There are so many stereotypes and images conjured up when we think of someone talking aloud to themselves. Maybe it’s the tormented writer, suffering a case of writer’s block, who paces in his room and goads himself into the next storyline. Or the person slowly losing their grasp on reality who starts to address themselves aloud by their own name, shortly before going completely unhinged and getting sent to the insane asylum. Culturally speaking, none of the things we associate with talking out loud to ourselves is particularly good. Scientifically speaking? Well, that’s a whole different story.
The reality is, studies show that large numbers of us regularly talk to ourselves. That self-talk takes many forms: an internal, unspoken monologue directed at yourself; an out-loud hashing out of your thoughts as you work through a problem; or even a one-sided “conversation” with yourself where you even use your own name. In order, those would probably be the degrees of “craziness” that people might associate with self-talk, perhaps not even realizing the extent to which they do it themselves. And now, a new MIT study suggests that this is a perfectly natural and even beneficial way of regulating our thoughts, behaviors, and motivations.
Research suggests that unspoken “inner” self-talk and actual verbalized self-talk originate from the same area in the brain, and perform a similar function. They’re simply ways in which we plan, organize thoughts, make sense of our emotions, and basically regulate our actions and perceptions. In truth, this is much healthier than a person who gives no consideration whatsoever to such things. In a sense, self-talk is like housekeeping for your inner thoughts, helping you keep track and make sense of the complex web of considerations and scenarios floating around in your mind at any given time.
The MIT study showed that silent, inner self-talk can be effective at helping you direct your attention on a problem — but speaking to yourself out loud actually produces the best results when it comes to measuring your performance in a challenging task. Perhaps this is why so many people intuitively foster a habit of self-talk: they can sense that it works, on some deep level.
But why does it work? Why does talking out loud to ourselves result in more organized and efficient thoughts? The answer may actually be not all that complex. It turns out that, in general, humans do a better job at following auditory commands than any other kind. This means that the simple effect of hearing instructions repeated to you personally may trigger a performance boosting effect. It’s why athletes verbally urge themselves on in critical moments, or even why you might mutter words of encouragement to yourself after a particularly good golf swing or basketball shot.
It’s time to put aside once and for all the idea that talking out loud to yourself is unhealthy or a sign of mental illness. Certainly, there are individuals who are mentally ill who will ramble aloud incoherently, but for the vast majority of us, this self-talk is perfectly logical and performs a valid, demonstrable function in regards to our cognition. So the next time you get caught talking to yourself, don’t be embarrassed — you simply got caught trying to make your brain work even better than it normally does!