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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Nov 28, 2012 - 9:00:27 AM

Should you start talking to yourself?
By Steve Ferber
Nov 28, 2012 - 8:59:34 AM

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It’s Tuesday evening, near 6 o’clock, and you’re dashing about, looking forlorn on aisle 5.  You’re staring at the supermarket shelves, but can’t seem to find where the peanut butter lives. What might you do?  Start talking to yourself, out loud (“peanut butter, peanut butter”).
Apparently, what works for the young ones (have you ever heard a toddler talk to themselves, while tying their shoes?), apparently works for adults as well.  Researchers have found that talking to oneself, out loud, facilitates both cognition and visual processing.
Why does this method work?  Perhaps it’s because our auditory system is activated when we hear the words “peanut butter.”  Or perhaps it’s because our cognitive system is activated when we produce the thought . . . that creates the words “peanut butter.”  No matter, say the researchers, the bottom line is clear: when we’re in search mode, saying the words of the missing object (our keys, our hair brush, the blue sweater that I just took off), or even silently mouthing the words, apparently triggers our system in a positive way.
In their study, psychologists Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Daniel Swingley (University of Pennsylvania), explain: "People often talk to themselves, yet very little is known about the functions of this self-directed speech . . . It has been commonly observed that children spend a considerable time talking to themselves . . .. One way to understand this seemingly odd behavior is by considering that language is more than simply a tool for communication, but rather than it alters ongoing cognitive (and even perceptual) processing in nontrivial ways."
In an article published on, Lupyan was quoted as saying: “The general take-home point is that language is not just a system of communication . . . I'm arguing [that] it can augment perception, augment thinking.”
Lupyan and Swingley caution, however, that self-talk, at times, can actually slow the search process. Apparently, the key is how familiar the object is – in other words, if the object you’re searching for is familiar, self-talk will help; if the object is less well known, self-talk may impede the search.
Most beneficial forms of self-talk
Rin Mitchell, writing for the web site, expands on the notion that self-talk can improve brain function. Drawing on research, Mitchell explains that the most beneficial forms of self-talk “are with instructional and thought and action. Instructional self-talk is when you tell yourself each step you need to take in order to complete something while in the process, such as driving a car. Thought and action is the act of setting a goal for yourself and a strategy as to how to accomplish the goal before taking action.”
What does Mitchell recommend? “Start talking to yourself to increase the performance and function of your brain . . . .The key is to practice doing it until it becomes natural. You can use specific ‘cue words’ in your self-talk to help you in whatever goal or task you would like to complete. Eventually, you will learn how to self-talk in a way that benefits you the most in every situation.” 
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