Do you ever talk to yourself? Not silently, but by actually speaking words out loud? Many of us do, which doesn’t keep us from feeling embarrassed if someone catches us. According to a recent study carried out by neuroscientists at the University of Bangor, however, talking out loud can improve your life by boosting your cognitive control.
The Best Tool for “Cognitive Control”
Language can help us to organize our thoughts … plan our actions … and consolidate our memory. And now, it seems that it also enhances our ability to carry out tasks. “Our ability to generate explicit self-instructions is actually one of the best tools we have for cognitive control,” says Paloma Marí-Beffa, a senior lecturer in neuropsychology and cognitive psychology at Bangor University who worked on a recent experiment designed to measure how talking to ourselves out loud affects our ability to carry out complex tasks.
Marí-Baffa and her colleagues found that speaking aloud improved participants’ concentration and amplified their cognitive control. “The stereotype of the mad scientist talking to themself, lost in their own inner world, might reflect the reality of a genius who uses all the means at their disposal to increase their brain power,” says Marí -Baffa.
The Benefits of Hearing Yourself
For the experiment, Marí-Baffa, Alexander James Kirkham, and Julian Michael Breeze gave participants a set of written instructions and asked them to read through them either silently or out loud. They then measured participants’ concentration as they carried out a series and
rated how successfully they completed the tasks. They found that, by both measures, participants who read the instructions out loud out performed those who read silently.
Marí-Baffa and her fellow researchers believe that much of the benefit of comes simply from hearing yourself—apparently, auditory commands control our behavior more effectively than written ones. When attempting to complete a challenging task, talking to yourself can help you achieve the cognitive control you need to succeed.
This tendency appears early on in our development. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget observed that development of language coincides with the development of self-control. When toddlers begin to express themselves verbally, they also begin to exercise control over their actions, for instance, when a toddler’s hand comes near a hot stovetop, they will typically exclaim “Hot! Hot!” and move it away.
Tap Into the Power of Talking to Yourself
While many of us talk to ourselves unconsciously, it’s rare for someone to intentionally tap into the power of giving yourself auditory commands. The only arena where this regularly occurs is sports, where elite athletes often issue commands to themselves. When facing a challenge, whether physical or cerebral, we can all us self-talk to boost our performance.
If talking to yourself makes you uncomfortable, begin by listening to the inner dialogue you’re already carrying on inside your head. Experts recommend something called the Paperclip Technique. Fill one pocket with paperclips, and throughout the day, when you notice that you’re talking to yourself, move a paperclip from that pocket to the other one. This will help you bring awareness to your self-talk.
The next step is to think about how you talk to yourself in the midst of a challenging situation. Do you motivate yourself? Do you undercut yourself by saying negative things? Think about what things you’ve said that helped you perform better, and what caused you to falter. The next time you’re dealing with something difficult, try to talk yourself through it, using the kind of language that works best for you.