Why We Talk to Ourselves, According to Research
It’s hard to describe what an internal monologue — audible or otherwise — looks like. Now I’m getting up to get some work. Why can’t I get any work done? Oh man, why did they do that? It’s time to sit and cry.
People never quite know the ebbs and flows of this running commentary — most times the words that spring forth themselves surprise the speaker. These are also not just scattered, distrait reminders to the self (remember to pick up groceries!), but long-drawn conversations that spill into the night, meandering through time and memory. Future, past, present. It’s squash, Quicksilver style: there’s no one but our own selves to strike back the ball of thought we hit. One can be on the streets, in the office, and in the privacy of their own homes, and a stream of consciousness can play out verbally.
In theory, self-talk sounds as absurd and grating as it does unnecessary. There are several detractors of this tendency, who register their annoyance quite expressly. You’re crazy if you keep blabbering to yourself. But, there’s a rhyme and reason to why people talk to themselves — and understanding that can drizzle some cold water on this hot unease.
All of this is bearing in mind that self-talk can indeed be concerning if it is compulsively frequent and a manifestation of hallucination. Talking out loud helps, as long as we’re in control and are self-aware of it.
Here’s what the science says. Talking to oneself has a positive bearing on cognitive recollection, it helps to remember things better. In 2011, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied this link: they asked 20 people to go shopping in a supermarket, giving the name of an object (like an apple or a loaf of bread or orange) and asked them to find it. The participants were silent in the first round. But in the next one, they repeated the name loudly, as if they were speaking to themselves while looking for the object. The people were able to find the apples and oranges with greater ease. “If you know that bananas are yellow and have a particular shape, by saying banana, you’re activating these visual properties in the brain to help you find them,” said Gary Lupyan, one of the psychologists who conducted the study. Words were a powerful retrieval cue in helping people materialize the end goal and even make sense of it, the researchers concluded.
“Think of it as a pointer to a chunk of information in your mind. Hearing the name exaggerates what might normally happen if you just bring something to mind. Language boosts that process,” Lupyan told BBC.
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If theories are to be believed, Einstein was guilty of self-talk too: he used to repeat his sentences to himself softly, according to one blog. People like Einstein have spawned the stereotype of the “mad scientist,” who are lost in their worlds, running around with shades of gray, talking to themselves. One can also look at the trope of the rational detective, slowly speaking clues out loud before the eureka moment.
Other research too largely agrees with the premise of talking out loud: it does help to pay attention to the task at hand and even provides one with motivation to do it. Imagine that one dreaded task that has been sitting on your to-do list since Monday; that one thing that makes you anxiously tap your fingers in an uneasy rhythm. Okay, now I have to do it. Now, I’m going to reply to that mail. I’m typing out the subject. “Trust you’re doing well!” A commentary may actually help people reach the end of the task.
To take a step further, there is some literature to show that talking to yourself audibly is also a sign of higher cognitive functioning. In one such experiment, researchers Alexander Kirkham and Paloma Mari-Beffa from Bangor University showed how auditory commentary improves control over the task at hand — much more than thinking quietly by themselves. They gave 28 participants some written instructions, asking them to both read it aloud as well as silently. When the participants actually did the task, those who read it aloud had higher concentration and performance.
“Much of this benefit appears to come from simply hearing oneself, as auditory commands seem to be better controllers of behavior than written ones… Our ability to generate explicit self instructions is actually one of the best tools we have for cognitive control, and it simply works better when said aloud,” wrote Mari-Beffa from Bangor University. Talking out loud helped to use the brain power more efficiently, even while doing unrelated tasks.
Two other studies concur with this idea: in 2011, researchers found when basketball players talked out loud and gave instructions to themselves, it led to greater accuracy with shooting and passing the ball. In 2017, a study found that self-talk, in the second or third person, was linked to boosting the person’s performance; it weeded away individual anxiety over a task and made the person more confident. Even a 2014 study found using the third person (one’s own name) instead of an “I” could boost confidence. “What we find,” said psychologist Ethan Kross, “is that a subtle linguistic shift — shifting from ‘I’ to your own name — can have really powerful self-regulatory effects.” This is because the second or third person helps people distance themselves from the person they are addressing — and we know people are kinder to others more than they are to themselves. This was a preferred medium by the likes of Julius Caesar, reportedly, and is also otherwise known as “illeism.”
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Moreover, talking to oneself helps one make sense of the world — a benefit that is seen best through toddlers and children. If you think about how children learn, it’s mostly by talking through their actions. How did you learn to tie a lace as a child? Take two laces, tie a knot, make a loop. These audible, step-by-step instructions people utter to themselves can help remind them to focus on the task at hand. A 2008 study of 5-year-olds found they performed better on motor skills tests when they talked themselves through the tasks out loud, The Swaddle had reported previously. There is an added advantage of exercising more emotional and cognitive control over tasks.
In his book, The Voices Within, Charles Fernyhough notes the benefit of inner speech, in particular, for children. “If you watch a small child playing with her toys, you’ll probably see her talking to herself. She’s sometimes talking about irrelevant stuff, but often she’s saying ‘I’m going to build a train track’ or ‘I’m going to build a house,’ or ‘This house is going to look like my aunty’s house,’ or whatever. There’s a commentary, which is apparently helping her to think through what she’s doing, and plan what she’s going to do,” he told The Atlantic.
In adults, audible self-talk is particularly beneficial in helping them organize their thoughts and bring some much-needed clarity. “It helps you clarify your thoughts, tend to what’s important, and firm up any decisions you’re contemplating,” according to psychologist Linda Sapadin, explaining how talking out loud helps people to validate important and difficult decisions.
And Fernyhough also adds that adults may prefer to say things out loud rather than engage in self-directed talk silently. “The words are out there, echoing through the air for a split second. They’re a little bit more tangible, you can have a memory trace of what you just said. So it sticks in your head a bit easier.”
Sometimes, saying is believing. And this is a particularly helpful premise in aiding better emotional and mental health. It is not exactly a far-fetched notion that talking to oneself out loud may help someone feel better and less stressed than usual — for it gives a tangible life form to the worry at hand, even if via language.