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April 26, 2012
Talk To Yourself Much? It Benefits Thinking and Perception Say Researchers


We may have to stop judging that strange man at the bus stop or subway who is always talking to himself. New research says that those who can’t seem to keep their inner monologues inside their heads are actually more likely to stay on task, remain focused better and show improved perception capabilities.



According to a series of experiments written up in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology by professors Gary Lupyan and Daniel Swignley, the act of using verbal clues to trigger mental pictures helps people function quicker.

People often talk to themselves -- most do so at least every few days, and many report doing so on an hourly basis, scientists have said. Although such muttering might seem irrational, past research has shown that self-directed speech can help guide children's behavior, with kids often taking themselves step-by-step through tasks such as tying their shoelaces, as if reminding themselves to focus on the job at hand.

To see if talking to oneself could also help adults, psychologists conducted experiments with volunteers who had to search for specific items. This work was inspired in part by the researcher's own self-talk. "I'll often mutter to myself when searching for something in the refrigerator or supermarket shelves," said researcher Gary Lupyan, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In one experiment, they showed 20 volunteers pictures of various objects and asked them to find just one of those, a banana. Half were instructed to repeat out loud what they were looking for and the other half kept their lips sealed. Those who talked to themselves found the banana slightly faster than those who didn’t, the researchers claim. In other experiments, Lupyan and Swignley found that uttering the name of a common product when on the hunt for it helped quicken someone’s pace, but talking about uncommon items showed no advantage and slowed you down. (The utility of talking may depend on how familiar your brain is with the item in question; the researchers speculate there are fewer internal visual reminders of alfalfa sprouts, say, than there are of bananas stored up in your brain.)

"The general take-home point is that language is not just a system of communication, but I'm arguing it can augment perception, augment thinking," Lupyan told LiveScience.

In another experiment, volunteers carried out a virtual shopping task in which they saw photos of items commonly found on supermarket shelves and were asked to find all instances of a particular item, such as Jell-O, as quickly as possible. The results were more complex -- there was an advantage to speaking the name of an item only when volunteers looked for familiar objects. For instance, saying "Coke" helped when looking for Coke, but saying the less familiar item "Speed Stick" when looking for Speed Stick deodorant actually slowed people down. (Speed stick isn't such a "universally" common item.)

"Speaking to yourself isn't always helpful -- if you don't really know what an object looks like, saying its name can have no effect or actually slow you down," Lupyan said. "If, on the other hand, you know that bananas are yellow and have a particular shape, by saying banana, you're activating these visual properties in the brain to help you find them."

So the next time someone makes fun of you for talking to yourself when you're looking for your something, shrug it off and keep on doing it because you'll probably find it faster.

April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.


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