The Cognitive Benefits of Self-Speech

Many people hold a widespread belief that talking to yourself is supposedly the first tell-tale sign of impending insanity. If this belief were true, most of us would have been declared clinically insane by the time we turned five, as this is the age by which the majority of people begin engaging in out loud, self-directed speech. Previous research has heavily suggested that such self-directed speech in children can help guide their behavior. For example, children often talk themselves step-by-step through tying their shoelaces, as if reminding themselves to focus on the task at hand. Self-speech or “self-talk” is observed speech spoken to oneself for communication, self-guidance, and self-regulation of behavior.  But just recently, scientists revealed that self-directed speech doesn’t just benefit children. A group of psychologists found out that it has positive effects for adults too.

In a new study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, it was found that self-directed speech can benefit individuals, most particularly when trying to find something. In a series of experiments, Gary Lupyan and Daniel Swingley, psychologists from University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Pennsylvania, respectively, observed some people who often audibly speak to themselves when searching for an item, like for instance, a specific brand of cereal on a supermarket shelf, or a lost pair of car keys.  When compared to those who don’t engage in such seemingly ‘irrational behaviour’, they found that those who engage in self-directed speech are able to find things quicker, and more efficiently than their counterparts.

In the first of two experiments, participants were shown 20 pictures of various objects and asked to identify a particular one. In some trials, participants saw a text label telling them what object they should find (“Please search for the teapot.”) In other trials, the same subjects were asked to search again while actually speaking the word outloud to themselves. It was discovered that speaking audibly to themselves helped people find the objects more rapidly than those who don’t.

In the second follow-up experiment, participants performed a virtual shopping task in which they saw photographs of items commonly found on supermarket shelves and were asked to find, as quickly as possible, all the instances of a particular item. For example, participants would be asked to find all the bags of apples, or all the bottles of Diet Coke. Here, too, there was an obvious advantage to speaking the name of the object when participants were looking for very familiar products. For example, saying “Coke” when looking for Coke helped, whereas saying “Speed Stick” when looking for Speed Stick Deodorant actually slowed people down.

The next time you lose your keys, you may want to mutter “keys keys keys” to yourself while searching for them, and just ignore the strange looks. After all, science says it will speed up your ability to visually locate the object you’re looking for.

Start talking to yourself to increase the performance and function of your brain. It is crazy not to talk to yourself because you would miss out on the benefits that come with self-talk. 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.


Gary Lupyan & Daniel Swingley (2011): Self-directed speech affects visual search performance, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,DOI:10.1080/17470218.2011.647039



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