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The Science of Thinking Out Loud

Is verbalizing your problems a signpost for insanity, or a legit way to figure things out?

On one hand, anyone who’s given a presentation or struggled through a math problem knows the benefits of vocally pumping themselves up in the bathroom mirror, or cursing their way through the equation. On the other, if anyone witnessed you muttering your way through your bills, alone at the kitchen table, they’d quickly assume you to be the kind of insane person who mumbles nonsense on the bus while holding grocery bags stuffed with other grocery bags.

Why do we privately consider the former a necessary step in finding solutions, but associate public self-talk with having a mental disorder?

First and foremost, more adults verbalize their thoughts than you think — we just start to hide it as we age because of the associations with mental instability that we see in pop-culture. “External self-talk is relatively common, although can be embarrassing when someone catches you talking out loud to yourself,” says A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College. “In general, people associate self-talk with schizophrenia, because individuals with this mental disorder are often depicted as unstable and seen talking with themselves in movies and television.”

It should be noted here that schizophrenic self-talk is very different to that of a person not suffering the condition. “Though individuals with schizophrenia often do seem to be talking to themselves, they are not,” Marsden argues. “A symptom of schizophrenia is hallucinations, so the individual isn’t talking to herself — she’s talking to the hallucination.” That’s a big difference: If you’ve spent the morning in an empty conference room talking through an issue with the walls, you know full well that you’re talking to yourself, not a room full of pink lizards.

The truth is, people wouldn’t make this association if they knew just how helpful talking problems out can be for the brain when processing problems. According to Marsden, you can even break it down into two major categories: One to slow down — and thus more effectively process — thoughts, and one for motivating ourselves.

Regarding the first type — talking ourselves through a task — Marsden refers to a study conducted by Gary Lupyan at the University of Wisconsin, which found that self-talk helps boost your perceptual processing. Participants in the study were asked to find a specific objects in a picture of other random objects — a bit like finding Waldo on a crowded beach — sometimes speaking the target’s name aloud and other times just reading it. According to the study, when searching for a chair in the picture, e.g., “Actually hearing ‘chair’ — compared to simply thinking about a chair — can temporarily make the visual system a better ‘chair detector.’”

The reasoning behind this is that speaking the target’s name enhances your brain’s processing ability, allowing you to more easily pull up the visual cues of what you’re looking for. So muttering, “Thyme, where is the Goddamn thyme,” to yourself at the grocery store is actually a useful cognitive tool to load a picture of thyme in your mind, and more quickly find the thyme on the bottom shelf.

In addition, Morgan Statt, a health and safety investigator for ConsumerSafety.org, argues that self-talk can help slow your thoughts down so you can process them at a manageable pace. “When we carry on our inner self-talk, our thoughts often jump from one point to another at a quicker pace than we could keep up with if we spoke the thoughts out loud,” she says. Much like your math teacher might’ve had you show your work, verbalizing your thoughts allows you to organize your thought process, thus helping solve the issue.

As another example, Statt alludes to an exercise computer programmers regularly employ known as “rubber duck debugging.” “When trying to work through a difficult code,” she says, “they’ll vocally explain the problem they’re having to a rubber duck on their desk. By explaining the code in detail, the programmers often find a way to work through whatever issue they were struggling with in the first place, reiterating the belief that auditory expression is beneficial overall.”

Another study, published in Procedia — Social and Behavioral Sciences, broke basketball players down into groups that practiced either “instructional” or “motivational” self-talk, before conducting skill tests. The study concluded, “Instructional-self talk is more effective in skills which required precision and timing, while motivational self-talk is more beneficial in skills based on speed.” Specifically, the players who employed instructional self-talk — the same kind you’d use while talking through a math problem — shot and passed with greater accuracy than those who didn’t. Meanwhile, those who verbalized motivational self-talk — such as you would use before a big test or presentation — passed with significantly greater speed than the control group who didn’t. (Something to bear in mind the next time you hit the gym.)

If you still think of it as a trait of the mentally imbalanced, however, consider this: A study of 126 undergraduates published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science argues that self-talk is a sign of high emotional intelligence. So don’t feel bad for any weird looks you might get on the bus after verbally running through your grocery list 10 times — little do they know you’re an emotionally-superior person, practicing a scientifically proven method of memorization.

So there.