourself is quite different from talking to an imaginary person. (Unless you yourself are imaginary, I guess… :))

I was looking at greeting cards at Walmart when a woman several feet away started discussing the price of the cards. It didn’t seem like she was talking to me, but there wasn’t anyone else nearby, and she wasn’t using a phone. Out of politeness, I nicely asked, “Are you talking to me?” She glared at me and snarled, “Why would I talk to you, you bitch? I don’t even know you”.

One of the people where I work constantly talks to herself. I wonder if the conversation progresses or does it repeat? I just think if there’s progress it shows better mental function.

It’s just thinking with your lips moving. Some people may do this unconsciously when alone or do it when alone out of a sort of laziness. Perhaps it helps one articulate what they are thinking to themselves.

What if we paired them up? They would at least look like they’re talking to someone.

That’s ridiculous. Everyone knows that chairs won’t hear you.

Neil? Is that you?