communication, emotional intelligence, life hacks, mental health, neuroscience, psychology

Our culture views talking to yourself as a habit for eccentrics. Movies depict unhinged characters through herky-jerky self-mutterings. When people see an approaching pedestrian disagreeing with himself, they cross the street. And when a friend catches you in a solo performance of your thoughts, you clam up with an expression of sheepish guilt.

True, some mental disorders do manifest the symptom of self-talk, such as schizophrenia. But the habit is extensive among the mentally sound, too.

“Talking out loud can be an extension of [one’s] silent inner talk, caused when a certain motor command is triggered involuntarily,” explains Paloma Mari-Beffa, senior lecturer in psychology at Bangor University. “The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget observed that toddlers begin to control their actions as soon as they start developing language. When approaching a hot surface, the toddler will typically say ‘hot, hot’ out loud and move away. This kind of [behavior] can continue into adulthood.”

Talking to yourself, when employed in the proper context, can even provide an arrangement of mental boosts.

Self-talk augments cognitive performance

Research suggests self-talk may help your brain perform better. A study published in Acta Psychologica asked participants to read instructions and then carry out the corresponding task. Some participants had to read their instructions silently, others out loud.

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Researchers then measured concentration and task performance. Their results showed that reading aloud helped sustain concentration and enhance performance.

Mari-Beffa, one of the study’s authors, notes: “Talking out loud, when the mind is not wandering, could actually be a sign of high cognitive functioning. Rather than being mentally ill, it can make you intellectually more competent. The stereotype of the mad scientist talking to themselves, lost in their own inner world, might reflect the reality of a genius who uses all the means at their disposal to increase their brainpower.”

Additional research backs up those results. In one study, participants completed item-finding tasks faster when talking themselves through it, suggesting an improvement in visual processing. Others have observed children using self-talk to master complex tasks, such as tying shoelaces.

Self-encouragement for the win

Encouragement spurs success. It’s the power of self-confidence and self-esteem, and it works even when that encouragement comes from oneself.

A study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise had 72 tennis players take part in five rounds of play: one baseline assessment, three training sessions, and a final round. Researchers divided the players into two groups. Although both groups followed the same training program, only the experimental one was asked to practice self-talk.

By the final assessment, the experimental group demonstrated heightened self-confidence and reduced anxiety. The self-talkers also improved their game.

These performance-boosting benefits aren’t just for tennis players either. A meta-analysis looked at the validity of the self-talk strategy for augmenting athletic feats. Totaling 32 sport studies and 62 effect sizes, it showed a positive, though moderate, effect size.

This effect only holds true if one’s self-encouragement remains, well, encouraging. As Dr. Julia Harper, an occupational therapist, told NBC News:

“If we’re talking to ourselves negatively, research suggests that we’ll more likely guide ourselves to a negative outcome. However, when self-talk is neutral—as in a statement like ‘What do I need to do?’—or positive, such as ‘I can get this done,’ then the outcome is much more effective.”

And at least one study found that participants with low self-esteem felt worse when engaged in self-talk, even when that talk was positive.

Talk yourself down

First, remove yourself from the bad situation; then talk yourself down. It’s many people’s go-to strategy for dealing with negative emotions, and anecdotal evidence suggests it works to a near-miraculous degree. Just ask any parent or, for that matter, your own.

Scientific research backs up this parental game plan, but with a twist. According to a study published in Scientific Reports, talking to yourself in the third person is the most effective way to calm down.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers set up two experiments. In the first, they hooked up participants to an electroencephalograph and then showed them images that varied from neutral to disturbing.

They asked one group to respond to the images in the first person, the other in the third person. They found the third-person group decreased their emotional brain activity much faster.

The second experiment had participants reflect on painful experiences while connected to a functional MRI machine. Participants who did so in the third person showed less brain activity in regions associated with painful experiences, suggesting better emotional regulation.

“Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain,” Jason Moser, lead author and professor of psychology at Michigan State University, said in a statement. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”

An exercise in self-control

Talking to yourself does more than put the lid back on negative motions; it can keep that lid from coming off in the first place. Research out of the University of Toronto Scarborough, also published in Acta Psychologica, suggests that talking to yourself is a form of emotional self-control.

Researchers asked participants to perform a simple test on a computer. If the display showed a specific symbol, the participants were tasked with pressing a button. If any other symbol appeared, they were to refrain. However, one group was told to repeat a single word continuously throughout, effectively blocking access to their “inner voice.”

That group was more impulsive than the group with access their inner voice. Without self-directed messages, they could not exercise the same self-control.

“We give ourselves messages all the time with the intent of controlling ourselves—whether that’s telling ourselves to keep running when we’re tired, to stop eating even though we want one more slice of cake, or to refrain from blowing up on someone in an argument,” Alexa Tullett, lead author on the study, said in a release. “We wanted to find out whether talking to ourselves in this ‘inner voice’ actually helps.”

Reading aloud reinforces memory

Do you ever read a fascinating fact and think, “I’ve got to remember that one”? Then when the perfect opportunity arises, you find a fact-shaped hole in your mind where that information should be?

A study published in Memory may have your solution: Read it out loud.

Researchers tested four methods for retaining written information. They asked participants to read silently, read aloud, listen to someone else read, and listen to a recording of themselves reading. They found participants who read the information out loud retained it best.

“This study confirms that learning and memory benefit from active involvement,” Colin M. MacLeod, chair of the Department of Psychology at Waterloo and co-author of the study, said in a release. “When we add an active measure or a production element to a word, that word becomes more distinct in long-term memory, and hence more memorable.”

Mastering the art of (self) conversation

Research has shown that the mind doesn’t differentiate between talking to yourself out loud or in your head. You should engage in whatever form of self-talk is most comfortable for you, so long as the act is conscious and in the proper context.

The most beneficial forms of self-talk are either instructional or effective at linking thought and action. They help you approach the task at hand, take you through each step, and encourage you along the way. Random, context-inappropriate ramblings are far less beneficial and may be a sign of an unfocused mind or some deeper mental anguish.

For example, there are times when self-talk is not beneficial. Telling yourself to stop thinking and go back to sleep is probably the very thought bouncing you from dreamland. Speaking the command aloud like a mantra is even worse—and will certainly not endear you to your partner come 6 a.m.

But like any skill, to truly receive the boons, you’ll need to master the art of conversation with yourself.

This article was originally published on Big Think in February 2020. It was updated in September 2022.


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