The Surprise Benefit of Talking to Yourself
Whenever I’ve got bad writer’s block, or I’m anxious about an interview, or I’m not sure how to approach a conversation with an editor—or, for that matter, a friend — I talk to myself. Out loud.
I like to go for a drive, or a walk, or even jump in the shower, and I just chatter away. I try out lines until I find the perfect opener for the story I’m stuck on, rehearse arguments, and brainstorm with my voice until my ideas come together.
Sure, anyone who happened to hear me having these full-blown conversations with, uh, nobody might think it was a little weird. But by talking to myself, I’m actually helping my brain work better and quicker.
Self-talk starts when we’re very young, as you’ll know if you’ve ever heard a toddler babbling away to themselves. And there’s a reason we start to talk to ourselves at that crucial stage of cognitive development: It improves our processing skills.
That carries over into adulthood, according to one 2012 study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They found that when people were asked to search for common objects in a supermarket, they found the item faster if they said its name aloud, as opposed to just picturing the item as they looked for it. In other words, visual processing improved as a result of verbalization. You understand the concept if you’ve ever walked around the house going, “Car keys… where are my car keys?”
“Verbal labels can change ongoing perceptual processing,” the study authors wrote. “For example, actually hearing ‘chair’ compared to simply thinking about a chair can temporarily make the visual system a better ‘chair detector.’” And we can take advantage of those improved cognitive processes for more than just locating things in the house or the supermarket. When I’m trying to find the right phrasing for a story’s lead paragraph, for example, speaking out loud can help my brain locate the best words and put them in order.
You already know giving yourself a pep talk can help boost your confidence, but doing it out loud works even better. When I need to be psyched up before a Zoom call, or I’m gearing up to send a big pitch, a few words of encouragement go a long way. There’s science to back this up, too: One study found that basketball players who said motivational things to themselves, out loud, were able to pass the ball faster.
If you’re not already practiced at talking to yourself, at least not out loud, it might feel silly at first—especially if it earns you a few weird looks. But if you make it a habit, the cognitive benefits will be worthwhile.